So he made us eat our words. And didn’t we love the taste.
There we were, as India came out to bat against Australia on Thursday evening, the chaps who have spent more hours of our lives than we can bear to count watching him bat and atomising his each innings, there we were, shaking our heads and looking at the TV screens and mumbling into our coffees and saying: “No, he shouldn’t have opened the innings.”
No, Sachin Tendulkar should have left it to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, we’d thought. He should have come in at No. 4. What were they all up to? Did they not remember the number of balls from which he had not scored in just the previous innings? Chasing a score we had never chased down, did we not want to make best use of the first ten overs?
Fans will be fans. They will always ask questions. They will tend to be unforgiving. They will ask more from their heroes than their heroes can give them. So we’ll still say that had there not been so many dot balls in Tendulkar’s innings in the game before this one, we would not have been behind in the current one-day series. Oh, well. It’s in the nature of fandom. Not much you can do about it.
So when Tendulkar began his assault, as murderous in his intent as savage in his execution, we rubbed our eyes, blinked again and again, and asked each other and ourselves: “Oh, so why does he not do this more often? Where had all this gone?”
It hadn’t gone anywhere, really, we now think in the clear light of the day after. It had been largely subsumed into the gatherer that one of the greatest batsmen in the history of the game has become from being the audacious hunter of his teens and 20s.
But the hunter and his arsenal were unveiled in their pomp again on Thursday. We got it all: an 81-ball hundred, the fastest by an Indian against Australia; the impudent straight hits that disappeared into the stands; the textbook cover drives that split the field; the canny improvisations that yielded runs behind the wicket; the flicks off his legs backward of square; and the hoicks in the arc between mid on and mid wicket that were destined to be boundaries no sooner than they left his bat.
It all happened so swiftly, and with such unabated fury, that it seemed as though we were watching the highlights of an innings rather than the innings itself in real time. It was giddying; it was delirium-inducing.
In a way, though, we were watching the highlights. We were watching the highlights of what Tendulkar has offered us over the past two decades. Remember Sharjah? Remember Centurion? Remember Perth? It was like a photo album — as much homage as delighted remembrance.
We crib too much about not winning, about letting a victory slip, but we seem to lose sight of the fact that two decades ago, when Tendulkar began his career, we were rather too used to losing. Winning was more of an aberration.
Indian cricket fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s would celebrate valiant innings in losing causes (because winning causes were too few and far between). Tendulkar is one of the reasons why we have acquired our winning ways, why India becoming the best cricket team in the world is not merely a boy’s-own fantasy.
All those present in the stadium on Thursday night (and there was not a seat vacant, there has not been a seat vacant in the stadiums all through this series) and all the hundreds of thousands who watched on TV will know that Tendulkar’s 175 is a perfect advertisement for the game we adore. Too much cricket? Well, not between two top teams. One-day cricket dying? Rubbish. If this is how the game can be celebrated, I dare anyone to not watch.
In the end, however heartbreaking, it was appropriate that India lost. Because it allows some of us, after all this, to wonder. Thirty-two of Tendulkar’s 45 ODI hundreds have led to India winning. Why, oh, why, could this not be the 33rd? Why did he leave the last three batsmen to get 19 runs off 17 balls? He does so much, but will anything he ever does be enough for us?
If Tendulkar knows the answer, he won’t tell. But for cricket fans shambling towards middle age, he represents a tricky paradox. He was the first hero I had who was younger than I was. With the unfettered, nerveless boldness of his batting, he made us revisit and redefine our notion of hero worship. Now, 20 years on, Tendulkar is caught in a trap of his own making. We still want him to be like the boy we grew so devoted to. And when he can’t be (because things have changed, and he, with them) we grow wistful and nostalgic. Stuck in a moment, as Bono said, and you can’t get out of it.
Thursday night fulfilled that yearning for the past. But it also showed us that the pleasure of watching Tendulkar bat need not always be nostalgia on the rocks.
Soumya Bhattacharya’s new book on how cricket defines India, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, will be out in bookstores next month.