The man whom cricket loved back

Tendulkar was the biggest worshipper the game could ever find, and in that lay the foundation of his greatness
Sambit Bal November 19, 2013

The adorer at one with the object of his affection © Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A day before Sachin Tendulkar's final day in cricket, I was asked by a television channel if there had been a grander farewell for a sportsperson. I offered the standard answer: few sports could beat the combined scale of size and emotion afforded by cricket's fan base, and no other sportsperson has been adored so obsessively for so long by so many people.

But being in attendance for his final day in cricket brought home the more profound part of the truth. Perhaps no sportsman, certainly no cricketer, has loved his sport so obsessively, so absolutely, and for so long as Sachin Tendulkar has done. There were thousands of moist eyes and heavy hearts around the ground, and millions more around the world, but no loss was greater than that of Tendulkar himself.

When great sportsmen leave the stage, more so ones as well loved as Tendulkar, they take part of us with them. But for him, he was leaving his very essence behind. Fans spoke of the emptiness that followed his departure, but can it be greater than the one in Tendulkar's heart? Can we even comprehend it?

Anjali, his wife, came closest. Cricket can do without Tendulkar, she said, but can Tendulkar do without cricket?

Tendulkar's final performance in the India colours will count among his finest: the 74 runs he scored in his final innings will be as special to his fans as many of his hundreds are, but it was his farewell speech that moved millions to tears. It wasn't profound or insightful, it didn't contain a vision for cricket, or even dazzling oratory. It was merely a thanksgiving.

But it was lifted by its stirring earnestness, the poignancy of the moment, and most of all, by its intimacy. In thanking everyone, from his father to his fans, Tendulkar revealed more of himself than he has ever done in the past.

He spoke for nearly 20 minutes but he didn't need a written speech because the words came from within; and the words were moving because they carried emotions fans could relate to. For a naturally shy person, this was a virtuoso performance. But in the truest sense, this was no performance. "It is getting difficult," he said at the beginning, "but I will manage." And then he was in the zone. The speech contained his signature qualities: humility, grace, simplicity and composure.

Brian Lara, Tendulkar's great rival, left with these words, delivered with a flourish: "Did I entertain you?" he asked the fans in Bridgetown after West Indies had bowed out of their home World Cup with a loss to England. The crowd roared back its approval.

Tendulkar's final words were a heartfelt thank you. "Sachin, Sachin will reverberate in my ears till I stop breathing," he said. The crowd wept.

As photographers crowded him after the speech, standing high in the Garware Pavilion I pictured in my mind the perfect finish. Tendulkar breaking free of the throng that surrounded him and taking a lap of the ground all by himself. Just him on his beloved turf, and nothing between him and his fans. A purer finale was hard to imagine.

But of course he was never going to be left alone. Photographers, reporters, administrators, policemen, hangers-on surrounded him as he began his final lap, and then there was the obligatory hoisting-on-the-shoulders by his team-mates. Still, it was a quite a finish.

Fans spoke of the emptiness that followed Tendulkar's departure, but can it be greater than the one in Tendulkar's heart?

I have been fortunate to have experienced first-hand some big moments in cricket in the last 15 years. I watched this very ground throb all day and then explode when MS Dhoni's thundering six won India the 2011 World Cup. But that emotion was triumphalist, and somewhat feral. Journalism trains you to soak up the atmosphere on such occasions, but inures you from being affected by it.

This was different. The intimacy, the deeply personal nature of the occasion, melted your defence. Resistance would have been futile and artificial. You were glad to be there, and to surrender to the moment.

India is given to exaggeration, and the way everyone was cashing in on Tendulkar's final series had begun to grate, but there was no artifice here. Cricket, on that day, became incidental, and it didn't matter anymore that the feebleness of the West Indians had reduced the contest to a mockery. It became what it was meant to be: it was now between Tendulkar and his fans.

It was pointed out that none of the recently retired Indian greats received the send-off they deserved, but to begrudge Tendulkar his farewell on that count would be missing the plot. His story is unique. You could argue that it is an outcome of circumstances, but it is hard to imagine any cricketer having the kind of connection with his fans that he did. It wasn't the sort of craze fans find themselves possessed by for rock stars and film stars. It was love, true and deep, a sense he was theirs, and a gratefulness for the joy he brought them.

At the press conference the following day, Tendulkar spoke about not having yet reconciled to the idea of not playing cricket again. He didn't know, he said, why it hadn't sunk in. "Kahin na kahin toh main khel loonga." In cold words, it translates to "Somewhere, somehow, I will find a way to play." But the translation doesn't come close to capturing the longing and poignancy of those words. Spoken with a wistful smile, they offered a glimpse to the hole in his life.

After saying goodbye to the crowd on Saturday, he went - and mercifully he was allowed to go alone - to bid farewell to the "22 yards that had been my life". And it was while he was talking to the wicket, he said casually at the press conference the next day, that he began to feel really emotional.

Talking to the wicket? It was impossible in that bedlam that passed for a press conference - you could only get a word in if you could shout down 15 others - to venture a follow up, but you got it.

Here was a man who spoke of cricket in his sleep, who regarded his bats as his fellow travellers, who saw every cricket ground as his temple, and he was now speaking of talking to the pitch. They conferred godhood on him to glow in his glory, but the truth is that he was the biggest worshipper the game could ever find, and in that lay the foundation of Tendulkar's greatness.

The photograph of Tendulkar in this article is one I have come to love. It is from a training session during the 2012 IPL. He still retains his cherubic look, but the face looks lived-in here; the hair is flowing longer than usual, the eyes are shut, fists clenched around an imaginary bat, and he is rehearsing a shot. His team-mates are a blur behind him, and he seems oblivious to them. He looks more a Sufi saint in a trance than a cricketer: it's a picture of utter submission to his craft.

How could cricket not love him back?

Posted by ProdigyA on (November 19, 2013, 3:13 GMT)

So much has been said and so much has been written in the past one month about Sachin but still its not enough. Its like an insatiable love that can never be enough. Hail the master.

Posted by   on (November 19, 2013, 4:46 GMT)

Thank you Sambit for writing this. It has been a month since I have been thinking about what he means to me and yet have not reached a conclusion. All I can finally think of is "nobody loved the game more than he did and in turn the game loved him back like it did to no other". That is all.

Posted by cric_options on (November 19, 2013, 5:22 GMT)

Zen like. To become One. Sambit your observation is very precise. Twice have I thought that probably Sachin should retire, once when he was struggling through injury and now when he was struggling to get his 100th 100. But soon it occurred to me, that Sachin is different. He loves the game, and just like you said, he is one with it. That is his only existential reality and his entire consciousness is bounded by it. So there is no point asking him to retire. Either he retires of his on or the selectors decide that the time has come based on performance. With Sachin, with the body of work, performance or the lack of it to become a reason would had taken a long time, atleast in India. Nothing in the world happens just for one reason. So I am sure the tenureship, the performance, the prodding from outside, might have reached Sachin's ears, and he might have decided to call it a day. Combining formats, he is the greatest to have played the game after Bradman and Muralitharan.

Posted by screamingeagle on (November 19, 2013, 6:44 GMT)

For me, I always likes Sachin. But frankly, that last speech revealed much more about the man than the previous 24 years. I say that in a very positive way. People have said lots of things, he plays for records, he is not good enough in crunch situations etc. But what he said, that kind of indicated that he played the game for the love of the game, everything came second. Thank you Sachin for being the player and the person you are. Cricket is poorer after your retirement.

Posted by   on (November 19, 2013, 6:46 GMT)

Great article Sambit. One felt a void the minute he walked off with that guard of honor, but it grew and grew. Certainly the most loved sportsperson of all time, Sachin loved the game more than anyone else did. Days have past, but its a tad difficult to believe the Zen Master is not going to bat for India again. Who knows if this lump we still have in our throats will ever go away, maybe its good it doesn't. This, as you mentioned, is us, his audience and fans, loving him back, on an astronomical scale greater than what you see being dished out to bollywood 'stars'. We miss you so much Sachin!

Posted by Somil_20 on (November 19, 2013, 6:55 GMT)

Absolutely well comprehended...all the emotions that might have been missed due to office; are up and running again...I ignored the picture before reading the article, out of shear curiosity, but after reading this, the picture looks absolute summary of the Li'l Master's connection with the game...True, rarely has a sport seen a better player and even rare is the instance of such a long and unconditional association between the game, player and the sport...LEGEND OF THE GAME...who is already being missed terribly...with a similar sort of a hole in the fans' hearts as well...

Posted by vish2020 on (November 19, 2013, 7:08 GMT)

Say what you want and about who you want.. at the end, this guy will be the greatest of all time when you take in the whole picture. Hail little master

Posted by   on (November 19, 2013, 8:02 GMT)

one of the best articles Sambit.And what a photograph of Sachin!Expecting a few more insightful articles on the master from you.

Posted by tickcric on (November 19, 2013, 8:08 GMT)

@ProdigyA You are right friend. May be we will forever miss him.

Posted by kbalaji on (November 19, 2013, 8:10 GMT)

I think it's time for these farewell blog posts should come to an end. It's depressing. I'm already reliving all the memories from the last 25 years. It's difficult to move on when you load cricinfo and see a new eulogy post every day.

Comments have now been closed for this article

Features

The man whom cricket loved back

Sambit Bal: Tendulkar was the biggest worshipper the game could ever find, and in that lay the foundation of his greatness

Tendulkar's perfect balance

Sharda Ugra: While the team, the country and the sport changed around him, Tendulkar remained constant

Why do we insist on seeing the 'real' Sachin?

Rahul Bose: You can ask as much as you want for a more "human", more "feelable, touchable" Sachin, but he'll probably not change - and that's a good thing

Zaltz Stats

550,000,000
The approximate number of people in India today who had not been born when Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut in 1989 (calculated from these figures). His batting has been so erotically outstanding that the global population has increased by almost 2 billion during his career, with the biggest increase, understandably, in India itself.

I have played cricket for 24 years, it has been only 24 hours since retirement, and I think I should get at least 24 days to relax before deciding these things.

Sachin Tendulkar doesn't want to think of what lies ahead just yet