For decades he was the man who united a nation, making irrelevant such markers as caste, custom, political leanings, gender, age, even interest in sport. Now Sachin Tendulkar seems to be dividing the nation – those who choose with their heads asking him to go, and those who decide with their hearts urging him to stay.
This is an unfamiliar position for Sachin; the darling of millions faced with the gathering discontent of those same millions. Most of us, as we grow older discover how friends sometimes turn against us – but not on this scale and with such force.
The changed perception can do strange things to a man. It can either crush his spirit, or inspire it to greater deeds. One final act of redemption, Sachin must be telling himself, one final act of redemption is all I ask for, and then I shall leave – at my time, of my volition, and with the world begging me to stay on.
It was never easy to be Sachin Tendulkar. The spotlight that first turned towards him at the age of 15 when he made his debut in the Ranji Trophy with a century never really left him. For a private man, he lived much of his life in public.
His successes were a nation’s validation, his failures cause for national mourning; his injuries were discussed more than political upheavals, his various body parts, ankle, knees, shoulder, back, any part that malfunctioned were analysed with the attention usually reserved for legal documents.
Above all, his ambitions were not his own. A nation emerging into economic nirvanahood in the 1990s saw him as the symbol of change: he was young, successful, and had the curious mix of humility and genius much favoured by the middle classes.
He was always somebody we could all be proud of, someone we could bring home to mother. It was a point made by Bishan Bedi, manager on his first tour of England. “Mothers all over England swooned over him,” he said.
Part of living out other people’s fantasies included the pursuit of batting records. When he made 10,000 runs, his fans wanted 15; when he made 35 centuries to go past the world record, they wanted him to make it 40, 45, 50. Incredibly, for a while, his record-breaking raced ahead of popular ambition.
All this came with the bonus of a sterling character. We don’t expect our novelists or movie-makers or actors or politicians or economists to be paragons of virtue. But cricketers, especially the ‘great’ ones have to be, or they lose their audience.
Sachin was naturally well-behaved. In a decade when his colleagues were hauled up for various misdemeanours, he stood like a rock – the one others tested their own uncorruptibility on. A few bad apples and their involvement in match-fixing might have given the entire team a bad name and frightened away the sponsors had it not been for the likes of Sachin, Kumble, Dravid, Srinath, Laxman and their captain Ganguly.
It must have been difficult to carry such responsibility – that of being the moral compass as well as the leading run-scorer. But Sachin wore it lightly, almost by right. I remember him on his first tour. Pakistan was welcoming and indulgent towards the little boy whose voice, it seemed, was yet to crack. A new generation was emerging.
Kapil Dev was still there, but Sunil Gavaskar had left. Sachin’s obsession meant that he would often talk in his sleep, shouting (in Marathi): “Two, one more” etc as though he were batting. The manager Chandu Borde had to deal with his sleep walking too.
Sachin had been on a club tour of England the previous season, and he attracted an English journalist to the nets who had come to see the “man with the best on-drive in the game,” according to some professionals there. At 16! And he had yet to play a Test match. The running joke then was that he would not be allowed to play day/night matches since he had to be in bed by ten.
He was shy and shared a room with Sanjay Manjrekar. But he took part in all the ‘cultural’ events of the tour – the players and journalists had formed a ‘Saturday Club’ and dress codes were bizarre. At one meeting, we had to all arrive in beards. Even with a beard, Sachin looked what he was, a boy in the company of men.
Twenty three years ago, Sachin was the future. Today he is fast becoming the past. So how should he deal with it? How should we? “What will Sachin do after retirement?” someone asked me in England recently. “Slash his wrists, I guess,” I replied flippantly.
But the fact remains that cricket is all he knows, is all he has done, is what defines him – take that away from him, and what is left? This, more than anything else, including the fading dollar signs in the eyes of his sponsors, is what must be worrying Sachin the most as he approaches 40.
At that age, a banker or an engineer is at the peak of his career, perhaps at the top of his profession. In sport, it is well past the sell-by date. Some cling on, others leave and come back, like Michael Schumacher did.
As Sachin peers down the abyss of cricketlessness, it is important that like Ricky Ponting he leaves in his time and of his volition. A nation owes him a dignified exit. In the ideal world, he would score a century and carry India to victory in his final Test. The international great’s fantasy is not so different from the aspiring schoolboy’s.
But a century might be seen as endorsement that all is well, and that there are a few more matches left in the Mumbai man’s future. I have suggested elsewhere that it might help if Sachin drops himself down to number five in the batting order. Unlike in Pakistan all those years ago, he is now on the experience side of transition. It is useful to remember that since his debut, India have won more than they have lost. He gives an age his name.
He has at least two Tests more to settle things in his own mind. Should he get out of the rut, there are more home Tests to follow, against Australia. A pre-series announcement would end all speculation and needless debates. When you have played 192 Tests (plus two more), you know where your off stump is – and when it is time to say goodbye.