Is the terrible omerta that binds Indian sports journalists finally loosening? Seems like that, doesn’t it, with several pieces in the media wondering if the end of days is nearing for Sachin Tendulkar? A Delhi tabloid even devoted its full first page to a photo of Sachin Tendulkar getting bowled in the second innings in the Bangalore test against New Zealand. The headline screamed: “The end of the road for Sachin?"

A day later, papers trotted out that tired statistic: that Tendulkar’s fourth inning record in Tests is surprisingly poor, and that he has only one fourth-innings 100 where India went on to win the Test. Scrabbling for numbers to buy his way onto the bandwagon, a journalist even pointed out that Sachin has never scored 500 runs in a single Test series, while Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman had. How that is relevant to a career that boasts a batting average of above 55 after 190 Tests beats me. And a TV news channel website carried a story: “Is ‘struggling’ Tendulkar blocking way for ‘promising’ youngsters?"

Photo: Vivek Prakash/Reuters

I have followed the—now much-depleted—Bombay Club of Indian cricket since I was a child, and I wonder why Gavaskar said what he did. His two decades as cricket commentator have been distinguished by clear and steadfast adoration of the Immaculate One. I remember a One Day International (ODI) some years ago when Virender Sehwag upper cut a rising ball outside the off-stump and was caught at deep third man. Gavaskar accused him of “irresponsibility". A few minutes later, Tendulkar did exactly the same and met exactly the same fate. Gavaskar marvelled that only a genius like Tendulkar could have sent the ball so high and deep in the field using so little power and just pure timing.

The only time I have seen Gavaskar angry with Tendulkar was when in 1999, against Pakistan at Chennai, Tendulkar scored a heroic 136, battling acute back pain, and was out 17 runs short of the target. Pakistan won by 12 runs. Gavaskar did not name Tendulkar in his post-match comments, but said (I paraphrase): “The lesson to be learnt here is: Never leave something that you have started, for someone else to finish. You have to complete your task yourself." For once, it was Gavaskar the great Indian cricketer speaking. If he had been playing, they could have amputated a leg of his, but he would have seen the team through.

Yet, Gavaskar allowed himself this little criticism—however technical—of Tendulkar, at a very crucial stage of his career.

The public mood has been changing over the last few years. Tired of waiting for his 100th 100, the Indian cricket fan joked that, not to worry, there’s always Bangladesh. But when the century did come, and against Bangladesh too, some people noticed that it was Tendulkar’s slowest ODI ton; that, possibly because Tendulkar did not score quickly enough, India lost the match, and was then out of the tournament. In the media, it was still only a faint murmur, but even that was enough for Tendulkar to turn petulant when the r-word—“retirement"—was hinted at. He said that he was in top form, and implied that it would be unpatriotic for him to retire now.

Wrote Mukul Kesavan (one of our finest cricket writers, and not a sports journalist): “To appreciate the tin-eared narcissism of this, bear in mind that Tendulkar had averaged 35 in his last eight Test matches. If we were to extend the curious logic of ‘international hundreds’ (the notion that you can club together scores in two different forms of the game and create a composite landmark) and calculate his ‘international average’ between his 99th hundred and his 100th, Tendulkar averaged just under 33 in 33 innings. (This), for a batsman of Tendulkar’s class is a kind of batting twilight, not the ‘top’. That he can’t recognize this is not surprising: most successful sportsmen find it hard to deal with the dying of the light."

The gracious retirements of Dravid and Laxman have only added to the public scrutiny, and now the media, too, has amended its blasphemy laws.

If our cricket board was better managed or more interested in the fortunes of the Indian cricket team, it would have a friendly discussion with Tendulkar about his plans. But that conversation will never happen. And, now that his hackles are up, Tendulkar will be summoning all his great mental and physical reserves to score at least one big century—if not two—before he takes a decision. He is not a man to go gently into the dying light, he will want the fireworks in full noisy bloom.

Will Tendulkar be able to make his exit the way he wants to? Over the last decade, he has fortified his miraculous talent with extraordinary bloody-minded grit. My head is sceptical about whether he can orchestrate that closing crescendo, but my heart would rejoice if he can pull it off.

Sandipan Deb, is a senior journalist and editor who is interested in puzzles of all forms

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