Sportz Cosmos’ Tribute to The Great One: Our Sports Writer Rajkamal Vasu pays tribute to the Mumbai Maestro.
One of my earliest memories of reading about sports is an article I read around 15 years ago. The year was 1998. I was back home during the summer vacations, enjoying a well-deserved break from what was reputed to be one of the toughest undergraduate courses in the country. The article, titled “Great Men Die Twice: Muhammad Ali In Decline”, was written by Mark Kram. I picked it up because the title immediately caught my attention. How, I wondered, could great men die twice?
A few paragraphs into the article came the answer, “Legends must suffer for all the gifts and luck and privilege given to them. Great men, it’s been noted, die twice—once as great, and once as men.” I have quoted it again and again over the years, with a slight modification, “Great sportsmen die thrice- once as great, once as sportsmen and once as men”.
This impending retirement is Tendulkar’s death as a cricketer. It is his second death, since his death as a great cricketer was many few months ago. (When exactly this happened can be debated. To me, rather aptly, his decline started after he won a battle with the last great bowler he will face, Dale Steyn. Maybe that was his one last challenge ticked off.) For a fan whose heartbeat fell and rose with Tendulkar’s form, the last few months have been irrelevant from a cricketing point of view, as even the irrational heart realized that even the greatest of men are not immune to the silent march of time. This is well-known, but all of us like to believe that those we held nearest and dearest are immune to it.
How near and dear was Tendulkar? For me, like so many others, indescribably so. This is what makes writing about Tendulkar among the hardest things I have ever done. One doesn’t know where to begin or where to end. It is a lot like writing about life, for I cannot disentangle his cricket from my life.
Life can be defined as this relatively uninteresting thing that happens in between Tendulkar innings. Even while wrestling with Fourier transforms during my undergrad or with option pricing during grad, part of my mind was always wondering whether Tendulkar’s next innings was going to be another of those gems which made a day go from normal to glorious in the span of a few hours. Or was it going to be a low score, guaranteed to cause heartache for hours or even days? To quote Dylan, his cricket could “take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black.”
Thus it was that entire years of my life were labeled good or bad depending on his form through the year. I remember the year 1998 with such fondness because it was arguably his best year as a cricketer. The year 2006 makes me cringe everytime I think of it because that was arguably his worst phase. April 1998 still warms my heart as I think of the furious desert storm.
It was an obsession the likes of which had never happened to me before. There is not a single one of my friends that I haven’t discussed him with for hours and hours. We would write down Tendulkar’s scores till date and look at the paper searching for some divine indication of what the next term in the sequence would be. Recall of his knocks was almost eidetic. Or even the memory of some specific shots, like that six off bowler X or that straight drive down the ground of bowler Y (mentioned in general terms because this is a brief appreciation of Tendulkar. The specifics can come later). There was a day when I woke up early from my sleep and found tears rolling down my eyes thinking of his poor form. There were also celebrations of his birthday with equally fanatical Tendulkar fans over the years.
It wasn’t just me that he had this effect on. Not by a long way. One of my memories of the desert storm innings is that of a classmate, running across to tell me, “The way he was playing today, I could have given my life for him”. I have never seen him talk in a similar vein about anything else, ever. Tendulkar could do that to you, of course. How else do you explain the fact that when news that Tendulkar would retire came in yesterday, it sent the country into the blackness of depression?
I say “country”, because to replace ‘country” with “cricket fans” in that sentence would be a great mistake. Paul Simon wrote of the great baseball player Joe DiMaggio,
“Where have you gone, Jo DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
How apt are these lines for Tendulkar, for isn’t he the one we turned to be comforted when we were sad, or to make us happier when we were happy? Tendulkar isn’t just our most celebrated cricketer after all; he is arguably the most celebrated Indian in decades and is to India what Maradona is to Argentina, Federer to Switzerland or Pele to Brazil. Some of the other quotes that came into one’s mind on hearing the news of his retirement were reactions to Mahatma Gandhi’s death. “The light has gone out of our lives” by Jawaharlal Nehru or “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” by Albert Einstein. Both of these lines are applicable to Tendulkar and to a country in mourning, just as it was when the Mahatma died.
So, we have just two more tests to appreciate India’s greatest cricketer before he walks away into the darkness of retirement. But will he really retire as far as a cricket fan is concerned? I don’t think so.
You see, his batting will be the abiding memory whenever we watch cricket being played anywhere in the world. His strokeplay will cease to illuminate stadia across the world, but in the arena of our minds, he will forever be batting, judging the line and length of the delivery in a flash, either going back to play the ball on the back foot or going forward to meet it on the full with textbook technique, the sunshine of his batsmanship delighting us for as long as we live.
I don’t know if heaven exists, but if it does, the one image it will contain is of the Tendulkar backfoot punch, the bat coming down straight and the ball speeding away to the boundary in a trice with the spectators, like those among us fortunate enough to have watched him bat, transported to that dreamlike state that we call bliss, elevated, ecstatic, and awe-struck by his genius.
Image: Courtesy Indian Express