No other issue—not even the identity of India’s next Prime Minister—has been more widely discussed in recent months than Sachin Tendulkar’s impending retirement. On the afternoon of a balmy October Thursday, the batsman regarded as the best of his generation put speculation to rest when he sent a message to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) that the second Test against the West Indies in November, his 200th, would be his swan song.
There will undoubtedly be some residual debate whether this decision was imposed on him by the BCCI: in recent weeks, stories have emerged in the media that Tendulkar had been spoken to by selectors and administrators, only to be promptly denied by all parties concerned. However, once the BCCI juggled the dates around so that his 200th Test would be played at home, it was clear to the discerning that this would be Tendulkar’s last.
It is naïve to believe that there was no dialogue between him and the authorities on the matter, though the decision to retire—as it must—vests in the player. Once Tendulkar made up his mind, what remained was a suitable exit plan.
Tendulkar’s arrival in 1989 virtually coincided with India’s economic rise—the liberalization of old controls that opened up society in ways until then unimaginable. This imbued people with a new desire and self-belief that, in many ways, Tendulkar himself embodied.
He was a virtuoso as far as batting technique was concerned, but also bold in his stroke play, unscarred by the defensive nature of the Indian greats whom he followed. In a sense, he combined the sterling qualities of his two childhood heroes, Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards, and cricket had a genius in its midst.
As the economy opened up, so did Tendulkar open up the coffers for cricket and cricketers, becoming not just the leading batsman of his era, but also the preferred brand icon of a bold new India, striking deals of a size that had, until then, been unheard of in the country.
In 1995, he signed up with the late Mark Mascarenhas’s WorldTel for approximately Rs.18 crore for five years. When the deal was renewed, it was worth approximately Rs.90 crore. Tendulkar’s presence in the middle also helped television rights for Indian cricket skyrocket to dizzying heights. In short, he became a one-man industry.
But commerce is the derivative factor in the Tendulkar saga. As far as the sport is concerned, one can call him the Pied Piper of cricket—not for its dangerous connotations but because, when he played, the entire cricketing universe followed him.
In a cricket-crazy country such as India, Tendulkar managed to charm and dominate the environment like none other, from any walk of life; for the rest of the world, he was a talent of extraordinary proportions that they would love to call their own.
He started out as a child prodigy, smashing records as a schoolboy. By the time he was 15, he found stellar mention in Wisden and the Guinness Book of Records. He made a century on debut in the Ranji, Duleep and Irani trophies—and all this before he was 16. He played his first Test some months later and scored his maiden Test century a couple of months after he turned 17.
But unlike many other such precociously talented youngsters, he proved himself as an adult as well through a long and glorious career that has lasted over 20 years. There is almost no record that Tendulkar has not broken and there are innumerable impossible targets that he has set for those who will follow him. For example, 100 international centuries and 200 Test matches, both of which might stand the test of time.
Like the Pied Piper, he called hundreds of young children to take their chances with cricket. Parents felt that they might as well try their luck, inspired by him. Perhaps Rahul Dravid with his determined work ethic and dogged persistence would have been a better practice model than Tendulkar, but tell a child that you have to practice 10 hours a day and he might run the other way. Tendulkar made you feel that you could.
The clarion call that Tendulkar gave with his talent, achievements, consistency and determination was such that in his heyday, people would switch off their television sets when he was out. Indeed, he was arguably the strongest unifying factor of a hugely diverse country.
Though the past couple of years have seen him below his best, the roar that Tendulkar gets when he steps out on to a cricket field anywhere in the world has been unmatched. When he takes the field for the final hurrah in his 200th Test, this roar will undoubtedly reach a crescendo.
No other Indian cricketer has wielded so much influence, swayed so many Indians emotionally for so long. Over the past quarter of a century, Tendulkar had become a habit that his countrymen might find extremely difficult to overcome.