Sachin Tendulkar sugar-coated the recent reality of India and gave its people something to cheer about. It is not easy to possess the mandate to lift the spirits of such a large nation, but he has done that consistently. The comparison with Sir Donald Bradman is not restricted to his batting alone. Like the great man who brought cheer to post-war Australia, Tendulkar allowed India to momentarily forget fires and bombs and inflation and terrorist threats. It was like that with the century he made after England so graciously agreed to tour after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. It has been like that for a long time. For better or worse cricket is more than a sport in India; Tendulkar is more than just a cricketer. Where our elected representatives callously fritter away the mandate people give them, Tendulkar has stayed true to it.
And he has never forgotten why he started playing the game in the first place. The best have lofty ambitions when they begin but soon commerce, like a tenacious worm, gnaws into them. Fame surrounds them and prevents the fresh air of reason from breaking through. They acquire sycophants, that great curse of success. Playing the game becomes a means to a seemingly superior, but in reality hollower, end. Tendulkar has kept those demons at bay. He has made more money than anyone else in the game, acquired greater fame than is imaginable, but you could never guess that from the way he plays his cricket. He remains the servant, pursues the game with purity. Through the last decade India have been well-served by like-minded giants.
And he works as hard as anybody has. Lance Armstrong once said that he wins the Tour de France not when he is cycling down the Champs Elysees but when he is out in the mountains facing icy winds while others are cosying in their blankets for an extra hour. Two years ago Tendulkar realised that his future lay in the way his body coped; that eventually his body rather than a bowler would get him. During the first IPL, as he struggled with a groin injury, he admitted that he found continuous rehab very difficult to live with. Once fit, he was like the child again, able to do what he wanted without worrying about whether his body was accomplice or traitor. And so he trained harder and rested well. You could see the effect as he scampered between wickets. Tendulkar's delightful second wind is the result of what you and I have not seen: hours in the gym and in training.
"The best have lofty ambitions when they begin but soon commerce, like a tenacious worm, gnaws into them. Fame surrounds them and prevents the fresh air of reason from breaking through. They acquire sycophants, that great curse of success"
As a result, Tendulkar's endgame is nowhere in sight. He is peeling off centuries like he did in his prime. The old air of predictability is still around; he is grinding his way through when needed, clobbering the ball when required. In this extraordinary long-distance race he is running, this looks like a mid-race burst rather than the finishing kick his age suggests it should be.
So why has no one else scored a double-century in limited-overs cricket so far? Well, because it is very difficult for a start. Assuming 300 balls, you should expect to get no more than 150, which means you need to bat at a strike-rate of 133. You need to be mentally alert, because one casual shot, one moment of disrespect, could be your undoing. But, let's admit, the combination of pitches, outfields and boundary ropes has rarely tilted the balance so much in the batsman's favour. In Gwalior the groundsman told one half of the class they were not wanted. The bowlers were the extras in a movie, seeking, at best, a talking part. The stage had been prepared for Tendulkar but he still had to deliver an unforgettable performance.
Inevitably the question will be asked: what next? I know there is only one thing he genuinely covets, and that is not in his hands. In 12 months Tendulkar hopes to play his sixth and last World Cup. So far his relationship with the World Cup has been like that of a child who scurries to the rossogulla shop only to find it shut every time. If he was a golfer seeking a Masters win or a tennis player hoping to win another Grand Slam, he could plan for it but he doesn't hold the key to a win in a team sport. It must happen, he cannot make it happen. But what else? Frankly, I don't care.
Tendulkar's journey is about joy and purity and a landmark is merely a comfort stop.