It’s clear to all of us. It’s evident by the way you take guard. No longer are you very worried about the sightscreen. That flat backdrop that no other batsman noticed but seemed to bother only you. Perhaps because the bowler on the other end didn’t. Perhaps because it was the same colour as surrender. And then there are other signs. No more do you so keenly adjust the front of your pants, that ungainly yet absolutely masculine of gestures – a man among the breathing bodies, a hero by right, a Spartan intent on victory and uninterested in looking pretty. Your eyes have changed too. The twinkle has given way to something a little more serious, a little more wary and dare I say, even bewildered. The other day, you even raised your bat as if you wanted to hit the ground after getting bowled. To those who’ve seen you so much, it was less anger or frustration. You were perplexed. Beaten perhaps, in a new strange way.
If this isn’t a good time for you, it’s very bad for us. We who remember what it was like, not so long ago. We who have missed flights but not fights for you. We who have turned living rooms into stadiums and stadiums into bull rings. We who have seen you wield the willow like it were Thor’s hammer and the Reaper’s scythe fused in one. We who were the chant, the clap and the scream to your straight drive, backfoot-punch-through-the-covers and the uppercut. We who felt like all was right with the world by just watching you walk out to bat. And now, we’re just as flustered.
Yes you’re 39 now, and so it’s natural for that dirty R word to chase you like a dogged left-arm spinner. Some weeks ago, an impolite, smug and self-righteous journalist cornered you into talking about it. His smile said that he was proud to have persisted with a line of questioning that decent news-people would have abandoned much earlier. It was uglier than asking a man his salary or a women for her birth certificate. It was even more deplorable because of the way he asked it – like he’d paid for your pads when you were 12 and so you owed him an answer. He then clung on with a Rottweiler’s tenacity and got you to say, “I’ll be taking things series by series”. And now the England series is on, and while you’ve gotten out to some of the better balls, the scorecard does make for unhappy reading. So I’d like to say a couple of things here. Call this ‘Frankly Speaking’, Version 2.0. There are lots and lots and lots of us who still believe in you and always will. There are lots and lots and lots of us who are waiting for you to come good – and know that you will. If fandom isn’t new for you, neither is criticism. And over the course of a long career, nor are lean patches. So hang in there. Or take a break to iron out a few things if you have to. But don’t jump to retirement yet. I’d also like to remind you of what you’d said earlier, on this same terrible topic. That the final call would be yours alone. I know you didn’t mean the selection committee but mass opinion. Please do not get so tired of the situation that you end up listening to those who know no better.
I don’t have an issue with objective appraisal but there seems to be a gleeful call for your head, a kind of public gloating that I can’t understand or accept. It’s not like everyone else in the team is playing exceptional cricket. But then, you’re used to being singled out. Even at the height of your powers, there were some for whom you weren’t good enough. So it’s very easy for them to ask for your head when your cloak of brilliance is wearing thin. Truth is, superhuman talent is intimidating because it looks super human. Your fallibility tells them that you’re flesh and blood after all. It tells them mistakenly, that you’re just like them. So I have this to say to you, and them. Your time in the sun may be running out, sir, but theirs never came.
Pause also, in this dark hour, to allow yourself a smile. Remember what you’ve really accomplished. You sir, have done more than change the way the game is played or inspire a future line of warriors. You’ve also managed a much tougher thing than scoring a hundred hundreds. That is a staggering statistic, but one that limits you to 22 yards. To roughly quote Rohit Brijnath who said this of Federer: “Others can win but not like this.” Many can dispatch a ball through the covers but none can do this. You have made children finish their homework early, adults forget their cares and the ailing feel happy to be alive. (Though it must also be said that you’ve made the perfectly healthy call in sick at work). You’ve made waifs walk like their bellies were full, you’ve given struts to weak men and made India unite in a non-violent way reminiscent only of Gandhi. Here, sir, is the true measure of your contribution. This sir, is your real Impact Index.
I’d also like to remind you of another fact. While cricket may be the only life you’ve known, it still isn’t life. It’s sport. A game. Something simple and (yes) silly at the heart of it. So in whatever time you think you have left – please shut everything else out and go enjoy. Be happy as a 16 year old. Don’t defend, but offend. Have a ball. Have many. Play like no one’s watching. And get that twinkle back.
And when – and may that day never come – if you do decide to put that bat away, please know that many, many, many of us retire with you. Yes, we’ll cheer an India victory, follow the odd game and even gasp when Kohli tries a Tendulkar. But it will be with the detached eye of the sports follower, the Indian who wishes the best for his nation. It’ll be mostly through online scorecards and corridor banter; no longer will TV seats be grabbed like prized lottery tickets and no longer will life move in slow motion.
This is not to say there will not be other champions. This is only to say that a generation that grew up and grew old with you will have nothing left to give to those who try and follow your small giant footsteps. Our time too, will be up.
If you notice the prefix “sir”, this is deliberate. Many summers ago, my brother and co-believer Gaurav Dudeja and I decided to anoint you Sir Sachin Tendulkar. This we felt did not require the Queen’s permission. It was ours to give freely but we were stingy about whom we chose to give it to. We’ve given it to no one else.
(Picture Source: Mark Dadswell/Getty Images AsiaPac)