Tendulkar's retirement marks end of an Indian experience

Will he make a speech, this retiring Sachin Tendulkar, in his home city of Mumbai next month during his last Test and is it the closest we'll come to a nation crying?

Will grown men snivel, maybe me, too, for his 24-year journey since 1989 was made alongside ours. He, 40, is part of our history, our dialogue, our reading, our growing up. Sport always goes on, but there is a sense of something ending - his career and every vestige of our youth.

Will another player ever find his entry to an Indian field an event in itself? He had India's attention before it could see him, a frozen nation waiting for him to emerge from the pavilion and adjust his crotch and take his stance, the only sane man in the stadium Tendulkar himself, unmoved as the crowd sang out his name like a single-word anthem. Perhaps Napoleon arrived on the battlefield with such similar pomp.

Will people elsewhere ever understand what he meant and the absurdity of his life, wherein a vast, ancient land found something substantial, reassuring and unifying in a 16-year-old with a bat? Genius who didn't swear, smoke, drink. Genius so venerated he never got to taste the beauty of the ordinary life.

And genius he was, evident in his technique, his composure, his consistency, his longevity, at his best a perfectly-designed, perpetually-polished machine of batsmanship. He could never be the greatest batsman ever for Donald Bradman had that seat, but he was there next in line.

Will he awake in December happy not to be this secular god any more? Or will he ache for the applause that was his daily music? Tendulkar could not tuck his shirt in or burp without India clapping. All worship has a tinge of madness and a taste of addiction.

Will he potter through 2014, no team meetings, no nets, and will he pick up a bat and put his nose to it, searching for the intoxicating smell of wood, sweat, tension? Will he switch on an old DVD of himself and watch alone, lonely forever without this game?

Will he regret his last years, his stumbling towards his final century, his testing of public faith, his riding for a brief time on his name when for his entire career he had so wonderfully done the opposite?

Will he write a book and confess his fears or would fans rather he did not, for few want to see their heroes as imperfect? Will he, a reserved man, speak out and settle scores or will he remain this modest, decent, fast-car-driving, image-conscious, soft-spoken enigmatic poet's son?

Will he watch TV and enjoy the truth that he is the measurement by which modern batsmen are gauged? Yet will he cringe and wish people would not use his deeds to burden another prodigy for he knows too well what burdens feel like?

Will India pander to the moment by awarding him the Bharat Ratna, its highest civilian honour, and will he please refuse it for despite all he did, highly-paid cricket does not truly qualify as service to a nation? The star athlete is unworthy alongside the anonymous hero who helps the disadvantaged lead a more dignified life.

If India truly cares it should strike a medal in his name, given not for hundreds scored, but to the young man of any given year who wears his excellence unpretentiously. Greatness is common; in wearing his greatness gently and his legend discreetly, for so long, Tendulkar was uncommon.

Will he please agree to some tests of heart, brain, muscle so we can map his genius and unravel how he wore pressure so persuasively? And what pressure it was.

He played not for a club like Ronaldo, not for a franchise - except later in Twenty20 - like LeBron James, not for himself like Tiger Woods. He did all his work in an India shirt for a struggling nation absent of sporting idols to the sound of patriotic pandemonium. He was constantly informed he was not allowed to fail.

Will Tendulkar, as he lets go of cricket, be finally let go by India, can he be returned, older, worn, lined, back to his family with grateful thanks, for what more can a nation take from him?

India should let him breathe and stand at a distance and at best point and grin and say his name. For the generation that grew up with him, he will be always "Sachin", never "Mr Tendulkar". For them he is forever that boy of wonder and the batsman who can never be equalled. Without such myth, sport is incomplete.

But will Tendulkar also understand that everything passes, even him, and new generations own separate heroes, and there will be a time when a snotty kid will ask, in earshot of him, "This Sachin, he was really that good?"

Ah, unless you lived in his time, you'd never believe it. He wasn't just a person, you see, and certainly no god, he was but a singular Indian experience.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


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