In a country grappling with terrorism and communalism, destitution and corruption, female foeticide and kangaroo courts, it is incongruous, even petty, to argue over whether a cricketer should retire from the game or not.
The clamour for Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement is quite strident, bordering on the uncouth, as if his departure alone would change the fortunes of the team.
Yet, such is India. There is little resembling equilibrium when it comes to praise or rebuke that we reserve for our sporting stars.
Starved of reasons and heroes to rejoice over, cricket is the de facto opium of the masses. Where more than a billion cricket experts rub shoulders with each other, opinions are divided and passions run high when contrary convictions collide.
Certainly, views acquire immoderate overtones when it comes to Tendulkar and his ‘retirement’. Even when he was in his heyday, scoring heavily, many found fault with him. It is hardly surprising then that they should bay for his blood now that those customary hundreds have suddenly dried up.
For me, nonetheless, it will be a sad day when he retires; for many others, too, maybe.
Yes, I have been an unapologetic admirer of Sachin Tendulkar ever since he hit the international cricketing circuit as a young 16-year-old. He seemed to be the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket, perhaps even to the country itself.
He made our collective chests swell with pride. We were thrilled to count this divine gift, this genius, as an Indian.
He was, as the television ad-line goes, ‘neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride’. We were obsessively possessive about him. He was the jewel in our crown.
For me, he still is. Doesn’t matter that he isn’t the Sachin of yore, doesn’t matter that the ravages of time have dulled his reflexes, doesn’t matter that he no longer terrorises bowlers like he once did. Yet, he will always be an all-time great: his dignified conduct brings a certain majesty to the game, an incontrovertible stateliness that is as rare he is.
People wallowed in satisfaction whenever he scored big – and he did more often than not – as if they themselves had put one across a Pakistani spinner or an Aussie pacer. The joy that bubbled through them was almost physical in intensity and as gratifying as could be.
The result of the match didn’t so much matter: if India lost – which also was more often than not -- it caused a twinge or two of woe, but then one moved quickly on, happy that the curly-haired imp had scored a ton. If India won, well, that was just the icing on the cake.
They experienced personal grief when the boy-man, who’s carried the crushing weight of a billion expectations for over two decades, got out cheaply.
They paid hard-earned money and thronged – they do that even today, albeit not in the multitudes they did then – the stadia to see the little guy smash fearsome international bowlers all over the park.
His sublime cover and straight-drives, especially those off the back foot, will remain indelibly etched in the minds of all those who have seen him unleash the shots with metronomic regularity.
Nobody questioned his skill or motives. He was, and is, in the team to score runs, he hates to fail, and he loves to win: a man who has earned as much respect and adulation from his teammates as he has from cricket fans across the world. He has tried to do everything to keep Indian cricket’s pennant flying high.
And I am not even dwelling on the time (for almost an eternity) when he single-handedly shouldered the burden of the Indian team, or on the sheer mountain of runs he has scored, or the records he has to his name, or…..
But controversy sells and since it is fashionable to condemn him, the legend of Sachin Tendulkar has also spawned an unsavoury assemblage of detractors.
I often encounter a strange manner of men who cannot hide their delight when the Indian cricket team loses or when Sachin fails. These critics revel in a kind of perverse, inexplicable glee and betray a peculiar elation as if they dearly wanted him to fail.
They glow with smugness when he obliges and then simper on long into the night, happy that he did not get enough runs, as if implying, ‘I told you! He shouldn’t be in the team’.
Some of these guys are close friends of mine, with whom I have had many innocuous squabbles over this, but woe is me for I have yet to crack that riddle: the pleasure one derives at the defeat of the national team or a national icon. Not that one wants people to mope over a loss, but to see some individuals jump for joy at a debacle seems just a tad inelegant.
Then there are those who pay left-handed compliments to Tendulkar, striving to appear neutral and knowledgeable: ‘Agreed he is a good player, but….’, ‘Nobody is denying his contribution, but…’ Always, ‘but’. Pretending to appear unbiased, these critics trawl through statistics to find some lever to hammer Sachin with. It’s like when you make a premise, faulty or otherwise, and then work backwards to conjure up data to fit your theory.
And these gentlemen are not irrational folk who harbour personal enmity against a player; it’s just that they get their kicks hauling him over the coals.
Well, it’s a free country, to each his own.
Yes, Sachin has not been playing as well as he is expected to. Tough when the towering standards you yourself have set need to be met, if not bettered, every time you go out to bat. But then the fan has an undeniable right over his object of worship: right to be dismayed at the idol’s failure, right to cry with him in his grief, right to question him when he plays a rash shot. Yet, it would be refreshing to see decorum even in this complex relationship: much like Sachin has maintained throughout his illustrious career.
Be that as it may, I dare say there are more people who admire Tendulkar than otherwise. He has been a splendid mascot, a sincere ambassador for the game and the nation.
To have kept his emotions in check for 23 public years in a sport that evokes as much passion as religion, and not trigger any controversy is astonishing. To keep success from going to his head despite enjoying the status of a demi-god in a cricket crazy nation is even more astounding.
But that is not what he is in the team for: not for his ambassadorial qualities, not for his stoic calm, not for keeping off controversies, not for being the gentleman and statesman he is, not for having scored a 100 hundreds: he’s there to score runs now, and score lots of them.
And since he isn’t getting any, maybe it is time for him to hang up his boots.
All good things eventually come to an end and so will Sachin’s glittering career, sooner than later. But till then, it would be graceful to just let him be. When he does call it a day, it will be a poignant moment.
Indeed, long after he retires, one debate will continue to divide people: whether he was the best batsman India or the world has ever produced.
For me, he will remain the greatest batsman I have ever seen. As for the fusspots, they can contest all they want. Who cares!