Sachin Tendulkar's ascent to his 100th hundred was probably like the last leg of a Himalayan conquest. I say "probably" because I have experienced neither, nor am I likely to, but he seemed weary and consumed by the thought - in itself an unusual occurrence.
He had started to fret a little bit, had refused to meet the media in Australia because he knew the 100th would be the focus of conversation. Like Betaal, the vampire spirit from an ancient Indian tale, the landmark clung to him and wouldn't let go, however hard he tried to ignore its presence. Eventually it got to him and the man who has always taken great pride in playing for India was forced to play for the hundred.
Therein lies the inherent contradiction of life; you want the landmark, but if that is what you play for, you don't get it. If you can hypnotise yourself into thinking that the landmark doesn't exist, you get it quicker. If the 100th hadn't been on Tendulkar's mind - and we must take part of the blame for that - he might have got it earlier. The more he thought of it the more distant it grew and the more distant it grew, the more it began to suffocate him.
You could see that in Australia. When he batted with an end in mind, even close of play for that matter, he seemed tentative, his feet burdened. When he batted freely, he took your breath away (and that is why his insistence that he was batting well in Australia). But then suddenly the landmark, like a ghostly mirage, loomed and he was locked in at the end again.
I find this phase fascinating because it tells me that even the mightiest, the very greatest of them all, have the very insecurities that normal folks have. They fear like we do, they fret and brood and wake up in the middle of the night like we do, and they attract what they fear, like we do. They are humans too; to call them God is to wilfully suspend reality, even to mock at their perseverance.
Many years ago I asked Tendulkar what was on his mind as he walked out to bat. "I would like my mind to be blank," he had said. He wanted his instinct to play the ball and for that he needed a fresh mind, not one clogged with thoughts. He said he thought about the conditions, the surface, the opposition, what shots would be good and what wouldn't, but all that was well before the game started. Once it began, he had a good day if his mind was blank. I suspect, over the last eight months, the mind wasn't blank enough, like a bit of dust in the carburettor playing havoc with a finely tuned engine.
Just as surprising was his admission of stress, for I know he has been through much in life without making an issue of it, without offering it as an excuse. But I wonder if physical pain is sometimes the lesser burden to carry into a game than mental stress, for Tendulkar has carried pain into a match innumerable times and overcome it. A century in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh on a slow, low surface cannot be the most difficult to score. I haven't seen all his hundreds but have seen many achieved in more difficult conditions. In Dhaka, as indeed in every game he played since the World Cup, the greater battle was with himself, with the expectations of him, both of which he has conquered in the past; certainly the second, which he has lived with all his life.
But Tendulkar's imprisonment and, I hope, subsequent release must force us to ask unpleasant questions of ourselves. Is India, as a nation, obsessed with the individual? Do we reward individual performances over those that might be achieved collectively? Do we therefore encourage selfishness as a society? Or is it the necessary by-product of our population and our resultant struggle to merely exist?
But now it is done. Joy at a landmark that will never again be achieved must necessarily, and sadly, be accompanied by relief. And in spite of having watched him closely for almost 25 years, I am excited by the thought of watching a liberated Tendulkar, for there are no consuming landmarks to achieve (and hopefully our ability to conceive them will stay perpetually dulled).
We could go back to the pure Tendulkar. What joy that will be!