Confronting the Future

When Sachin Tendulkar retired from cricket in late 2013, it was obligatory to write something.  

It wasn’t easy to be original, or brief, and I didn’t manage either, but I tried my best to make sense of the ending of the longest and most distinctive era almost anyone alive had ever known.

What is there to say about Sachin Tendulkar that hasn’t been said already?

Nothing.

So, what to do as his career slips into the past?  Say something that everyone else has said in a million different ways on countless occasions – Tendulkar is the greatest batsman of all time (not for me), Tendulkar is God (well, not if you’re really paying attention), Tendulkar has profoundly affected my life (Oh no.  Cricket itself has, but Tendulkar is not the game.) – or try to say something different?
The latter is much the most attractive option, but it isn’t easy to do.

It feels like a strange and slightly dirty thing to admit to at a time when expressions of unconditional admiration are the norm, but I’ve always had a slightly ambivalent relationship with Sachin Tendulkar.  The first time I ever heard his name was in 1988 when Bill Frindall brought Test Match Special listeners the news of his unbroken partnership of 664 with Vinod Kambli in the Harris Shield.  There was interest in this, even a fair bit of astonishment, but it didn’t stick in the mind.  The easy tendency was to ascribe it to the old Indian tradition of dead pitches and mountainous scores and move on.  I didn’t necessarily think I’d ever hear much about either of them again.

Then came the Test debut, news fragments filtering through from Pakistan in the days before Cricinfo, even before the Web itself, when following Test matches outside England in which England weren’t playing was a difficult and random business.  I can’t remember whether I knew about Tendulkar’s early tussles with Imran and the rest until my copy of Wisden Cricket Monthly arrived weeks later, but it’s possible that I didn’t.  There was a lot happening – I was a London student, the Berlin Wall was coming down and England weren’t going to the West Indies until the new year – and the fact that a sixteen year-old had made his debut for India didn’t stand out.  These things happened from time to time.

Then England, 1990. Tendulkar was here, this we knew, but how much significance his appearance held was yet to be established.  Once more, fragments of memory paint the picture.  In this case a breathless radio report of him lifting Ian Bishop over the row of trees east of the square at Derby as he strode to a match-winning hundred.  I knew those trees, I knew Ian Bishop and I knew that what he was doing was extraordinary.  He had to be seen.

Later in the month he was, up on tiptoe to lacerate Chris Lewis through the covers as India chased a forbidding England total down in a Trent Bridge one-dayer, then, for the first time live, looking like a little boy lost in the field as Gooch and Lamb stacked up the runs on the first day at Lord’s.  Runs didn’t come then, and in Lord’s Tests they never would, but the Old Trafford hundred did, on a day when I was travelling from London to Newcastle and back for a job interview. With Italia 90 a few short weeks in the past, the north-east zeitgeist was dominated by talk of Paul Gascoigne, and, once again, Tendulkar slipped into the background.  In the short term there were more important things to do; in the long term, it was obvious, there would be many other opportunities to witness his virtuosity.

For years these came and went.  Usually via television, but at others from the power of the printed word and the observations of those who had shared grounds with him.  In 1996 I saw him bat live for the first time, on the day when Dravid and Ganguly began to redefine Indian batsmanship for the new millennium.  Tendulkar went early.  In 2002, in 2007 and in 2011 it was the same: Lord’s would never bend to his will as so many other grounds did.
In 2002 I finally saw him make a century.  113 against Sri Lanka under lights at Bristol.  It was magnificent, of course, but it was also somehow bloodless.  Its ease was its weakness.  As with so many things that rely on the distillation of feeling, definitions are hard to shape, but at the heart of the reason why, in the age of Tendulkar and Lara, I was always a Lara man, was that Lara’s genius was more flamboyant, more visible, more immediately evident.  With Tendulkar the difficult could look just too easy.  It could look like perfection beyond emulation.  With Lara you could feel as though you could at least try to do what he did, although you would obviously fail.  It was genius with vulnerability.

However, Tendulkar had his moments.

Of all the thousands of recordings of Tendulkar’s batting which can be found on YouTube, my favourite is the one which currently lies at the top of the list of results if you type ‘Sachin Tendulkar Brett Lee’ into the search box.

It is a film of the last five balls of an over bowled to Tendulkar by Brett Lee early in India’s reply to an Australian total of 159 in a one-day international at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 10th February 2008.  The target is comparatively modest but Sehwag has just been dismissed, and Lee is bowling like the wind.

The second ball of Lee’s second over is full, a little too full, on off-stump.  Tendulkar stands tall – or as tall as he, always a small man, is able to – and drives it through the off-side with more than a hint of excess force.  His bat cuts slightly across the ball – as Slater says, it’s ‘a little bit slicey’ – but it runs to the boundary for four and he is away.  This, though, gives Lee hope, as there was a small hint of falseness about the stroke and its relative lack of timing.  As he retreats to his mark, Lee smiles ruefully.  There is nothing for it but to run in again and give it even more.

The next ball is even quicker and once again it pitches around off-stump, with a little too much length for the bowler’s comfort.  That said, if the batsman is anyone other than one of the very best, it is possible that the ball’s naked pace will be enough to deny the attacking shot its timing and fluency.  It is instructive that here Tendulkar doesn’t worry too much about getting his feet in the right place – the speed of the ball makes that harder even for him – but he doesn’t need to, as he sees the ball early, assesses that it can be hit for four and simply throws his hands through it.  Of course – and in this context here is the real expression of his genius – the timing is utterly perfect.  The ball connects briefly, oh so briefly, with the middle of Tendulkar’s bat and rockets back past Lee faster than it arrived.  By the time Lee has completed his follow-through the ball is twenty or thirty yards behind him, heading for the rope.  Ponting and Hayden, impassive and hard to impress or intimidate, stand up straight in the slips as the ball slides away.  They have seen everything the game has to offer, but it is obvious from their expressions that they are concerned.  They have seen Tendulkar take games away from them before.

The third ball is quicker still, but shorter and straighter.  By most standards it is a good comeback.  Tendulkar, with an ease which again belies the pace with which the ball is arriving in his half, defends on the back foot.  The message sent to Lee is one of unassuming defiance.  It says to him that even his best, his fastest, is not enough to trouble Tendulkar when he is in this mood.

Lee relishes the challenge, though, and he comes again.  His pace is down a little here but it is of no consequence.  The fourth ball is much straighter, and for a brief instant Lee must hope that he will force Tendulkar into defence again.  Unfortunately for him the ball is too full.  In fact, this time, it is a half-volley on middle and leg.  While, once more, the pace might be too much for a lesser player, it is nothing to Tendulkar.  The bat face is presented full, the right hand comes in and the wrists stiffen on impact to send the ball back straight but slightly to the leg side of the bowler’s stumps.  As someone once said, it is four ‘from the moment it left the bat’.

Lee looks chastened now.  The final ball of the over is slightly shorter and keeps a little low off the pitch.  Even Tendulkar cannot hit this for four, and he bends at the knees and defends it out short on the leg side.  He nods his head in a brief, unfeigned gesture of resignation, but he knows, and Lee knows, who has the upper hand.

Tendulkar is eventually dismissed for 44, but India win with comfort.

This is a vignette from the life and times of Tendulkar.  There are many, many others, some captured on film and able to preserve the illusion of his immortality for ever, others simply lodged in the memories of millions.  It offers a brief glimpse of the way in which he could play when mood and moment took him; as his fellow Mumbaikar Sanjay Manjrekar has recently written, in his youth, away from the intense pressure and responsibility of the international game, Tendulkar could score as freely, as quickly and as potently as anyone ever has.  No target was ever safe.

This has been a player for all seasons and all ages.

Leaving aside the versatility of his skills, Tendulkar has been vitally important as a physical and psychological standard bearer for a developing country.  Born just a quarter-century after independence, Tendulkar’s life in cricket has coincided with a period during which his nation has changed in myriad ways.  Like Bradman in post-federation Australia, he has represented his country to the world as its people have wanted it to be seen: brilliantly talented and endlessly resourceful, while retaining an essential modesty and dignity given to few.

And then there is the sheer duration of his career. As Ed Smith wrote this week, a measure which goes beyond mere chronology is the fact that when he began playing international cricket, the West Indies, the insipid wreck of a team against which he finished his career, were indisputably the best side in the world.  In the time he has been playing, Australia have gone from being an average side to one of the greatest in the game’s history and back again.

The maintenance both of form and focus over such a long period – under the greatest scrutiny any cricketer has ever had to endure – requires a man of rare ability and character.  It has become commonplace to say that he has gone on too long and this is true, but, when playing cricket is all you have known, all you have excelled at and all you can imagine, it must be fearsomely difficult to confront the future.

Over his time in the limelight, his country has changed, the game has changed, and so has his team.  This, in the artistic hands of Dhoni and Kohli and Pujara and Rohit, is destined to continue.

We have changed too.  A whole generation and more of the game’s followers throughout the world barely knows what it is like to see an Indian Test team take the field without Sachin Tendulkar.

Cricket reveres its history like no other game, and we have been living through history.  In these days of easily lost perspective it is possible to sleepwalk into the feeling that cricket ends here.  Of course, it does not.  Long before Tendulkar there was the game, and the game will survive him long into the future.

We are all about to find out what the future tastes like.

Different Shades of Green, 16th November 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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