I’m not a cricket junkie. Records and stats don’t trip off my tongue like cover driven full tosses. But the news of Sachin Tendulkar announcing that he will retire after playing his 200th Test match next month against the West Indies is an epochal moment for the cricket laity and clergy alike.
One sentence stands out in Tendulkar’s statement on Thursday: “It’s hard for me to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I have ever done since I was 11 years old.”
And here we are thinking how terribly hard it is for us to imagine Sachin leading a life without playing cricket. Even as such an event was predictable — and indeed predicted — the actual transition from a possibility to a fact has hit harder than any ball has ever hit a wicket or rapped a pad.
The cliché of Tendulkar being a god — a person who not only embodies the pinnacle of his art or craft but provides an unending ticker-tape of joy to millions of mortals — never took into account the prospect of a god hanging up his boots. Gods don’t stop doing godly things in the godly scheme of things.
And yet, the not-yet-17-year-old who took guard at the crease of the National Stadium in Karachi on November 15, 1989 — where only two years before Sachin’s Test debut, the great Viv Richards had scored 181 against Sri Lanka at the 1987 Cricket World Cup in jaw-dropping style — must have known even then that he was starting a journey that would end some day and that whatever mark he would leave behind on the sport of cricket would have to be between that beginning and some unforseen, not-yet-bothersome end.
The trouble we will face is to see cricket with Tendulkar permanently missing. Even with his reputation and records, and our memories of following his adventures on the field over nearly 25 years, Sachin’s retirement provides the very, very discomfiting illusion that Tendulkar is now eerily like an overwhelming majority of us: a middle-aged man who loves cricket and once played the game. Some illusions can be brutally depressing.
Most of us didn’t immediately catch on that we were witnessing the finest practitioner in his chosen field when Tendulkar first started making his mark. We followed him literally grow into cricket, inhabit it, and then ride it bareback.
At his best, he was better than any batsman our generation has ever seen. And when he was just good, he was still a living proof that he was better than any batsman our generation has ever seen.
Cricket pundits will tell you how Tendulkar adapted to the changing flow of the game. They have already told us about his special ‘muscle memory’, which made his hand-eye coordination seemingly predict the ball, whatever its trajectory, a crucial fraction of a second before this kind of thing becomes apparent to the best of batsmen.
But like all humans — sportsmen only magnifying the phenomenon in a more dramatic, stop-motion camera way — Tendulkar, too, inhabits a physical body with slowdown and age hardwired into it.
I must admit that I have been one of those who have, of late, wondered whether Tendulkar would show signs of passing through a stage of denial about calling it a day. Mine was a selfish thought, more a mortal fear of witnessing a loved one fail and then fade.
With Sachin’s retirement, a special, long stretch of cricket will now come to an end. But if there’s muscle memory, there’s also collective memory. And that’s where we will always have a distinct advantage over all those who will hanker to be in awe of any form of true greatness in a world where Tendulkar does not play.