Sachin Tendulkar: Autumn of the Patriarch

Sachin Tendulkar deserves to go out like a champion — with head held high. Will destiny’s favourite child give himself and Indian cricket fans to savour that one final hurrah to savour it forever? © Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar has earned name, fame, money, records, respect, recognition — lot more than any cricketer, past or present, living or dead. So what is forcing the great man to carry on despite a significant fall from his high pedestal? H Natarajan thinks the answer lies in the torment that Sachin Tendulkar is possibly facing to come to grips with reality.

“When you are driving a car you must move on before amber turns red or shut your engine and park aside,” Sunil Gavaskar once said. What he implied was, either a player justifies his place in the side and delivers the goods, or quits. What he did not say — but always strongly believed in — was players should not give the selectors the opportunity to drop them.

Gavaskar maintained right through his playing days that he would retire when the going was still good. And he did exactly that. And how! His final Test innings was, arguably, the greatest of his fabulous international career: eighth out for 96, after opening the innings and defying the odds on a treacherous Chinnaswamy Stadium turner where Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed were turning the ball square and making it leap over both the batsmen and the wicketkeeper. They were like cobras spitting venom.

Gavaskar had decided to retire from Test cricket after that match, but he did not announce his decision so as to be in contention to play the MCC Bicentenary World XI vs MCC match at Lord’s — his final First-Class outing in which he scored 188. And for good effect, in his last but one innings in One-Day Internationals (ODIs,) he scored a belligerent hundred in a World Cup game. That’s bidding adieu in style.

Gavaskar was from the Vijay Merchant School of thinking — not just at the batting crease. Merchant believed that a player should “retire when people ask why, and not why not”. And Gavaskar lived up to Merchant’s philosophy in going out when he emphatically proved that there was still gas in his fuel tank. Gavaskar’s playing career was all about planning, perfection and precision, and his retirement was in sync with those values.

Gavaskar passed on the high-achiever’s batting baton to Sachin Tendulkar, who took the art of batting to stratospheric levels. There are very few batting records that are not in his safe custody in a career that has defied longevity. Tendulkar’s exalted status in the game has seen even the likes of Gavaskar and Viv Richards — two of the game’s biggest titans in the post-Bradman Era — among the multitude of unabashed admirers who have said it should be left to the master batsman to decide on his retirement. Indeed, one can hardly find any player — past or present and anywhere in the world — saying contrary to what Gavaskar and Richards opined.

However, the Indian cricketing audience is notorious for extreme reactions. And they have found a potent weapon in the social media to give vent to their feelings. They don’t hesitate to voice their opinion — even if it means going against the likes of Gavaskar and Richards. As Tendulkar slipped from the high peaks that he once occupied, the nation stands polarised. The man who was once anointed as ‘God’ by a frenzied nation, finds many of those once worshippers not just deserting his side but also ‘desecrating’ him with the choicest of epithets to lampoon him.

Unlike in the past when he roared back into form to answer his critics in the best possible way — with the bat, this time around the relative dry run has gone far too long. With every passing day, and every failure, the decibel level of fans baying for his blood is increasing. And amid all this came the news that his exit from the ODI stage was not his own decision, but engineered by N Srinivasan, the president of the BCCI. Even as Tendulkar’s die-hard fans were digesting that unpalatable news, comes a new revelation that the BCCI is to ask Sachin Tendulkar to retire after his 200th Test.

Tendulkar is increasingly reminding one of Kapil Dev’s unfortunate end. The man who strode the cricketing grounds like a thoroughbred, was limping — metaphorically speaking — towards the end, hanging on embarrassingly. Quite clearly, he was well past the expiry date, but the great man would not accept the reality. Kapil hurtled down from the peak of excellence to the plateau of mediocrity and finally to the precipice of an inglorious exit. In his last seven Test series, not once could he get four wickets in an innings. In four of those seven series, his bowling strike rate went well over a 100! It is out of deference to his monumental stature that the selectors, manager (coach) and captain for long adopted a diplomatic public posture — without conviction, though — to justify his retention in the team under the circumstances.

Kapil could have found a place at least in the Indian ODI team on his merits as a batsman, but he went without even a half-century in his last 105 ODIs. It was a great fall for a man who gave Tunbridge Wells international recognition by slamming an undefeated 175 after India were 17 for five against Zimbabwe and facing an unceremonious exit from the 1983 World Cup. It was majorly due to his magnum opus which helped India win the World Cup and record its finest hour in cricket.

And now let’s look at Tendulkar’s performances in the last six Test series:
 

Series M R Ave HS 100s 50s
England 2011 4 273 34.12 91 0 2
West Indies 2011 3 218 43.6 94 0 2
Australia 2011-12 4 287 35.87 80 0 2
New Zealand 2012 2 63 21 27 0 0
England 2012 4 112 18.66 76 0 1
Australia 2013 4 192 32 81 0 1
Total 21 1,145 31.8 94 0 8

 

As one can see from the above stats, he has not scored a single hundred in six series, though he has come close to the three-figure mark several times. And we are talking of a batsman who has scored a hundred international hundreds and widely acknowledged as the greatest batsman since Don Bradman.

Tendulkar is sitting on a mountain of records — many that looks likely to stand the test of time. He has all the trappings of the ultra rich and famous and has the financial muscle to buy anything that he does not still possess. So, why is Tendulkar carrying on despite the increasing clamour for his retirement? It’s quite possible that the crores riding on him could be a huge factor and that the decision to retire may not be his alone. But from what I know of him since his Sharadashram school days, it’s his abiding and unparalleled love for the game. Tendulkar probably — just probably — cannot come to terms with the fact how to lead a life without playing the game — something that has been part of his life since he was around 10 years old. Cricket for him is not about name, fame, money or records; those are incidental. He would gladly sacrifice all of that if he could get the joyous days of his youth during which time he was the lord and master of all he surveyed. Cricket is the oxygen of his life — his lifeline, his very purpose of his existence. And he is hanging on to that dearly.

My mind goes back to the cries of apocalypse after Malcolm Marshall knocked the bat out of Gavaskar’s grasp in the opening Test at Kanpur of the 1983-84 series. Gavaskar answered the critics in a fitting manner. He plundered a hundred off 94 balls — the fastest by an Indian batsman till Virender Sehwag bettered it against Pakistan — in his very next outing and then supplanted the highest-ever Test score by an Indian batsman at Chennai with an innings of 236 after walking in to bat at zero for two. Not bad against an attack that had Andy Roberts, Marshall, Michael Holding and Winston Davis.

When Ravi Shastri prematurely retried from international cricket, Wasim Akram reportedly came up to him and said: “When I call it a day, I would like to go like you.”

It’s better to die a martyr’s death than eke out a sympathetic survival. Quite undeniably, Tendulkar is evoking a mixture of sympathy and anger among the fans — both emotions that a champion like Tendulkar does not need.

I don’t know if Tendulkar will be forced to quit after playing his 200th Test. But as someone who has made a career out the monumental achievements he has given on the field of cricket, I — without losing my professional objectivity — feel deeply indebted to him, as I’m quite sure many cricket journalists would feel. I also cannot forget that Tendulkar brought smiles on the faces of millions of stressed out Indians over two decades. I cannot forget the fact that he has been an exemplary role model who has inspired millions around the world. I cannot forget that he has been one of the greatest ambassadors of the nation and arguably led more Indians to wave the tricolor in pride than any other Indian around the world. And it’s for all these very reasons and some more I would like to see Sachin Tendulkar leave the field in a blaze of glory — with his held high and the tricolor fluttering like it did at his pomp. Sachin Tendulkar deserves to go out like a champion.
 
(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at facebook.com/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at twitter/hnatarajan)