In all the chatter and clamour, and chest-bashing, and statistic-tossing, a goddamn endless, insane, gleeful cacophony of cricketing praise and persecution, sometimes it’s hard to hear it, but if you go out there, put your ear to the wicket, you’ll hear its sweet strains. Tendulkar’s defiant Last Waltz has begun. Are we hammering out epitaphs here, returning the Great One to his family and some well-deserved sanity? Nope. Just reminding you it’s time to sit back and enjoy the concluding notes, some still polished, some hesitant, of the best bloody batsman to have lit up so many lives.
It has been a while since Tendulkar, after a longer residence there than most are allowed, descended from the mountain-top, passing Ponting who was on his way up. He appears almost the same as when he began his ascent, 18 years ago, still holding his stance like a meditating Buddhist, his politeness mocking the modern idea of superstar.
But he’s not the same. Can’t be.
The wires of his genius have frayed, the signals from brain to hand do not pass as surely. His disobedient body with its failing parts created in the mind a doubt he’d never known, till confidence leaked, and success, like he once knew it, became a fickle friend. Still, nobody knows precisely why genius fades, not even sometimes the genius. It is why they keep playing, in the hope it may return.
India needs a playing Tendulkar, still, no question, but eventually Tendulkar, and he alone, must decide if he still needs to play. Right now, retirement is a word that scrapes roughly at his insides. Right now, his cricket seems infused with defiance, laden with anger at yet another sceptic, laced with a desire to demonstrate that even in descent, he is the equal of most men.
You could taste this defiance when he said recently: “I have played long enough to know what is good for me. I do not want to know what others are thinking.” It came after a 100 against the Windies, but the 100 came after a one-day series in South Africa where he averaged 23.25. Still, since that series, his scores have been 31, 0, 60, 100, 54, 1, his bat telling you what his lips would never say: I can still play, you &%$#@. His pride he wears like a badge safety-pinned to his skin; his ego, always hidden, has escaped its cage.
It’s this cold fury, this remaining will, this desperation to restore himself, this ache for the pleasure that comes from a luminous innings, this sense of aliveness that arrives only when he’s on a cricket field, this frantic need to do his duty to team, this want not to exit the headlines, that suggests he will have an impact on his last World Cup.
But then he always has good Cups. In 1992, only 19, he was India’s second-highest scorer with 283, averaging 47.17; in 1996, he was tournament top scorer with 523 (average 87.16); in 1999, he managed 253 (42.16), the tournament during which his father died; and in 2003, he top-scored again with 673, averaging 61.18.
In 2003, coincidentally, he went into the Cup with scores of 14, 7, 9, 16, 7, 0, 1, 1 only to astonish us. Of course he’s four years older now, his heroism slightly worn, but we know this is a player who waits for the big game, for the grand stage, who relishes the challenge of the tricky wicket. It makes him vital to a rickety India’s 2007 challenge.
Maybe after the Cup, Tendulkar’s body will say, bhai, enough one-dayers. Maybe in Tests, he’ll journey to England, then Australia, a sort of farewell to worlds he will not return to as a cricketer, and then re-examine himself.
His mistakes are more evident now, tiny errors, like in reading length. But on many days, you excuse them, forget them. Because like an old Mukesh song threading its way into your home from the shopkeeper’s radio, his strokes still retain that unique, familiar, pleasing, reassuring music to them, that sly glide to third man, the cover drive with amputated follow-through where ball hits bat and ball disappears, the straight drive where he stands on his toes like God has him by the scruff of the neck and propels it past the bowler for four.
You want him to score at his final World Cup. For yourself, and also for himself. You want the Last Waltz to last awhile.
Write to Rohit Brijnath at firstname.lastname@example.org