Sachin Tendulkar leaves the field for the last time.
Regular Right Off the Bat readers (we few, we happy few) will have noticed that the cricket half of this blog has fallen silent for the last few weeks. Life has taken your cricket correspondent away from the blog for a while, even though the game of cricket has continued to be played around the world. Perhaps the biggest story in cricket at the moment is the ultimate retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, the colossus of Indian cricket. Some of us had wished this day had come two years ago, when the Little Master scored his hundredth international hundred, and was still at the top of his form. But cricket—like baseball—finds it hard to let go of past glories and faded superstars and, as in baseball, its players and fans are obsessed with statistics. So, Sachin stopped playing the one-day game and concentrated on Test matches, hauling his tired 40-year-old bones into his 199th and then 200th Test match in a meaningless series with the West Indies. Both matches, in which the much-depleted West Indies were soundly thrashed, were staged in Mumbai, to allow the Little Master to say goodbye to his home crowd. As it turned out, Sachin only had to bat once in either game. In his final innings, he meticulously constructed a beautiful 74 that recalled past glories and let him go out on a high. After the match was over, he gave a typically understated, generous, and modest speech.
Like baseball fans, cricket lovers enjoy measuring players and their times against previous geniuses who stepped onto the fields of green. And it’s always risky, in the immediate glow of a player’s retirement, to attempt to assess accurately whether the individual belongs in the Pantheon. It’s fair to say, however, that no one will ever overhaul Sachin’s number of international centuries, or accumulate more runs in international cricket, or play as many Test matches. Because Sachin was playing cricket at the highest level at only sixteen, it’s also very unlikely that anyone following him will play the international game for as long: the demands on one’s fitness and one’s body are now that much greater than when the boy first strode out to bat against Pakistan in 1989.
Sachin Tendulkar faced some of the best bowlers of the age and retired with an average in the low 50s—which immediately places him in the “great” category, and 20th among those batsmen who no longer play. His one-day average (44.83) is also among the best that form of the game has notated (he’s 19th in the list of all batsmen). But these stats don’t reflect his importance as a player, or more particularly as an Indian player. More than one commentator has noted that Tendulkar rose to prominence as the face of a resurgent and newly confident India. His team-spiritedness, his technical correctness combined with a capacity to improvise no matter what form of the game he was playing, and his everyman persona allowed him to become the vessel into which Indians poured their aspirations, their passion, and their confidence, and then (to change the metaphor) to make the Little Master the vehicle in which they could drive their nation forward. In a time of bling, brashness, and bravado in Indian cricket, Tendulkar represented discipline, respect for the game, and continuity. Yet he was also supremely confident and dominant at the crease—the person whom one billion people worshipped whatever their caste, region, religion as an exemplar of India at its most excellent.
Cricket, like baseball, has to deal with corruption and prima donnas on the field, and incompetent and blinkered administrators off it. Cricket fans, like those in baseball, tend to gravitate to the flamboyant or outlandish players—flawed geniuses whose moments of extraordinary brilliance in crucial plays don’t disguise but only make more vivid their periods of ordinariness. We remember these players for what they might have been had their egos, their love of the limelight, or their injuries not blighted their careers. In short, they are always interesting because we can see something of our own self-destructiveness in them. Conversely, players like Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and Sachin Tendulkar—who’ve accumulated unimaginable statistics over a long period of time; whose characters are unimpeachable and whose understated yet absolute professionalism and dedication to the team are without question—feel removed from us: too perfect to be approachable. Even their modesty makes them somehow beyond our ken; their discipline even renders them (mirabile dictu) slightly boring. The very focus and ruthlessness they bring to the game remove the emotional sloppiness and/or personal edginess that create those fascinating characters that you want to talk and think about after the game.
It’s therefore hard to say how much effect Tendulkar will have on the game itself—or even India. The team has its new set of stars—temperamental, glamorous, flamboyant. With its economy stalled and its cricketing culture questioned, India is no longer as confident in itself as it was a few years ago. Tendulkar, his reputation unsullied by scandal, profligacy, or flameouts, will now have to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. One hopes that he will look beyond cricket; but, given that’s all he’s ever known, he could do worse than sort out the administration of the game in the country that loves him so much and to which he has already given more than enough.