To Lahli we went like pilgrims to a mela. Outside a village of exposed brick, beside a highway flanked by eucalyptus and an unelectrified railway line, a sparkling stadium grew out of cane and paddy fields. This was a single-deity mela—the hoarding welcoming 'Cricket ke bhagwan Sachin Tendulkar' told us so—but the routes to him were various. There were no tickets for darshan. Pilgrims could approach the sarpanch, or the DC or SP or DSP or a cricket administrator, or one Mr Malhotra who had sold his farmland to the stadium, or leave one's name and phone number at a stall outside the stadium and hope that somewhere a greater god was watching.
We were diverse pilgrims: Die-hard pilgrims, time-pass pilgrims, cheap-thrills pilgrims, connoisseur pilgrims, sceptical pilgrims, unbeliever pilgrims, we were youth from Lahli and Rohtak, wrestlers from Bhiwani, the mother of a Haryana women's cricketer, press from Chandigarh, Calcutta, Mumbai, 300 private security men from Delhi, and at least 1,400 police ("Congressi hai woh ab, aap samajh liyo, he is an MP after all".)
The leading devotee among us was thirty-three years old. He had committed every Sachin Tendulkar innings to memory. Throw him a Test number and he returned, within the second, the venue, opposition and his god's scores. Ajeet Singh Tanwar was a daily-wage labourer, a mistry. He had travelled from Dabla village, Sikar district, Rajasthan. He had brought with him a letter telling Sachin Tendulkar about himself and his life, and included in it a poem of appreciation. He wished to hand this over.
I would go to Lahli not Mumbai, I thought, because that overblown shaadi feeling, the custom-made finale, the netas and the celebs, the ticket-quota farce, the spectacle of a visiting Test team received like a troupe of extras, would be cringe-worthy. And to report on Sachin Tendulkar one last time, I was finding, was not very different from the very first time.
I'm thinking of an early morning net twelve years ago at the Middle Income Group Club in Bandra East. I had gone because I wished to see how genius works in the shadows. Can genius hope to evade company?
"Alaa ka? (He's come?)" MIG members conspiratorially asked the guard as they made their way in, and then delayed their visit to the pool or the gym to watch him from the verandah. Tendulkar batted an hour against five bowlers, he rehearsed his cover drive for twenty minutes against the back of the net, filling the morning with beautiful bassy sounds. Occasionally he consulted his pal Atul Ranade and his brother Ajit. From the gate we watched: Photographers, autograph seekers, kids. Among us was a little boy with the brightest eyes and a buzzing excitement.
"Does he play cricket?" I asked his guardian.
"It's the only thing he loves," he smiled. "Actually he is from Latur. He has come to Mumbai for a brain tumour surgery. He stays in a nearby hospital and watches cricket all day. He brought me when someone told him that Sachin practises here."
Sportswriters and their editors are partial to over-reaching. They like to assess significance, no, not enough: They like to see meaning. When CLR James wrote that "West Indians crowding to Tests bring with them the whole past history and future hopes of the islands", he instructed generations of writers. Other sportswriters are superiorly concerned with the craft of the thing, constructing with similar diligence their own cocoon. But to go watch Tendulkar bat is, fortunately for us all, to invariably see what Tendulkar means. This too is what Tendulkar means.
In his final domestic match, Tendulkar emerges to bat with twelve wickets gone in the first four hours. He walks out to the customary roar and hoots, to a scramble of photographers and crowds, to that old anticipation which has never faded and never will, and with one unimpressed Haryanvi telling another, "Dhai foot dikhta hai yeh (He looks two-and-a-half feet tall)," because height too is something Sachin owed them. He has become broader if not shorter, that much may be said. In his silhouette there is a faint suggestion of love handles.
The pitch is magnificent. The water table at Lahli is so high, we are told, that the grass on the pitch doesn't die, it gets greener with the match. Cars sink in their makeshift parking lots in the fields, fields bloom, seamers prosper, and the tv crew has had to construct a cement platform to reliably hold their scaffolding lest a cameraman crash into Tendulkar's head from 40 ft above.
Sachin Tendulkar plays a broad old-school punch down the ground, defeating the thick outfield. The ball rolls into a sightscreen so immense that even Tendulkar cannot fault it. Not long after, he is out. He is bowled, by a ball nipping back, as he has been for the last two years. Within twenty minutes the chole-kulche and ganne ka ras vendors clear out of the khets, the six thousand people ringing the ground are gone, and only the ghost of a Ranji Trophy match remains. This too is what Tendulkar means. He is in the pavilion, and everybody wonders what he must be thinking.
"If my batting is having a good day, I'm having a good day," I once heard him tell a companion. But there is no question of good or bad days, really. Every day is a Tendulkar day in a Tendulkar life.
After play he travels back in a white 5 series BMW sent from Delhi because contractually he must not be seen in another brand of automobile on public occasions, and as he does boys on bikes race beside the car and photograph him through the windows. Tendulkar does not want blood spilt; he requests the driver to slow down. Slow down, be calm. Too much riding on you. Blunted into caution, as ever, by the manias of his people.
At the gates of the Canal Rest House, where he along with four Mumbai 'seniors' is put up, a huge throng awaits him. Those with connections have already penetrated the security and wait inside in ambush. These number about a hundred. They want to shake Tendulkar's hand, take photos, have something signed, seek a blessing, show off their child, simply stare. He has been obliging. I'm told this by the makers of his farewell-tour documentary, who as a consequence cannot get enough filming time with him. Tendulkar has commissioned the film.
A team of six imported from ITC Maurya, Delhi caters to him at the rest house: Food-poisoning would be no less careless than allowing a cameraman to fly into him. Once in the morning and once in the evening he drinks a meethi lassi. The dietary development is of extraordinary interest to press pilgrims. Sachin Tendulkar likes the meethi lassi of Rohtak.
Among the successful petitioners on the second evening is Ajeet Singh Tanwar. He presented his letter. In return he received warm encouragement and a signed training vest. In the innings-game Tendulkar tried him with Test nos. 130, 80, and 155, and Ajeet Singh nailed them all. (Test no. 130 was the 103 not out v England in the shadow of 26/11.)
'Dravid nahin barabar Sachin ka? (Isn't Dravid the equal of Sachin?)' I ask Ajeet Singh afterwards. This is a proper provocation, I had learnt from the enjoyably combative book If Cricket is a Religion, Sachin is God.
'Bradman bhi nahi muqabla kar sakte Sachin ka. West Indies ke khilaf Bradman ka average dekho: 74.5. (Even Bradman cannot match him. Bradman's average against West Indies was 74.5.)'
'Sachin ka itna kisi ke bhi khilaf nahin. (Sachin doesn't average that many against anyone.)'
The pilgrim from Sikar has set me up.
'Bangladesh ke khilaf Sachin ka average 136.66 hai. (Against Bangladesh he averages 136.66.)'
Soon Ajeet Singh causes a fight between television journalists: He had been signed up by a channel for Rs 50,000, exclusively, and this too is what Tendulkar means.
There is no telling how a cricketer goes because sport takes note of neither spontaneity nor stage-management. Bradman left Test cricket with a famous duck at the Oval. Five months later Australians waved him off at a first-class testimonial, 94,000 people streaming into the MCG in tribute, 52,000 on the Saturday alone to watch the hero amass another century. A few months on, to boost attendance, he played a couple of testimonials for friends. In a dead Shield game at Adelaide the toss was fixed so Bradman could come in on the Saturday, a participant would reveal decades later. As it happened, he was in on Friday evening, out for 30 early next morning, tweaked an ankle afterwards and left the field. And that was Bradman's final first-class match
Sunil Gavaskar's last Test innings was a classic 96 against Pakistan on a flaking pitch. India lost. In his last first-class match he compiled a colossal 188 for Rest of the World against MCC at Lord's; in the second innings he was bowled by Malcolm Marshall for duck. His last international innings was against England in the semi-final of the 1987 World Cup. Bowled through the gate for 4, India knocked out.
In his final Test, at the Oval like Bradman, Viv Richards, despite a 60, failed to lead West Indies to a series win against England for the first time in 17 years. Two seasons on he played his final game for Glamorgan at Canterbury, for the Sunday League title. He was harassed by a young Kent quick: Viv Richards, of all people hurried, by pace, Viv Richards hit on the chest, Viv Richards too late on a hook and caught. No-ball! Resuming, on a stage smaller than he has strode, he took Glamorgan to a precious, hard-earned trophy.
In Lahli, diminished, depleted Tendulkar is not unlike Richards. He is fighting below his weight and still only coping. His tics have become more muscular with time, the two crotch adjustments more pronounced (the first at the edge of the crease, the second subtler one before taking stance), the nod more strident (so that one worries his helmet will tumble off), the gardening more obsessive. His running between the wickets is half hound, half Ranatunga: Off the blocks in that familiar low-centre-of-gravity flash, but determinedly down to a walk once he has assessed the fielder's chances. There are no signs of levity in his body language, not a whit of carefreeness in his strokeplay, and although this is not surprising it is remarkable. The one moment he lets himself loose is when he sways too early to a sluggish bouncer, then belatedly attempts an upper-cut. And misses. He looks sheepish. He is reluctant to play the spinner on the front foot. He is careful not to drive the seamers on the rise. This is sound strategy for the pitch; but Tendulkar also knows, perhaps, what observers have suspected for longer, that his reflexes, his instincts, call it what you like, are in terminal decline. But he is there, all there. Mumbai's coach Sulakshan Kulkarni, who played with Tendulkar in his first Ranji game, would tell me afterwards that he'd seen players relax after announcing their retirement but Sachin turned up for all five net sessions and with the intensity of a debutant. "Be honest with cricket," he told his young Mumbai team-mates in the time they spent with him. It is what Achrekar Sir had told him and he always remembered. Tendulkar is still at the crease, batting like it is his dharma. Scrapping, leaving, pushing, glancing, middling, prising out victory in a superb cricket match. On winning he holds his arms aloft, with feeling.
Soon he is thrust into a thousand photos: With the teams, the administrators, the groundsmen, the maintenance staff, the police, eventually the photographers themselves. (In the stands, Sachin not at hand, the ubiquitous body-painted Sudhir Gautham of Muzaffarpur fills in.)
In the dressing room, Mumbai have a brief celebration. "I had told the boys 'let us give Sachin a farewell gift' by winning the match for him," Kulkarni said, "but Sachin gave us a bigger return gift with his innings." Then Tendulkar spends an hour in the Haryana change room, talking to the young team. One of them, Rana, had changed his name as a teen from Pramod to Sachin. Elsewhere in India, a player with the one-day team has been wearing a Tendulkar T-shirt beneath his jersey. Another Test cricketer recently set an imprint of Sachin paaji's right palm in plaster of Paris to hang in his new home. These are cricketer pilgrims and this is their form of Vishwakarma puja, craftsmen worshipping their craftgod, and no matter how cloying, it is genuine. To them the meaning of Tendulkar is so obvious it needs no elaboration.
Pressmen are contemplating his great innings for Mumbai: The child-genius century on Ranji debut in 1988, the galloping 96 in the classic final of 1991, the phenomenal 233 not out in the semi-final of 2000. Personally I'm thinking of the 204 not out, Mumbai vs the Australians, made in two sessions more or less, the compressed synchronicity of his batwork, footwork, handwork, madwork, stroke after stroke, inevitable and exhilarating and rejuvenating as waves; we surfed them and we were happy a long time. North Stand, Brabourne '98.
To watch Tendulkar amid wagtails and ibises and the grey stretch of northern winter was rewarding, it was intimate and it was instructive. And yet who wouldn't want to feel the moment it finishes? When the final applause and the double-Sachin chant falls torrentially upon him, it will be the longest and loudest of his career or anyone else's. There will be tears, in the stands and in homes across the country, perhaps in his own eyes, as one last time that mad potion of adulation and ownership ignites a stadium and every watcher will pulse with the power of a common purpose, no matter that the purpose was symbolic or stale or delusional, because they had all known some time or another when the Tendulkar feeling was as good as things got.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of The Sly Company of People Who Care. Reproduced From India Today. © 2013. LMIL. All rights reserved.