Tendulkar's perfect balance
To the cricketing world, Tendulkar was a batsman for the ages. In 2010, when he made the ESPNcricinfo all-time World XI, Tendulkar said, "It would have been great to walk out with Don Bradman" and to talk to Hobbs and Hutton "about what it was like to play on uncovered wickets".
They would no doubt have a few questions for him too; about the creative dexterity of his strokeplay, the weight of his bat, the data-analysis business, and how on earth he handled the attention. This modern wire-walker with over three generations of team-mates, straddling two millennia and two formats, would have tried to explain how classical fundamentals could always fashion a contemporary response to an ever-changing game.
Balance, they would all nod in agreement, it's all about balance.
To Indians, young and old, inside and outside the geographical boundaries of the nation, Tendulkar offered a new vocabulary to India's batting template and did so with an old-fashioned Indianness that has never left him. When first sighted, his batting went against the grain; it was like crazy street-racing - top-down, foot-on-floor, high volume. The spectators shrieked, but importantly, Tendulkar didn't. He heard their chanting but it didn't make his head spin.
In his speech, Kumble, a team-mate, a friend, and his ultimate go-to man, also pointed out that the "median age of the country is roughly the number of years Sachin has been playing first-class cricket". He was referring to the average age of the Indian population, which is just over 26.
Tendulkar grew to stature at a time when India was an untrendy corner of the planet, its "markets" not yet sought after by global corporations. In an environment of almost reflexive national self-doubt, he stuck the tricolour on to his helmet and went out to bat, destroying bowling attacks in his first decade in the game even as the rest of the team floundered around him. This whirligig of image, memory and possibility turned Tendulkar into a Pied Piper figure for Indian cricket. One generation after another followed him, gathering around "open skies" TV screens, or being pulled into grounds whenever the team travelled. It is they who started the chant that never stopped.
A career of adulation and a lamentation upon his retirement was to be expected amongst hardcore Tendulkar fans. On his final day in the game, like the Creed song, Tendulkar laid out a lifetime of gratitude. "With arms wide open / under the sunlight / welcome to this place / I'll show you everything."
It was then that something else happened. Many who didn't believe they were red-blooded Tendulkarites, or even cricket maniacs, listened to him speak and were bewildered by their own reaction. They didn't belong to the "Sachin-Sachin" faithful, yet they sensed a reverberation. Like the clanging bell of a departing train, the deep hoot of a ship leaving the shore. Moved, teary, strangely distraught, they called and messaged to try to understand what was going on.
It was as if Tendulkar and what he represented had lived in their heads for over two decades without them even realising it. All things to all men - cricketer, batsman, public figure, superstar, Indian idol, brand icon, team-mate, folk hero. It is why as much as his countrymen love his statistics, they form but a slice of his entire story.
To measure Tendulkar's pan-Indian appeal today against that of any other national figure is tough. In order to put a finger on the last time one Indian mattered to so many, you have recount specific events, often political. Like the late prime minister Indira Gandhi's standing after the 1971 Bangladesh war; or in sport, Kapil Dev's popularity after the 1983 World Cup victory. Their acclaim, though, ebbed rather than endured for the entire duration of their careers.
Tendulkar remained a constant because he stayed constant - whether successful and prolific, or even, like in the last 18 months, in the throes of an almighty painful struggle. Through his career, he retained an attention for detail, and it came through - whether for the game situation or the bigger picture. In Chennai, after chasing down 387 against England in 2008, less than a month after the Mumbai attacks, he noted the ground staff celebrating and that the woman who swept the wicket had come to shake his hand and knew what the victory meant. In Mumbai for his last Test, he plucked out and tossed up bits of grass to check which way the wind was blowing and suggested that Mohammed Shami be brought on again from one end. Through everything, he communicated an essential, undiluted reverence for his sport - even to those who thought they weren't paying attention.
The month-long hubbub around his retirement makes little sense to those outside the melee. The wall-to-wall multimedia tributes, the use of the Tendulkar name by many ancillary arms of the industry around him that have kept expanding, the songs, the stamps, the coins, the hoardings, the waxworks, the t-shirts, the promised shower of rose petals, every muchness of a muchness.
The sagacious have cried out for critiques, the thoughtful for a more measured assessment, the numerically astute for a fresh analysis altogether of his statistics. By all means, gentlemen, go forth and conquer. A sporting career lasting around a quarter of a century must always contain an alternative perspective (was Elvis an alien?) and give rise to its own indie subculture of minutiae. It will continue to bubble along.
India's response to Tendulkar's retirement would be instantly recognised by Italian actor-director Roberto Benigni. When he was awarded the Academy Award for best foreign film for Life is Beautiful, Benigni clambered over the backs of a few rows of seats and bounded onto the stage with rabbit-like hops before delivering an animated, joyous thank-you speech. About his reaction, Signor Benigni shrugged and said: "It is a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation." By no account could Tendulkar's career be described as "moderate"; so, over the top is probably the only way his farewell could have been. He won't even grudge anyone its profits.
Like my colleague Siddhartha Vaidyanathan wrote, everyone has a Tendulkar story. Mine has lasted as long as his career, because his Test debut for India coincided with the first week of my first job. When he was hit on the nose, his home telephone number was extracted out of the MTNL telephone directory for quotes from the family. His interviews as a teenager were sparse but he always lit up about cricket. In the 1990s, as he rocketed into the stratosphere, I covered first-class cricket, the gap between two Tendulkar interviews at one point stretching to around ten years. The next time we chatted at length, he was engaging, responsive and, being past 30, even gamely answered a question about "life away from cricket". It was 2003.
In the last 24 years, amid the records and runs and the chanting, his invisible footprints in the game have acted as markers on the road best travelled in pursuit of a calling. Inevitable success comes not from talent but love, drive and discipline. The appetite for the contest is better demonstrated than advertised. Consistency of performance outlives everything else. On tough days, never give up. Shake hands. Share. The trade over the tricks. It always works. Every time.
Tendulkar has left Indian cricket and its public stage at a curious moment in its history. The spread of the game has never been wider, with new performers emerging every season from unheralded parts. The best middle order that walked for India is now retired, replaced by promising young men with a rich legacy as their benchmark. In these decades of transformation, Tendulkar has been a pivotal figure.
Today, India is the El Dorado of the global game. Yet the exercise of its financial muscle is far removed from the dignity and generosity with which Tendulkar, a millionaire many times over, conducted himself in the game. As much as the dressing room is being told to follow his example, the governors of the game would do well to pick up a few tips about the pursuit of excellence, the centrality of cricket at large and the exercise of power and authority. For all things to work with all manner of men does require an openness of heart on every side.
During the course of his astonishing and soon to be scarcely believable career, Sachin Tendulkar prevailed because he always understood the art and science required to find the perfect balance.