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Time To Walk

It's time for the over-hyped Sachin Tendulkar to retire.

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Dear Mr.Tendulkar:

It's time, I reckon, to drop the bogus first-name familiarity that comes so easily to fans who've never met you, and to address you man-to-man. Earlier this year, you turned 30. That's about the age when we Indian men really enter manhood, because till then our lives - even if financially independent - are much too pressured by goodboy urges to please the people around us. So this might be a good time to outgrow them as well as to look back - and ahead - at your life and career.

For at least 14 of those 30 years during which you've played professional cricket for the country you must think that you've pleased a lot of people. You aren't mistaken. Very rarely does it happen that people, who aren't interested in a particular activity, are still smitten by a performer in that field. Several of my relatives, friends, and acquaintances don't much care for cricket, but not one among them fails to perk up good-naturedly at the mention of your name.

I wonder why. Why, for instance, are you spared the wrath of irate cricket fans who haul the rest of the team over the coals and even disfigure their homes after an Indian defeat? And why didn't any of your recent career-reviews by the big-name analysts of the game even mention the innumerable times you squandered a heaven-sent opportunity to carry India to victory? Could it be that you are indeed the Chosen One, a modern-day version of Baby Krishna who was such a chubby little darling that his destructive antics and indiscretions were beyond reproach? Since cricket is after all an Indian religion, it makes sense - doesn't it? - to follow the traditions of Hindu mythology wherein we give our gods human-like attributes, so we can then gloss over their resultant frailties.

What else can explain the curious fact that despite your many miserable outings with the bat - the latest and most haunting being against Australia in this year's World Cup Final - your fans and well-wishers are forever willing to forgive you? There were no boos that afternoon at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg as you walked back to the pavilion, no stones were hurled at your posh seaside apartment in Mumbai, no one even dared to criticize your act publicly. Surely you knew when you played that horrendous shot, a billion-plus hearts sank with that ball into Glenn McGrath's waiting hands. Far from admonishing you for "playing your natural game" (that clichéd euphemism for irresponsible batting), the so-called experts like British cricket-writer Peter Roebuck have actually praised you. He for one thinks it was a brave shot, because you could have easily played 40-odd overs and scored a safe century, making a name for yourself and leaving the team in a lurch, but that unselfish streak in your personality wouldn't allow you to commit such a cowardly act. Twisted but strangely compelling logic, I daresay! If ever I find myself on trial for an open-and-shut case of murder, I can think of no better lawyer than Mr. Roebuck to defend me.

For, that shot of yours was nothing if not an open-and-shut case of murder. It killed our hopes not just of the Cup, but also of seeing a well-fought Final. The sin was not in losing the match (after all, one side has to lose every one-dayer) but in not trying to win it. Roebuck's was an elitist view from the air-conditioned press-box. But, believe me, thousands of Indian cricket fans like myself who'd traveled thousands of miles at our own expense had a very different perspective from the open sun-scorched stands. We saw no bravery on display, no team-spirit in evidence. What we definitely did see was indifferent bowling and fielding in the first half, and indifferent batting in the second. And your anti-climactic suicidal shot in the very first over sent the signal (especially to the batsmen who followed) that the target was an impossible one. Several Tendulkar aficionados in the crowd trudged out as soon as you got yourself out, returned to their hotel in tearful dejection and drank themselves to sleep, wondering: So what if the Aussies scored 350-plus runs? Couldn't Tendulkar have manfully tried matching Ricky Ponting's batting prowess and staying power? Isn't our "Tendlya" the brightest star in the world's best batting lineup? Are you, really? Let's look at some of your more frequently bandied titles.

You've been called The Complete Cricketer. That title will do justice to only one cricketer in the entire history of the game - Sir Garfield Sobers. I saw him play just once at Bombay's Brabourne Stadium circa 1966 and even in my relatively immature preteen years, I knew I was watching an all-round cricketing wonder. Suffice it to say that about the only thing he couldn't do on a cricket field was keep wickets to his own bowling. Even with your enormous batting talent and your quaint bowling repertoire that fetches you the odd wicket, you don't come anywhere close to that legend. Sorry.

You do however come within sight of another legend - Sir Don Bradman. The old man saw glimpses of his younger self in your batting demeanour, and thought highly of your talent. But does that make you The Complete Batsman? Bradman, the most deserving candidate for that title if ever there was one, was - from all accounts and records - a batsman who, while destroying the bowling, never gave his wicket away and also single-mindedly ensured that along with the centuries, the victories too kept coming. He was, like Sunil Gavaskar, an accumulator of runs but on a much grander scale. The Bradman Phenomenon, in my reckoning, was an incomparable combination of the Tendulkar Talent and the Gavaskar Temperament. Even statistically speaking, you and Gavaskar - with individual averages in the 50s-are little more than half the batsman the great Bradman was.

Among contemporary batsmen, I would place Steve Waugh and Brian Lara ahead of you. Is that because you're any less talented than they are? Far from it. Although you never really mastered the relentless accuracy of Australia's Glenn McGrath or the spinning guile of Pakistan's Saqlain Mushtaq, and even if lesser bowlers like England's Ashley Giles and Zimbabwe's Ray Price have inexplicably shackled you at times, most cricket analysts would award you the gold medal for contemporary batting talent. Cricket analysts never tire of telling me that you have two strokes available for every ball. That may be so, but it often appears like you attempt a third (and impossible) one, and thus fall to innocuous balls. Ever seen Steve Waugh throw away his wicket? He, like Lara although with a less flamboyant style, has it in him to stick around and finish a game.

Whoever ventured to call you The Supreme Artist hasn't seen many batsmen from an earlier era and, I suspect, hasn't seen much of Saurav Ganguly either. Of course, that Bengali touch-artiste can be very fickle with his batting form. But give a genuine cricket aesthete the option of seeing either of you in full flow at separate venues, and his gate-money will gravitate toward the Ganguly grace rather than the Tendulkar tonk.

I will raise the issue of your captaincy here only because we're looking at the totality of your career. Admittedly, your tenure as captain suffered somewhat because we now know in retrospect that it had to contend with alleged match-fixers in the team. All the same, a cricket writer recalls giving you a copy of Mike Brearley's book The Art of Captaincy during your early years as captain, and he suspects you never read it. Granted, reading a single book never made a successful captain, but imbibing the wisdom and experience of someone rated as the best in the game would scarcely have hurt your lackluster captaincy record. Your seeming failure as a strategic captain however is at direct odds with your on-field enthusiasm as a team player. As captain or otherwise, you always struck me as being clued in to the proceedings more than anyone else on the field, and more than generous with advice. A consummate team-man, as they say. Who can forget the way you-as batting partner-guided junior mates to their debut Test centuries? And the many times a dogged partnership was broken after your midfield conference with the captain and other senior players. So, could we confer on you a new title? The World's Best Vice-Captain.
Whatever the titular debate, there's no mistaking that you are the country's Most Recognizable Celebrity although, of late, we see you less on the field and more in the media. That's because you've ostensibly become more selective about the matches you play than the products you hawk. Much has been made about your hrefusal to endorse alcohol and tobacco, but would you have the integrity and the gumption to turn down cola commercials - something India's badminton champion P. Gopichand has dared to do because such drinks are less than nutritious? Remember that an entire generation of Indian kids is guzzling colas by the tonne because your endorsement means a lot more to them than the scientific studies that found unacceptably high levels of pesticides and other toxic pollutants in these drinks.

The recent cola findings as well as the controversy over the federal government's import-duty waiver on your Ferrari have tainted your sheen somewhat. So what do your media planners do? In a blatant damage-control PR exercise, a staggering amount of television time gets dedicated to projecting your occasional acts of charity and to replaying the few matches you won for India. But far from being grateful to television for showcasing you so selectively - and hiding away your umpteen batting failures -y ou blame the media for carrying post-match reactions from former cricketers and thus abetting fan anger against the current team. Do you honestly think that the off-the-cuff comments from a few Indian ex-cricketers can have a stronger impact on the viewing public than the entire live telecast of the match itself? Gone are the days when we waited for the morning newspaper to fill in crucial gaps in the radio commentary of a cricket match. With television coverage, an entire game is out there for all to see and judge without the prism of subjective reportage. Cricketing truth has become an instant phenomenon, beamed live through a dozen variously-angled hitech cameras. Media commentators in sports are no longer mass opinion leaders.

Anyway, look at those video clips again and you'll realize that the ex-cricketers said nothing that was even remotely objectionable, and your team's performance against Australia in the World Cup was indeed pathetic enough to be deplored in the strongest words. You may also realize in the process that excessive pampering has made today's cricketers so touchy that even constructive criticism gets them all riled up. And remember a small fact: Among those ex-cricketers are some who faced the world's most fearsome bowlers without a helmet, without fancy guards and paddings, without customized bats and made-to-order gloves, and still managed some 20 years ago to bring home a trophy called the World Cup.

Ah, the World Cup! Must be excruciating to wake up every morning and realize that the prime symbol of global cricketing supremacy remains as elusive as it did when you played your first World Cup match in 1992. All the more so for a batsman who loves to dominate the run of play and impose himself on the bowlers, but who has had to return empty-handed for the fourth consecutive time.

But that's the past. What does the future hold in store? Several more billions in the bank for sure, because there is no serious competition to your brand equity for Corporate India. But is there a Cup somewhere on the horizon? More importantly, does it matter any longer? Four years is too long a time for predictions-who knows what will happen in the interim-and what's the guarantee that the team won't have another off-day after a spirited run-up to the Final?

Can you cross your heart, Mr. Tendulkar, and declare that your hunger for success rages as furiously as it did a decade ago? I remember a hot humid April afternoon in 1991, your 18th birthday during the Bombay-Haryana Ranji Final. The Wankhede Stadium press-box had pooled in to buy you a birthday cake. You came up to cut it, smiled boyishly after blowing out the candles, and exited as soon as it was politely possible. Without saying so, you made it clear that you had a game to play, a job to do, and the motivation shone fiercely in those steely eyes. I saw that steel again on the eve of your 25th birthday against Australia at Sharjah in 1998. I saw but a hint of it at the match we won against Pakistan in this World Cup. Significantly, I did not see it during the Final in Johannesburg.

And even if the spirit's willing, is the flesh strong enough to withstand the painful grind of international match schedules? Injuries to your finger, back, and foot have kept you away from or incapacitated you during recent matches and even entire series. There are whispers that Indian cricketers routinely miss practice sessions and even some games to accommodate shooting schedules for commercials, but surely you're not one of those money-minded laggards, are you? Nevertheless, do I notice a shadow of guilt and self-doubt in the once-unalloyed innocence of your smile as you implore us to buy a mobike or a soft drink? Wasn't it enough to have the Indian team's World Cup earnings (even the reserves who never played a single match came home richer by 6.7 million rupees each!) fully exempted from income tax? And the Rupee 11.3-million customs duty waived on your Ferrari, which the car manufacturers reportedly gifted you? Did you really have to put your dignity on the line by requesting the Maharashtra State Chief Minister to dereserve a plot of land set aside for the homeless in Mumbai, so you could build a bungalow on it? Do you realize that this shockingly insensitive act mocks at all your earlier attempts at charity?

Can you fathom the depth of the Indian public's love for cricket and particularly, their boundless love for you? A love that expects a lot but demands nothing, that drives them to buy whichever product you endorse, and that has sheltered a high-school dropout from the travails of finding a decent job. Do you sometimes wonder if anyone can lay a rightful claim to an entire nation's collective affection and disposable income without giving back something tangible - say, a World Cup - in return? Has it finally dawned on you that your reputation as an entertainer - for the crowds and therefore, for the corporate moneybags - is fast overshadowing your greatness as a batsman? That you've hardly ever been a finisher and match-winner for India, that your rash strokes and temperamental flaws have repeatedly let us down even in the pursuit of paltry targets? That your cavalier style of batting falls short of your expected contribution to the team as a whole? That this style is better suited for exhibition matches than for serious competitive cricket? And that, without quite your knowing it, you may well have become a victim of burnout? Take note of how a great batsman from your city of Mumbai anticipated burnout before it could beat him. Sunil Gavaskar retired after playing international cricket for 15 years. We all thought he had at least another couple of good years in him, but Gavaskar-with a sharp eye on his place in history - followed the advice of another great opener from the same city. "Always retire when people ask why, rather than wait till they ask why not," the late Vijay Merchant loved telling his radio-show listeners.

When it does come, your decision to quit will be a tough one, though. Indian advertising-more than the game of cricket itself - might find your vacancy difficult to fill. After all, the corporates have invested billions in making you a star salesman and brand icon. They'll do their damnedest to prolong your shelf-life, to convince you that you're as good as their sales figures. Already, there are noises about awarding you the Bharat Ratna. And a numerologist finds your birth numbers (3 and 6) comparable to those of two other towering Indians: Rabindranath Tagore and Amitabh Bachchan.

Well, if it's numbers you wish to ponder, try 4. Don Bradman needed just four runs in his last Test innings to achieve a batting average of 100, but was bowled for a duck. Could it be a strangely cosmic occurrence that you performed the surrogate act of scoring precisely four runs in that forgettable World Cup Final innings? Think: Even if you decide to hang up your cricket boots today, you'd have bettered the Don in at least one statistic.

Sincerely, Shekhar Hattangadi  

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | November 2003

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