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By Suresh Menon
Last week, India woke up to the fact that Sachin Tendulkar will play just two more Tests and then quit. Physically, the timing is right. He is 40, has been a shadow of himself and has been playing international cricket continuously for 24 years.
Yet, psychologically, it is another matter. Tendulkar is the great aspirational figure in his country. He has been in our drawing rooms for more than a generation, carrying the burden of Indian batting on his shoulders. Fans bookmark the major events of their lives with Tendulkar achievements – a graduation when he made a century in Perth or a wedding when he knocked the bowlers around in Sharjah, and so on.
The retirement was in the air, yet when it was finally announced, there was shock, consternation, sadness, perhaps even relief. Sachin Tendulkar chose his time well. Will anybody ever play 200 Test matches again? Or score 100 international centuries, 51 of them in Tests? After 24 years (his 200th Test will be played next month on the anniversary of his first), this is no longer about a sportsman retiring from the game. His goodbye is a reminder of our own mortality.
At 19, he was already been seen as the best batsman in the world. In his time, India won more matches than they lost, so the individual efforts impacted team causes which is not always the case.
In an era when greatness is adulterated by figures, there is concern that the cliche ‘records are made to be broken’ may not hold. It is possible that Tendulkar will keep his records until the sun burns itself out.
More remarkable than the runs he scored has been the manner in which Tendulkar retained his passion and his fitness over 24 years. Periodically, his body parts which threatened to end his career – from the shoulder to the heel and everything in between – became national news. But each time Tendulkar came back with renewed vigour and greater hunger.
He combined orthodoxy and innovation to a degree unmatched by any of his contemporaries. He could slash over third man with panache or whip the ball from outside the off stump past mid on with power. He could be beaten and still recover to hit a boundary. But above all, he could frustrate the best bowlers by playing with a straight bat and a sense of mischief.
Great sportsmen straddle many worlds. They leave behind the merely good very quickly as they enter rarefied areas defined as much by their mastery as by the elements that do not even enter the debate when others are discussed. Part of Don Bradman's greatness lay in his Test average of 99.94, but partly it was also a function of what he meant to a nation coming to terms with itself; he defined Australian nationhood.
It is an accident of time and space, this identification with an evolving nation, but it is crucial to the understanding of the context of greatness. W. G. Grace, for example, was the icon of Victorian England, representing both its elements and its aspirations. Such players dominate their era, and tell us there is more to greatness in batting than a fabulous cover drive or a delicate leg glance.
The intangibles enter the equation, and other things remaining equal (statistics, averages, role in victories), the intangibles tip the balance. There was a time when it was difficult to separate the careers of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara — both had similar statistics, influence on their teams, impact on bowlers around the world. Tendulkar, four years younger, more consistent, less flamboyant, more sober, less controversial, frustrated the bowlers with a defence of Gavaskar-like certainty and an attack that could match Lara's.
“Sachin is a genius,” said Lara himself, “I am a mere mortal.”
Even if that is taken as a modest assessment by a generous rival when Lara first made the point, today it is difficult to disagree. At 37, when Lara called it a day, Tendulkar discovered a new steel, a new joy of batsmanship, a new purpose that was difficult to distinguish from those he entered the game with at the age of 16.
The debate today is not about who is the best batsman after Bradman, it is about deciding whether Tendulkar is better than Bradman was given the range of his game (Bradman didn't play a single one-dayer, Tendulkar the greatest batsman without argument in that form of the game has played 463), the travel, the greater media and public pressure and the fact that he has played more years (Bradman had a break of five years during the War), on more grounds (59 different Test grounds in 10 countries to Bradman's 10 in two countries), and destroyed more bowling attacks.
Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest all round batsman the game has seen. So stunning has been the impact of his figures that Tendulkar's historical contribution to Indian cricket is often forgotten. India’s Golden Age – when the team became the No. 1 Test side and won the World Cup too – has finally ended. Golden Ages must have their iconic figure and Tendulkar is clearly the one here, both for what he has accomplished himself and for his qualities that inspired the others.
Like Bradman, Tendulkar too has been both representative and flag-bearer of a nation rediscovering its self-confidence and redefining its identity. Diffidence has been replaced by inspired self-worth, and in a nation often riven by faith and religion and artificial lines of separation, he has been a hero across the divisions. Tendulkar is a product of his period. Time and space are in his favour. As are those qualities that define greatness, discipline, tough work ethic, the ability to both extract joy from the game and distribute it to millions as well as the creativity to invent new ways of scoring runs, and the ability to score them consistently.
What next for the man who has known nothing beyond cricket since he was 12? The usual – media, coaching, administration – might not be attractive even if they are lucrative. In the short term, of course, the Master would like to put his feet up and rest, spending time with his family and friends. In the long term? An ambassadorship to a cricket playing country for one who was a diplomat throughout his career? South Africa, perhaps, after they were denied his 200th Test?