The pointlessness of sport is its greatest attraction

2011 Dec 05 by Suresh Menon

Cricket's most enduring - and endearing - statistic is 99.94, the average that Don Bradman finished with.

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By Suresh Menon

Cricket’s most enduring – and endearing – statistic is 99.94, the average that Don Bradman finished with. There is something charming about that figure, a hint of perfection; but the stronger impression is one of vulnerability. Look on my works, ye mighty, but don’t despair, to misquote Shelley. I am human, after all.

That mix of attainability and human fallibility is as much about sport as it is a commentary on life. Bradman couldn’t say ‘Tomorrow is another day’, because he was bowled for zero in his last Test innings at the age of 40. There was no Bangladesh to quickly arrange a one-match ‘series’ against, and at any rate that is not how competitive sport is played.

Now the man who is seen as his modern avatar has been given a chance to say, “Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn,’ before walking off into the sunset. I don’t know if Sachin Tendulkar has seen ‘Gone with the Wind’ or is familiar with its much-quoted lines. But he had better get his act together quickly. Which is a strange thing to say about a man with 99 international centuries.

Since March this year, the national mood has swung from keen anticipation to resigned time-marking to, I suspect, dangerous boredom. Tendulkar was caught up in the first, involved in the second, and although incapable of being bored or boring as a batsman, might find the national mood more encouraging.

Essays have been written and stored in newspaper offices, television channels have put together their packages, the advertisers are ready with their various messages, and doubtless the Prime Minister’s secretary has already released a message of congratulations which is embargoed for publication till the event actually takes place.

A country that has been holding its breath for months now is waiting to exhale. Should Tendulkar not make a century soon, his countrymen are likely to express their disappointment in the time-worn fashion: by burning buses, stoning Rahul Dravid’s house, raising slogans and demanding that India play one more series against Sri Lanka so the record can be got out of the way.

In the interests of peace and harmony, therefore, Sachin should get a century quickly. It is in the national interest, after all.
Ah! Where is Lalit Modi when you need him? He would have changed the rules of tournaments, even the Laws of the game to ensure this.

Advertisers, journalists, ad companies, fans, who bought tickets for all the India games in the hope of being present when history is made and thereby being handed a readymade story for their grandchildren, columnists, Tendulkar-watchers around the world, the Indian team, push-cart businessmen around stadiums hoping to make a killing on the big day, souvenir-hunters, souvenir-manufacturers, bookies offering odds on where the event will take place, firecracker manufacturers, sports editors with special issues planned, young couples determined to get married on the big day, bureaucrats preparing to pull off a scam on the day when the whole nation’s attention is diverted elsewhere, everybody has been holding his breath.

Everybody, but Sachin Tendulkar, that is. He seems unaffected by all the clamour and looks the calmest of the lot with the possible exception of the man living in a remote cave at the border of Germany and Poland who is in hiding because no one told him Hitler’s war is over.

What if Tendulkar, having broken every record there is (well, almost), has decided to play a trick on all of the above? Perhaps he fancies the number 99. What if he decides to pull down the shutters and remain on 99 international centuries? And why not?

Ninety nine is an intriguing figure, poised between what was and what-might-have-been. Mathematicians call it the Kaprekar Number, meaning that the numbers that make up its squares add up to 99. That is, 99 squared is 9801, and 98 plus 01 is 99. Pointless? Yes, but then aren’t all statistics in sports pointless too? As will be Tendulkar’s 100 hundreds when they are finally made. After all, it is the pointlessness of sport that is its greatest attraction.