How Does It Feel?

This piece was the product of the sort of musings which came and came, and just couldn’t be fought off, throughout the long period of relative decline which led up to Sachin Tendulkar’s eventual retirement from cricket in late 2013.  Those thoughts about what it felt like to be aware of the inevitable and ultimately unconquerable waning of your powers, coupled with the certain knowledge – even if you could never admit it – that the end was growing closer every time you went to the wicket.

How does it feel to be Sachin Tendulkar this week?

How does it feel to stand on the threshold of a series which will surely, one way or another, decide your future?

How does it feel to know, deep down, that your powers are fading and that what was once (to you, if no-one else) commonplace may now be beyond you?

How does it feel to be aware that bowlers who you used to dismiss from your presence can now get you out in ways they could once only have dreamt about?

You’re in the autumn of your career.  They know it, you know it, and they know you know it, even if, with your unshakeable determination, and pride, and refusal to be beaten, you’re doing your best to deny it.

Professional sport is a harsh, unforgiving mistress.  And professional cricket, where, ultimately, numbers are all, is tougher than most.  As someone once said, time waits for no man, and this – fighting against the dying of the light – is what it usually comes down to.  Some players have to face the reality that it is over in their third Test, or their fifth, or their fiftieth.  No man has ever had to think about it in his 195th.  We are all in uncharted territory.

There was a time when Australia set the standards for the whole world. Few could live with them, but you always could.  In those innings at Sydney and Perth when you were 18.  Those innings when McDermott, and Hughes, and Whitney, were, in Ian Healy’s words, gunning for you.  Or when you made 300 runs in the game back at the SCG to cloud Steve Waugh’s final Test.  Or when you made 155* to set up the win in Chennai and for once rendered Warne impotent.

You could do all these things and more.  It seems increasingly unlikely that you will ever go there again, but the next few weeks will tell all.

As always, in times of stress and high moment, people have theories.  Martin Crowe, no stranger to the ravages which time and physical decline can inflict on a pure technique, has advanced the view that it isn’t your eyes that have gone, it’s your legs.  And someone else felt that you’re hanging on simply because cricket is all you’ve known since you were a child on Shivaji Park and you can’t conceive of a life without it.

I think there’s something in that.

In any sport it is an awkward and uneasy thing for a great player to accept that his powers are in decline.  Your old foe Ponting has recently done so, and it will be to his lasting credit that he got the timing of his decision so emphatically right.  But it is hard.  Whatever your outward modesty, you don’t get to be recognized as the greatest batsman of your generation without an unshakeable sense of your own worth.

For you, though it is harder still.  You have put more than twenty-three years of your near forty on earth into this.  You are emblematic of what modern India holds itself to be – talented, positive, optimistic and immune to decline – and the end of your career will transcend the game in a way that no player’s leaving ever could in the nations of the old cricket world.

No-one yet knows what the next few weeks will bring.  But, if the worst comes to the worst, it is to be hoped that the decision will be yours alone.

For if it is taken out of your hands it will be the saddest and most inappropriate end to one of greatest careers the game has ever seen.

Different Shades of Green, 19th February 2013