By Garfield Robinson
If ever an event was destined to be a crowd-puller it is the second Test of the hastily arranged West Indies tour of India coming in November. This grand occasion of a Test match will be made grander still by virtue of it being, if all goes well, the 200th appearance of Sachin Tendulkar. This means he has played an average of over eight Test matches per year. Garfield Sobers, to put matters into perspective, who started his career in 1954 and played for approximately 20 years, participated in only 93 Test matches — less than five matches per year; and that was before the era of one-day cricket. Those next in line, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, are all of thirty games behind with 168 Test matches to their names and they have retired as well.
This is a tribute to the high level of fitness he has maintained and the dedication he has shown to his craft. Starting as a 16-year-old boy-wonder in 1989, Tendulkar has studiously applied himself to the task of collecting runs like few other batsmen in history. A solid technique and a positive outlook fed a gargantuan appetite that saw him to 100 international centuries and more international runs than anyone would have thought possible a decade ago.
In all this time, only West Indian batting maestro, Brian Lara, seriously challenged Tendulkar for the title of world’s best batsman. But if the Trinidadian left-hander wielded a more enchanting willow, Tendulkar seemed steadier and more dependable. If the good fortune of witnessing one of Lara’s masterpieces was like winning the lottery, Tendulkar was money in the bank.
At his best, as Tendulkar came studiously forward in defence, his bat was as broad as a door and as impenetrable as a fortified wall. In attack, as he pushed through mid-on or drove down the ground, he was all balance and control and fluidity. In short, he was a batting grandmaster.
It must have been disheartening then, for Tendulkar’s most ardent fans to observe the most recent version of their hero. That the great one is past his best is hardly up for discussion. His last hundred was against South Africa in Cape Town in January 2011. Since then he has only managed an average in the 30s, in contrast to his career average of almost 54.
Much of the certainty has been overtaken by moments of indecision; that which was only breached rarely and with great difficulty, is being increasingly ruptured, even by run-of-the-mill adversaries. The batsman who manhandled the great Shane Warne, was recently made to look like a near novice by Australian spinner Nathan Lyon. The man who beat back the best that Dale Steyn and company could throw at him in Cape Town; and who dismantled the likes of Brett Lee at his fastest, had his stumps disassembled by the New Zealand medium pacers on the three occasions he went to the middle on their 2012 visit to India.
Now, the “Little Master” has gone through bad patches before. Many were made to eat their words after venturing that he should hang up his helmet during his poor run from around 2004-2007 — only for him to storm back with the most productive period of his career. But, Tendulkar is now 40 and chances of him climbing out of his current rut are extremely slim, as reflexes wane and his body becomes increasingly unable to obey the commands of his mind. It will continue to go downhill.
There comes a time in every sportsman’s career when their powers begin to fade. It is not easy giving up something you love dearly. Having to walk away from something you spent your life perfecting is difficult, and scarcely done readily. The natural inclination is to hang on, believing that it is all still there and that it is only a matter of time before the days of famine are replaced by days of plenty.
After an international career that began before his fast bowling teammate Bhuvneshwar Kumar was born, the time for the broadest bat in the business to retire his blade has arrived. It would make sense, therefore, for him to use the West Indies tour as an opportunity to say goodbye. Like Tendulkar, the Caribbean side is no longer the intimidating force they were in their heyday. Despite his diminished powers, he could still sign-off with some aplomb in friendly conditions against relatively weak opposition.
Yet, even if he is unable to rouse himself to anything like Tendulkar of old, nothing will ever detract from his contribution to the great game and, more importantly, what he has meant to his country.
In his seminal Beyond A Boundary, West Indian cricket historian CLR James, writing on the highly rated Trinidadian batsman of the early 1900s, Wilton St Hill, a batsman he placed in the class of players like Bradman, Headley, Sobers, Hutton and the three Ws, spoke of the batsman’s value to the disadvantaged people of his homeland:
“…I know that to tens of thousands of coloured Trinidadians the unquestioned glory of St Hill’s batting conveyed the sensation that here was one of us performing in excels is in a sphere where competition was open. It was a demonstration that atoned for a pervading humiliation, and nourished pride and hope.”
Tendulkar has meant that and more to the people in India. It will be sad to see him go.