Leaving physical pains aside, most men don’t cry when they are faced with an emotional challenge. I don’t think I can. So far, there have been two things in this world that easily make me shed tears of joy. One has been the carnatic classical veena of Mysore V Doreswamy Iyengar. The other has been memories of my late canine friend (1989-2003). I do show emotions sometimes more openly than I would like to. Watching Sachin Tendulkar bat has been one such activity that brings out unchecked emotions. I need to perform two corrections here. I need to correct my sense of time/tense. I can’t watch him bat live in a test match anymore. He has retired. May be it is okay. The other correction involves improving my psychological balance while he bats. That is not possible anymore. He has retired. It is not okay.
I couldn’t watch him bat in his last test match because I was in a different time zone, surrounded by people who do not know cricket. To my surprise I did not show any emotion when I heard that Tendulkar was out for 74, in what now turns out to be his last test innings for India (Second test against the West Indies played in Mumbai from Nov 14 to 18, 2013). I watched the highlights. I was relieved to see him play some of his best shots during that knock. The day after the day he got out, that is today, turned out to be his last day in test cricket for India. I was still very composed when I heard that India had won and Tendulkar had bid goodbye. I turned to the internet again and watched his final exit from the middle. My breathing had already become shallow and when I saw that Tendulkar was trying to control his tears, I snapped. I couldn’t control my tears, most certainly like many other millions of Indians.
I started following cricket in 1992 (my age was in single figure). The same year Tendulkar hit that famous 114 against Australia on what I later understood to be a fast and bouncy cricket wicket in Perth. For several years after that innings, Tendulkar was the only batsman in the Indian team who mattered. His was the only wicket that the opponents needed to make sure India folded quickly. The fall of his wicket meant that I stopped watching the match. Sadly, India winning or losing didn’t matter to me until I was in high school. I gradually started watching India matches even after a Tendulkar dismissal, but I used to do that in a completely pessimistic mode. My game was Tendulkar out…India out….
There were so many moments where I had felt he shouldn’t get the strike at all. I feel embarassed to admit that I couldn’t enjoy some of his batting because him being on strike was too tough to handle. “Stay at the non-striker’s end for the entire innings, not score any runs, but just be there at stumps”…. No matter what, he had to be the last man standing. India was not relevant. How silly I was. But fortunately Tendulkar wanted to be on strike and more importantly for Tendulkar, India mattered. Every batsman has to bat for himself. He batted certainly for himself. At the same time, he didn’t forget India.
By the time Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly (1996) and VVS Laxman (1997) came along, I knew a lot more about cricket. I admired them. I followed their game as much as I followed Tendulkar’s. However, the Tendulkar connect happened much earlier in my life. I think it was crucial. I don’t think I would have been into the Tendulkar phenomenon the way I do now, had I started following the game after he became a big name. The big money and the big brand….the glamour associated with current players would have certainly put me off. I have never been particularly fond of Tendulkar, the person. Yes, he is dignified. Yes, he has a tremendous work ethic. Yes, he is humble. Yes, he has had no controversies of significance. All of that made him great. Yet, he has remained an elusive figure. I don’t know the man. I was not interested in him before/after a batting innings. He has skillfully (sometimes angrily) managed to guard his personal life and rightly so. Perhaps there were always some “mystical powers” that operated and connected so many like me to his game. The crazy Indian fan put him on a pedestal and forced him away into a sheltered existence. Today, in his farewell speech Tendulkar was as graceous as ever. However, I don’t think many of us have been half as graceous as him. For me, he was just a batsman and nothing else mattered. When he batted, he had to score runs. When he scored big runs, the world appeared normal and the laws of nature remained intact.
Did I say that it was okay that Tendulkar retired? Many believe so. I have slowly come to terms with this. I wanted him to play his final test match in South Africa. He made his test debut against a chellenging bowling attack in Pakistan. He must have been tempted for sure to test himself against Steyn and Morkel in Capetown or Johannesburg. The home test farewell may well be richly deserving to Sachin Tendulkar, the man. However, to Tendulkar the cricketer, a real contest would have meant a lot more. In South Africa he may well have managed to emulate Sir Don Bradman by scoring a zero in his final test innings. Who knows? Going by what we saw in Mumbai yesterday (and I have always maintained) Sachin Tendulkar looked in ominous touch. It may be that South Africa was a bridge too far. This craving of mine originates from the very nerve-wracking yet rewarding personalised experience (true for most fans) every time Tendulkar had gone out to bat in test matches abroad.
One last point. I don’t know whether Tendulkar ever walked off the field with his helmet in his hands (and not still on his head) after being dismissed. He would remove his helmet on reaching hundreds…but he rarely ever walked to the pavillion with his helmet in his hand. He was always under a helmet. Revealing some and holding back a lot. His bat did all the talking. In his final innings, he turned around with his helmet off and for one last time, we had a glimpse of the man at a land mark which he cannot cross again. Today, people were throwing petals and not stones at him (“sometimes people throw stones at you and you convert them into milestones“- SRT). It was surreal that stones could not deter the man while petals proved cathartic.