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By Suresh Menon
Somewhere in the enormous amount of words inspired by the IPL this year, there was a line from a report that has gone under the radar. According to it, Sachin Tendulkar told Allan Donald that he would tour South Africa later this year. It wasn't picked up for the usual national debate that follows any Tendulkar statement, which was surprising. Perhaps that wasn't quite what Tendulkar said. Perhaps there was a nuance that was missed by the reporter. But the question remains: Will Tendulkar decide to go to South Africa for one last tour?
Some three decades ago, a popular topic of discussion was: Should Sunil Gavaskar go to the West Indies? Or more pertinently, should the player be allowed to decide on his own? Gavaskar was at his peak as a batsman and the biggest draw in the Indian team, especially in the West Indies where he had made his debut. He decided to withdraw from the tour citing tiredness since the team would be travelling within days of playing a series against Pakistan. Gavaskar's withdrawal caused the tour to be called off – partly, I guess, because the sponsors would want to have nothing to do with an Indian team without its greatest batsman.
Is that the situation Tendulkar will find himself in, come October? A tour billed 'Sachin's farewell' is bound to attract sponsorship from all over. As the greatest batsman of the modern era, and one who will complete 25 years of Test cricket on that tour, Tendulkar – and by extension, the Indian team – is bound to be celebrated around South Africa, especially if it is announced in advance that Tendulkar will play no more international cricket. This is the flip side of being Sachin Tendulkar: even personal decisions are not his to make.
It might not do his image or his batting average any good to tour South Africa, but to some who see Tendulkar merely as a means to make more money, that is unlikely to matter. It was similar thinking (human nature being the same everywhere) that kept Muhammad Ali in the ring beyond his best days and may have contributed to his later medical condition. Ali had ceased being an individual and become an industry, one which supported all manner of people around him, people who were not fussed about his health or possible effects on his future.
Tendulkar, who turns 40 this month, has time to make up his mind. There is also the question of carrying players with experience to South Africa. This means either Tendulkar or Virender Sehwag might be pressed into service for cricketing reasons. India's 4-0 thumping of Australia on home grounds against batsmen who struggled to come to terms with spin bowling might give them an exaggerated sense of their own importance. But realists in the selection committee might decide that South Africa with Dale Steyn and a clutch of fast bowlers waiting for them will be a different proposition.
India's top half in the last Test they played in South Africa (in 2011) read: Gambhir, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman. In their most recent Test, against Australia in Delhi, it was: Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Tendulkar, Ajinkya Rahane. To point out the obvious, only one name is common to both lists.
This might not be the time to think about what-will-be some months from now, especially since the IPL has got into full swing, and 20-20 vision is all the rage. Sehwag might yet nurse ambitions of a Test recall, Tendulkar might not have to make up his mind yet, but India cannot be caught unprepared and uncertain about the future of their two biggest names.
The choice is between taking a chance with the tried and proven who may be past their sell-by date or taking a chance with the young and energetic who are yet to prove themselves. It is usually advisable to throw in your lot with the future than with the past. It will be interesting to see which way the selectors bend, though. Especially if Tendulkar has said he will go to South Africa. Even granting that is a big 'If'.