At a friend’s place, on the mantelpiece, sits a photograph of his deceased father. The picture is a strange one. The grimace, the forced smile conveying an undercurrent of despair behind what is – the taking of a photograph – usually a happy moment. My friend later told me that the picture was clicked during the terminal stage of an excruciating illness; the object, once a vital and forceful building contractor, reduced to a mere shadow of the man he was in his prime.
Which reminded me of Sachin Tendulkar's fast approaching final day of international cricket. For, is that not like the impending death of a loved one ravaged by cancer? At least that is what Tendulkar, and his irrefutable, fathomless affinity for game have turned it into.
For almost three years now Tendulkar the cricketer has been in the grip of a festering malaise. While his contemporaries have all heeded the call of their wearying bones – none more exemplarily than Rahul Dravid - Tendulkar has rationed out his grace period (a grace period like none other in the history of sport) by calling time in installments, and that only after he has come under intense pressure to do so.
ODIs warranted the first renunciation. But if one remembers correctly, that decision too was not a straightforward one. Tendulkar, in December 2012, made himself categorically ‘available’ for the three home ODIs to be played against Pakistan, but within a matter of days, likely after a hush-hush meeting with the powers-that-be, retracted his statement and retired from that format.
What went on in the closed-door interaction is in the realm of pure conjecture, but what resulted appeared to be a golden handshake: that SRT withdraw from the limited-overs format in exchange for prolonging his Test career, form be damned.
Players kept dropping off the scene, meanwhile, and even as Tendulkar’s own figures dipped alarmingly, one was led to believe that his standards now, in the last gasp of a glittering career, were far below the exalted benchmarks he had originally set for himself.
Which again is a strange thing, for Tendulkar and statistical landmarks have always been pleasant bedfellows. Often, the sheer weight of numbers has allowed him to sink into submission his contemporaries. But in recent history, the illusion of numbers served another purpose, that of keeping him afloat.
First, it was the hum of the ‘hundredth hundred’ - an achievement so painfully earned, and against such uninspiring opposition, so as to take out all the joy from the moment – that kept the great man going.
Now that figure has been replaced by ‘200 Test matches’, an imposing, never-again-to-be-realized number at which many believe this incomparable career will culminate, especially now that India will play the West Indies at home, rather than South Africa away.
Even those who want Tendulkar to continue forever don’t want it at the current cost: repeated edges off a callow left-arm spinner; a shameful thunk on the helmet against an impudent tearaway; the grotesque sight of splayed stumps. There is a pressing danger that Tendulkar’s lasting imprint on memory may not be the dust-storm he summoned at Sharjah or that pluperfect cover drive, but a tangle of confused arms and feet as he tries to violate the laws of nature.
Which brings us again to the cancer comparison. You want the patient to survive, but not as a gnarled, cachexic caricature. You want the prolonging of life, but not of suffering. Maybe, then, it’s those who adore Tendulkar the most now want him most to leave, frozen in perfection within their imperfect memories.