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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
Sambit Bal
The adorer at one with the object of his affection  •  Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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?

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo