For close to a quarter of a century, Sachin Tendulkar has captivated his audiences (and fielders alike) with the brutal yet graceful use of his willow. (Getty Images)
I remember the day distinctly, so much so that I can recall what I was wearing – a Rs. 100 sky-blue t-shirt with a tinge of black that ran down the sides. Surprisingly, I got my hands on it without stomping my feet or creating quite the hullabaloo.
The tee was something my folks had got me just for the occasion, and emblazoned on the back was ‘Tendulkar 10’ in yellow; my first and only Indian cricket team jersey. The day in question was the 2003 World Cup final. Defending champions Australia against the challengers, India.
20 years since Kapil Dev’s men triumphed at Lord’s, I watched in trepidation (for a 12-year-old who had absolutely nothing to worry about) as India – and their millions of fans – tried to put years of anguish behind them.
Trepidation, simply because the mighty Aussies had steamrolled their opposition – including a crushing nine-wicket win over the Indians, who were bowled out for a paltry 125 in the group stages – on their way to the final.
With an apparent shot at redemption, my worst fears came true. Zaheer Khan infamously dished out 15 runs off the first over and that set the tone for a hiding, as Ricky Ponting and the Australian top-order ripped the Indian bowling attack apart, setting up a massive target of 360.
In complete contrast, India got off to the worst possible start. Sachin Tendulkar, who had scored 669 runs in the run-up to the final, added a meagre four runs to that total after he managed to sky a pull straight back to Glenn McGrath in the opening over.
If I had the power to turn off the telly, I very well would have (but I happened to be at a public screening). Instead off I went; confined within the walls of my room, I confided in my pillow.
The writing was on the wall as the Indian set-up collapsed – save for Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid – and fell to another grave defeat, this time by 125 runs. It was on that fateful day I fell out of love with cricket (albeit for a brief period).
In retrospect, the bat and ball wasn’t even my first love. That honour belongs to the sport of basketball after Michael Jordan had inspired me to fly high. The simple yet juvenile reason for that: before I could even get down on one knee to play that gorgeous cover drive, I had either played it on to the stumps or straight into the hands of mid-off.
And when I did, I’d storm off, just like I did on the day of that mortifying final. My brother had carefully explained to me when he handed me the basketball for the first time: you don’t get out here; you can take how many ever shots you like.
I never had the tolerance to sit by watching as a teammate took to the crease and neither did I have the eagerness to take to the ground and field. But what I did have the patience for was to watch Tendulkar spank bowler after bowler across (and out) of the park time and again.
I wasn’t even born when Tendulkar made his debut at 16 against Pakistan, but the two words he murmured – “main khelega” (Hindi for: I will play) – after a vicious Waqar Younis bouncer left him with a bloodied nose in his debut series in 1989 – sum up his character.
And mind you, that’s a 16-year-old with rugged determination. Tendulkar gave you a sense of belief and truly inspired you to do great things. Moreover, that is why my most favourite memory of him is not one where he achieved something with the bat.
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The genius that is Tendulkar, spun a web against the Australians in Kochi with his slow leg-breaks for a match-winning haul of five for 32 in 1998. The sight of him juggling the bowl after snapping up Steve Waugh’s wicket off his own delivery will live long in my memory, for it that was the day I first fell in love with the game as an eight-year-old.
The truth is that I did fall for the sport again, soon after the 2003 final (it is a religion in my country, how could I have not?), when Tendulkar hit two sublime knocks (241* vs. Australia and 194* vs. Pakistan) overseas in 2004.
But none of that strikes me as special. Neither do his maiden Test century (119* vs. England in 1990) at the tender age of 17 or the fact the he was the first man to score a double hundred in limited overs cricket (200* vs. South Africa in 2010).
Tendulkar may have exuded class and demonstrated such panache during his long career every time he raised his bat, took his helmet off and looked to the skies as he soaked in the adulation, but that was simply normal for the man – after all he does have a 100 international centuries to his name.
What was different is that Tendulkar is genuinely unique and he displayed that even as a youngster when he told Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar “main dalega” (Hindi for: I will bowl) when they lacked a spinner in their squad for a domestic match that was to take place on a turning track.
Don’t get me wrong though, when the late great Tony Grieg famously described the euphoric atmosphere during Tendulkar’s battering of Shane Warne in the Desert Storm series, shouting, “They are dancing in the aisles in Sharjah,” that was truly special; those replays still send shivers down my spine.
Adieu: Tendulkar will play his 200th and final Test against the West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium, which is scheduled from November 14-18. (Getty Images)
The better part of my childhood was spent in front of the idiot box (or playing Trump cards), as Tendulkar became part of my life, the same way he became part of a million lives. I watched in awe as he elegantly dispatched opponent bowlers to the fence – on the front foot through the covers and down the leg side off his back foot – with comparative ease.
Leonard Nimoy’s legendary Star Trek character Captain Spock famously said, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
In this case you might want to replace word ‘few’ with ‘one’ (something Tendulkar has done every time he was in public view) and you will plainly see the magnitude of the effect he has had not only on the game, but the scores of people that have worshipped him for close to a quarter of a century.
And while captaincy may not come to him as easily, Tendulkar has not only managed to lead but also unite this nation of more than a billion and carried their burden solely on his shoulders, to paraphrase what Virat Kohli reiterated rather eloquently after their 2011 World Cup victory.
As Tendulkar prepares for his last hurrah (the first Test against the West Indies will be played November 6-10 and the second November 14-18), he will leave a nation in mourning and cricket as we know it will never be the same.
For a diminutive man, Tendulkar casts a huge shadow, so huge that when he takes to the crease for the last time at the Wankhede – in what will his 200th and final Test – the nation will come to a grinding halt.
We have been lucky to witness his swashbuckling ways, for his kind is rare; so rare that he is the crème in the crème de la crème. Bidding him fare-thee-well will be like saying goodbye to the better part of my childhood, one that was filled mostly with joy.
What will I miss the most? Not the cover drive. But the feeling of being at peace, of time staying still, and of my life switching off, every single time he walked out to bat with his willow tucked in under his arm as he wore his gloves and looked up to the heavens.
I guess it is finally time to grow up.
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