Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement from cricket earlier this month marks the end of a 24-year love affair, reports RITAM MITRA
When I was 12, I went to the Indian cricket team’s hotel in the city in the hope of catching a glimpse of my sporting heroes ahead of the 2004 SCG test match. I wasn’t alone – it was a strong crowd, and there were at least 50 others waiting patiently for the team’s arrival. When the team bus pulled up to the hotel, I was unceremoniously pushed to one side by people older, taller, and apparently much stronger than me. I watched players like Laxman, Dravid and Yuvraj enter the hotel lobby one by one after signing all the cricket bats, books and random pieces of paper being thrust in their faces. After some time, the most popular of them all, Sachin Tendulkar, had done as much signing, posing, and polite chitchatting as possible – and he turned and began walking towards the lobby. I called out after him, as did many others. “Sachin, please!” I shouted in desperation. He paused. There was just a moment’s hesitation as the concierge beckoned him towards the peace and quiet of the hotel. But it was a brief moment. The Little Master turned around, came towards me and quietly signed my cricket bat.
The relationship between Tendulkar and his fans is one of unbridled electricity, overwhelming passion and most of all, uncontained intimacy. Everyone has his or her own Sachin Tendulkar story to share – whether it is watching him on television, seeing him play live, or meeting him in person. They say that India stood still when Tendulkar was batting – but it was in those moments that the country’s, and indeed cricket’s love affair with him, reached a crescendo.
It was an affair only partly based on his feats on the cricket field. His batting was magical, make no mistake; but his statistics are a mere by-product of the romance – a love child that everyone knows about, but wouldn’t mind living without. After all, the ‘most memorable Tendulkar moment’ question is not answered with ‘His 34,347 runs in international cricket’ or ‘His 100 international centuries’. The cricketing world’s romance with Tendulkar has been built around stolen moments that will stay frozen in time: his lone stand against the might of McDermott, Hughes, Whitney and Reiffel on a dicey Perth deck in 1992; his devastating assault on Warne in Sharjah, 1998; his brutally flayed cut shot for 6 against Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup.
It has been a somewhat dysfunctional relationship. After 24 years in the spotlight, none of us can say we really knew Sachin Tendulkar at all. On what would be his last day of international cricket, his wife Anjali gave an interview that revealed an almost mundane life with him at home. When he spent those rare periods of time with his family, he would annoy her immensely with his knack for finding faults – pointing out peeling paint here, cracks there. Harsha Bhogle later told viewers that the first time he visited the Tendulkars, Anjali made him tea while Tendulkar brought out the tea cups, “… just like any other middle-class Indian family”.
But this was not the Tendulkar we knew, and perhaps it was best that way. Sachin’s rise coincided with India’s rise as an economic power – not just in cricket, but on the world stage. In a country traditionally disillusioned by politics – exemplified even in the heavy emotion following Tendulkar’s last match, when Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and National Congress Party President Sharad Pawar were greeted with jeers and booing from the crowd – Tendulkar was the hero India needed. Not for his straight drive or back-foot punch through the covers, neither for his Pepsi commercials, nor for the timeless stories of his early-morning drives around the streets of Mumbai in his Ferrari, although those are the things we might well remember most about him.
In the end, India needed Tendulkar for his humility. As the nation found its voice on international affairs and within the cricketing fraternity, Tendulkar kept India grounded. He was immensely relatable, a far cry from politicians, playback singers and Bollywood superstars. It was because of his humility that the country put him on such a pedestal and revered him as they would a deity. His records might be broken – Kohli is already on the hunt in the ODI arena, and Kallis is hot on his heels in Test matches. Some may argue that Lara was a greater match-winner, or Kallis a more valuable cricketer. But it is the sheer romance of Tendulkar’s story – a quiet, shy 16-year-old Indian boy like any other, taking on the world and carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire nation for almost a quarter of a century – that makes him so special to India, and will outlive his countless records.
To the rest of the world, Tendulkar’s greatness may well lie in his insatiable appetite for runs. He was particularly ruthless against Australia, plundering 20 centuries against them, including the 114 in Perth that many regard as the greatest innings played by a visiting batsman in Australia. Time and again, he showed the world that he was at his best when he was being challenged. His innings in Cape Town, during which he prevailed in a titanic struggle with Dale Steyn, is testament to his ability to score against the best bowlers of every generation he played against. Starting with Younis and Akram in 1989, he overcame attacks that featured Ambrose and Walsh, McGrath and Warne, and more recently, Steyn and Morkel.
No one in history, sportsperson or otherwise, has endured the adoration of a billion people. It is not something Tendulkar ever asked for – and perhaps that is why we gave it to him so readily. Tendulkar has transcended sport, bringing together cultures, religions and castes in a way that no leader, politician or warrior has ever achieved – whether in India or abroad. In his retirement speech, Tendulkar said that the “Sachiiiin, Sachin” chant would reverberate in his ears until his last breath. Despite the entitlement every fan felt to the heartfelt ‘Thank you’ from Tendulkar, you could not help but feel a touch of pity for the man.
For although he might move on from the game and his time in the sun is now at an end, the nation will never move on from him. He will remain far and away the most adored son of India, and that will surely haunt Tendulkar, now that he does not have cricket as an outlet. The eerie moment when Tendulkar ventured out on his own to touch the Wankhede Stadium pitch reminded us once again that Tendulkar was only ever at home on the cricket field. It has been that way for a long time. Tendulkar was born to play this game.
This chapter of India’s love affair with him is over. Cricket will be poorer without him. But it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.