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By Suresh Menon
Sachin Tendulkar is a cottage industry – perhaps I am understating it, he is a full-fledged industry – with many careers and various professionals and hundreds of families dependant on him for their livelihood. If he retires tomorrow, thousands would have handed in their meal tickets.
Not surprisingly, it was at a press conference called by his brand manager that Tendulkar reiterated what he has been saying of late, with an edge one does not associate with the gentlemanly cricketer. It is not Tendulkar-like to say aggressively, "When I retire is something I will decide because when I started, it was not decided by someone else.”
We shall pass lightly over the obvious flaw in that argument – it wasn’t Sachin, but the selectors who decided when he would play for India – and try to understand its spirit.
Leave me alone, says Tendulkar, which is a legitimate request; but thanks to the presence of his handlers, the subtext seems to be: Leave us alone while we make as much out of Tendulkar before he finally calls it a day. It makes no commercial sense to have your star constantly in the eye of the retirement storm.
If Tendulkar were a country, any credit-rating outfit would downgrade him amidst such talk.
Remove the perception and watch the investments flow in. If the Tendulkar index drops, it is necessary to affect a correction. The player may not even be aware of the subtleties involved, but he plays along.
The pressure of a century of centuries (media pressure, fan pressure, self pressure or whatever) having dissipated, the pressure on Tendulkar now is to keep playing so his minders can squeeze the last drop out of his huge commercial value. Sportsmen are more valuable on the field than off it, and it is only human to try and keep them there for as long as commercially viable.
Tendulkar turns 39 next month, and at an age when he should be left alone to work things out for himself – every great sportsman deserves that concession – he will, instead have to take into account all those whose livelihoods depend on him. Not family, not friends, not his charities, but his commercial interests.
Is it really Sachin Tendulkar himself who will decide when to hang up his boots? I don’t think so.This is the flip side of the millions. High earning sportsmen make a Faustian deal with the money devil; they are paid sums beyond the dreams of avarice for a decade or two.
Then, when they seek peace and serenity and a period away from the game if not retirement from it, the devil demands his part of the bargain. Keep playing. Keep bringing in the money. You are an industry, you have to feed and clothe those who have invested in you.
It happened to Michael Jordan, who retired and unretired, and even took up baseball while his handlers laughed all the way to the bank. It happened to Muhammad Ali who was forced to fight on way past his sell-by date (and thus caused himself serious injury) to finance his entourage.
In the early years, it happened to the great Jesse Owens who had to race against cars and horses.The financial interests around Tendulkar are incredibly lucky that they have a man who is genuinely passionate about the game and gives his everything to it while not taking even a baby step towards arrogance or bad behaviour.
Tendulkar is not just a model, he is a role model, and despite the recent chorus for his head, continues to be the Indian most Indians aspire to be. After two decades of mouthing platitudes, he seems to have discovered a speech writer who is providing him with the turn of phrase that sits well with his new hairstyle, an edgy exercise in studied casualness. He has spouted more quotable quotes in the last fortnight than in many recent years.
Cricket is the only thing Tendulkar knows; he has been playing it at the highest level since he was 16. It is easy to imagine a Rahul Dravid seamlessly moving onto his next phase in life – as a writer or commentator in the Mike Atherton mould, for example. What will Tendulkar do at 40, or 50 or 60?
He might want to play in the 2023 World Cup, but even geniuses are human. Tendulkar’s makeover is a work in progress; it will be fascinating to see the finished product.