Was Sachin Tendulkar hounded into retirement because of media driven-perception?

Sachin Tendulkar… swamped by mediamen and microphones © Getty Images

From the day he hit Abdul Qadir for those four towering sixes in an over, impossible was redefined for India. Sachin Tendulkar could achieve cricketing wonders never dreamt of in a country starved of sporting greatness. Arunabha Sengupta argues that fulfilling dreams soon changed from being a gift of magical brilliance to expected duty. The man himself suffered the repercussions of rare genius taken for granted.

The Peshawar match was unofficial, the mood jarringly amicable for an Indo-Pak encounter. Krishnamachari Srikkanth, the Indian captain, had indulged in his jovial, sometimes benign, outlook towards the game. When he had come in — for some odd reason at number four — the target had been steep, but gettable with luck and intent. But, he had not shown much inclination to make an attempt, opting for half-hearted reverse sweeps off Abdul Qadir that did not come off.

As a result, when 16-year-old Sachin Tendulkar faced Qadir in the penultimate over, 53 runs were required from 12 balls. In normal circumstances, it would have been an excellent opportunity to get some batting practice against the leading leg-spinner of the world.

But, the boy with the cherubic face wanted more; he wanted to win the match! More than that, he was perhaps the only one who believed that it was possible. The guile of Qadir was disdainfully dispatched for four huge sixes and one boundary. And with each towering hit, the limits of possibility were redefined.

Sachin Tendulkar could not win the match that day. India lost by three runs as he remained unbeaten on an epochal 53 from 18 balls. Yet, he had launched himself into the realm of Indian imagination, stretching it way beyond the limiting ambitions of the pre-Tendulkar days.

The icon of hope

From that day, a match was never over while Tendulkar was at the wicket. Especially in One-Day cricket, the dominance shown by the champion was unrivalled in the history of the game. No target was beyond reach, no total un-gettable. And too often when he was dismissed, the curtain dropped on the encounter for all intents and purposes.

Tendulkar scored an overwhelming 11,157 runs in 234 victories with an average of 56.63 and a strike rate of 90.31, with 33 hundreds and 59 fifties. Ricky Ponting featured in more wins, but no one close to scoring as many runs or hundreds as Tendulkar did in just won matches. Only Viv Richards finished with a comparable average and strike rate combination in victories.

In fact, only five batsmen in the annals of ODIs have a greater collection of runs in their entire careers than Tendulkar managed while winning matches for India. No player has scored more career hundreds than Tendulkar did in victories — revealing facts for all those numerically-challenged who carp about his match-winning abilities in colossal ignorance.

The genius gave Indian cricket a revolutionary facelift, inscribing into it euphoric expressions seldom experienced before — increasing the contours of laugh-lines and wondrous reflection, and removing the creases of world-weary thought. In one gallant sweep he smoothed the wrinkles and widened the visage into a long saga of ecstasy.

The Indian fans took a while to wake up and realise that monumental greatness had touched their lives. Here was a phenomenon never seen before, a national treasure whose glitter and glow dazzled the whole world of cricket. In fact, 23 years down the line, some are still in the process of waking up.

The personalised genius-utility

And very soon there took place a miracle as remarkable as the man himself. Tendulkar suddenly became the property of the nation — his sequence of magical success changed from heavenly gifts to cherish to the supposed birthright of every citizen masquerading as a cricket fan.

Tendulkar, the man behind the unparalleled batsman, was soon submerged by the clamouring demands of millions. He started representing the fantasies of a nation unused to sporting greats. He soon morphed into a perpetual machine set up and fine-tuned to gladden the hearts of the common man, to fulfil their hopes and dreams, however unrealistic and far-fetched. His job was to provide satisfaction to hordes who had precious little idea about the sweat, blood and toil that went into maintaining supremacy over the cricket world for two decades and more.

He was suddenly a sporting appliance designed to enhance the national image, the feeling of well-being and the fantasy of every Indian. There was a man trotting out to bat every day, flashing his blade for the glory of India, diving around in the outfield to leave his flannels soaked by blood and green; the man who had reached rarefied echelons of cricket through years of almost meditational rigour and hard-work. This man within was forgotten. What remained was a combination of sublime success stories to revel in and some phases of relative failures to brutally criticise.

When he soared in the stratospheric arcs of success, the country enjoyed hitching their happiness to him and coasting on the joy-ride. And when in rare occasions he did fail, the gift horse was emphatically looked in the mouth. The arm-chair enthusiasts, who stumbled to fathom the greatness of two decades with the modern day memory span of 140 characters, could dissect his cricket and life based on a single mishit. It was his duty to bring glory to the nation. Anything less was not an option.

In modern parlance, Tendulkar had become an application to brighten up each day for the common man. He was a super-hero, one of those customisable avatars that we find in role playing games that tickle our fantasies. Millions bestowed desired characteristics and smug wishes on him, as one loads the properties and skill level of a character on the PlayStation — before setting him off on impossible journeys. And when, burdened with tottering wishlists, the man of flesh and blood sometimes buckled underneath, it was unforgivable. The image of the superhero was reconfigured on the personal psyches, ignominious and imagined attributes allocated for life.

When the great man failed to deliver, the individuals reacted by mapping to him the most mundane, common-place characteristics that they were familiar with in their own myopic world. Mediocrity, after all, knows nothing higher than itself. For slightest failures, the superhero was branded with traits of selfishness, money-grabbing and manipulation.

That the man was still pushing himself to win matches for the nation was rampantly ignored. And if he struggled a while, the personal versions of this customised Sachin Tendulkar fantasy application would be placed on the social networks, to indulge in Massively Multiplayer Games of slander and character assassination.

Herd psychology

How else does one analyse the calumny that dogged him till his retirement from the shorter version of the game? The criticism that he suffered after spending all but a minor proportion of 23 years at the top of the batting world?

For those who want to argue about his form, let me tell you that when we look at his last 25 ODI matches we find 1136 runs at 49.39 at a strike rate of 92.35 with four hundreds and four fifties. His final ‘long’ period of struggle in ODIs actually consisted of 10 matches since the World Cup in which he scored 310 at 31.00. Few were ready to provide him that leeway after more than 450 games of unprecedented success.

Was he given a fair run in ODIs by the critics? Especially once the media-created burden of his 100th century was overcome? Whose final innings was a fantastic 48-ball 52 against Pakistan? Or was he hounded into retirement because of media driven-perception, with herd psychology dogging him in the last days, eating into the serene calm that had for so long sustained his mastery?

At the age of 39, with little in the world to conquer anew, Sachin Tendulkar calling it a day is indeed neither a surprise nor a shock. It does take a while to get used to, as it does in learning to live without a limb or a lung, but one can bid the most passionate farewell with a heart full of pride. If the decision was truly personal, based on considerations of all that the great man holds dear, there is little room for objection. He deserves to a life of rest and peace after years and years of unrivalled service to the game and the country. It is unfair to expect him to go on just because we want to be entertained.

However, there can be hardly a sadder thought than the greatest of ODI careers being rushed into conclusion by the ignorant lampooning of millions. His decision being accelerated to satisfy the blood-thirsty demands of the millions of cricket followers living smugly in the instantaneous, revelling in limp wisecracks at an infinitesimal sequence of failures at the fag-end of a sublime career, trying to gauge the record books with a sense of history that dims to darkness beyond the past 50 overs.

India being the nation it is, one can never vouch that this tragic element was entirely absent from the final bow of the master.

(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)

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