The Nagpur Test against England starting today may well be the last time Sachin Tendulkar takes the field in a long and fantastic career. Arunabha Sengupta writes that while he has nothing else to prove, it will be difficult for the fans – including the most caustic of critics – to get used to an Indian team without the maestro.
The Nagpur Test is not just another match amidst the hundreds played by the Indian cricket team. Seldom has there been so much at stake when the Indian team has taken field in a Test match at home. It is rare enough for the hosts to go into the last Test of a series fighting to draw level. A poor result here may indeed mean a new face at the helm of the team, ending the five year reign of Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
While this itself may be a jolt to accepted routine, there is a bigger menace that looms ominously, threatening to tamper with the natural order of things, about to deal a crippling blow to our concept of permanence.
The end of the wonder years?
To a generation and a half, the fall of the second wicket of the Indian innings in a Test match has been fraught with a tumult of sentiments – bearing with it that all-encompassing buzz that can bring an entire nation to standstill. Twenty-three years have witnessed these moments charged with passion, adulation, ecstasy – hope, dreams, jitters and hysteria.
The fortunes of the Indian cricket team and the dreams of millions have swayed with the swing and follow through of Sachin Tendulkar’s willow. The numbers stacked beside his name on the scorecard at the end of the day have often influenced how the ardent cricket fan will sleep at night. The successes of the man – and in some perverse cases the rare failures – have dictated with the sense of wellbeing of many a follower of the game.
Even at the twilight of his career, with the last long rays of his former blaze casting but a pale shadow of a fantastic career, he continues to dominates discussions. As the arrows from the quiver of time descend thick and fast, difficult for even the greatest genius to evade, he reigns over the debates that rage across streets and forums of India like a careening Colossus.
There are diehard fans who continue to insist that it is just a dip in his form and the Master is about to emerge high, riding on another upsurge of runs and centuries. There are others who see definite signs of decline in the splendid abilities of the most phenomenal batsman India has ever seen. Finally, one also needs to take into account a significant number of sordid souls for whom cricket merits attention only when there is a name as prodigious as Sachin Tendulkar to trample and tarnish.
In a way, hostile as the cricketing world has been to the recent performance of the Indian team, a lot of the criticism has been diverted and absorbed by that ageing giant who still trots down the steps of the pavilion, looks heavenwards and makes his way across the turf to take guard.
And now, as the final game of the series approaches, there are indications that this may be the master’s last-ever Test match. Before the first Test against England, Tendulkar had gone on record stating that he would assess his future at the end of the series. And after this final Test, the maestro may well decide that he has had enough.
The scores have been low, with just one half century in five innings. The hands, eyes and feet have tried their hardest to stay ahead of the tides of time, but the results have been negative – without the final gleam in keeping with his glittering career.
Yet, he has little else to prove, no further world to conquer. He has scaled peaks that were not visible to the naked eye when he started his career. He has records in his kitty that were not even mentioned in the books, before he rewrote them scripting his two-decade odyssey. If he leaves now, it will be as the greatest batsman to have played for India – and the numbers will vouch for that.
The void ahead
In this curious world, there will continue to be naysayers.
There will be the fact-ignorant who will continue to carp that he never performed in crisis, having blissfully forgotten most of his best efforts – from his match-savingfirst Test hundred in the fourth innings at Manchester, to his last one against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in the pressure cooker situation at Cape Town, and the numerous centuries in between when he came in to bat at little more than nothing for two.
There will be champions of innumeracy, who will shout from roof tops that he was not a match-winner – flagrantly ignoring the record 65 Tests he has ended up on the winning side, from the blitzkrieg that gave nightmares to Shane Warne in 1998 to the fourth innings 103 at Chennai, from the match turning 85 against West Indies at the Wankhede from 11 for three, to the 214 at Bangalore from 38 for two.
Some ignoramuses will cling on to their mathematically absurd perception that Tendulkar’s runs result in defeats in One-Day Internationals, flamboyantly forgetting 33 hundreds in victories, from stirring up the desert storm at Sharjah to the vanquishing of Shoaib Akhtar at Centurion.
Sachin Tendulkar need not wield his willow any further to silence the moronic outpouring from the veritable nadir of the cricketing peripheries. His records will continue to speak eloquently for him years after the ephemeral noise of immediacy has died its instant death. As Aldous Huxley put it, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” He can walk into the exclusive club frequented by the greatest of former cricketers nonchalantly, secure in the knowledge that even his baiters will grapple to find a meaning of life once he moves on.
Twenty three years is a long, long time. A huge proportion of the cricket followers around the world have known neither cricket nor life without Sachin Tendulkar walking out to bat for India. The very name ‘Sachin’ has accumulated meaning during the course of his cricketing journey, now standing to signify hope, achievement and perfection. It will not be easy to get used to the gigantic void that will result when he leaves.
Every time the second wicket goes down in the future and a new batsman is witnessed stumbling out in those giant shoes, the memory of the great man will lead the way to the wicket. Only, he will not be there to stand firm and essay those imperious drives off the back foot.
When Rahul Dravid had hung up his boots, and VVS Laxman had followed, this writer had written that it was like losing both lungs at one go. Now, it does seem that the heart is on the verge of beating for the last time.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)