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By Suresh Menon
There is something unfair about Sachin turning 40. Isn't he the Peter Pan of cricket, the boy who never grows up, mischievous, cocky, leading his gang whether India or Mumbai,with batting from some Neverland where you drive past the bowler with as much joy as when you play the upper cut over the slips? The coaching book and the maverick's manual rolled into one?
Wasn't it only yesterday that he made his debut against Imran Khan and Pakistan, all of 16 years of age, curly-haired and looking like a pocket edition of Diego Maradona?
And now here he is, on the cusp of middle age, and raging against the dying of the light. Sure, Jack Hobbs made a hundred first class centuries after 40 and Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment at 45, but neither had to deal with fame and fortune or indeed the physical problems that Tendulkar lives with. A dodgy back can be as debilitating as millions in the bank – they tend to weaken motivation.
The 40th comes with two messages. One for him, the other for us. For Sachin, the end is near however you look at it. And for us, it comes with intimations of mortality. For over two decades, Tendulkar was our version of Dorian Gray, keeping us youthful and in some permanent world where everybody is in his 20s. We didn't grow old because he didn't grow old. Those in their 20s when he made his debut are in their fifties now, yet they can invoke their youth without effort thanks to Tendulkar. Important dates in their lives are bookmarked by his centuries, at Perth and Sydney and Old Trafford and Chennai. Governments have changed, economic policies have evolved, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union no longer exists, Apartheid has been dismantled, Rahul Dravid has retired. Through it all, Tendulkar has remained the one constant in a changing world.
If that is the Tendulkar Effect on the middle aged and elderly, what about those in their 20s now? For them, he has always been around. More than half of India's population is under the age of 25, which means from virtually the first day of their existence, Tendulkar has been in the headlines. One day soon they will switch on the TV, open their computers, turn on their phones, hear sobbing from their neighbour's apartment, listen to the office gossip – in whatever manner they get their daily news – and realise that Tendulkar has announced his retirement. End of an era, end of an era will go the experts. But it will be more than that for those personally involved with Tendulkar's career. It will be like looking up and noticing the moon is no longer in the sky or the Himalayas have disappeared. Forget Tendulkar's agony when he quits, what about the trauma of his fans?
For a quarter of a century, he has been everywhere – on television channels, on billboards, in print and cyberspace, in our hearts, and minds. I remember his first series in Pakistan. He batted like a champion wore a false beard to the 'party' room at the hotels where the Indian team and the media stayed, and squeaked in delight at Kapil Dev's jokes. His future was written out for him – ten thousand runs, 35 Test centuries, a reserved seat in the pantheon of the batting greats.
With every milestone crossed, fresh targets were set: 40 centuries, fifteen thousand runs, and so on. Incredibly, those targets were met too. At 30, rather like Alexander, Tendulkar had no more worlds to conquer. At 40, he has to come to terms not so much with the external world as the one within.
In other fields, 40 is the age at which you are either the No. 1 or eyeing the number one position. In sport, you become an ex-player, or worse, a commentator. Tendulkar carries on, as much a tribute to his fitness of body as soundness of mind. Yet his performance has been outstripped by his passion, and the gap between the standing ovation when he walks in and the one he receives when he gets out has reduced in recent times.
At 40, when those in the real world are looking ahead to a career, the sportsman knows the best is behind him. Often life prepares you for cricket, but sometimes cricket prepared you for life too. For the rest of his life, Tendulkar knows he can tap into the enormous reserves of discipline, concentration, focus, capacity for hard work, passion and obsessive nature that has made him the finest all round batsman in the history of the game. The springs of success are the same – in the stadium or outside.
A billion heads might say, Quit now Sachin when you are still ahead; but a billion hearts will be yearning for another sight of that minimum-fuss on-drive, another look at history as it walks out to bat.