One day before the start of Sachin Tendulkar’s final Test, Anil Kumble spoke at the MAK Pataudi Lecture, hosted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), in Mumbai. The impact of his words was eventually muted by the swirling occasion of Tendulkar’s farewell.
What traction it did gain among the wider public, predictably, was gleaned from his thoughts on Tendulkar. Very few chose to broadcast the real meat of his message, which was couched in his advice to the BCCI: wear power lightly, he told them. Bully less, build consensus more.
It was an important speech, not only for what he said, but for it happening at all: very few Indian cricketers will ever publicly question the BCCI.
Yet here was an India great, a former captain, a part of the system as a former state administrator, telling the board, politely, that they should be more careful, lest their empire come crumbling down.
Kumble’s is a widely respected voice. He is a thinker, as his role in the ICC’s cricket committee and his interesting call for format-based seasons in the calendar during the speech indicate.
In 2011, his contemporary, Rahul Dravid, another Indian great, delivered an equally thoughtful, eloquent observation on the game at the Bradman Oration in Canberra.
In many ways it felt natural that these two spoke thus. Right through their careers was every inkling that they would one day; they are well-rounded men, not just cricketers, capable not only of generating but also articulating ideas about the game. In the same way it is perfectly obvious that Kumar Sangakkara is capable of delivering the kind of Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture that he once did.
Tendulkar it is difficult to imagine as such an addresser, though his wonderfully touching farewell speech reaffirmed not only his deep love for cricket, but also, belatedly, revealed a speaker. It is not that he is incapable of it, but because despite being such an omnipresence, he has barely revealed in public his mind, his thoughts, his leanings. It is a curious route of the kind of extreme celebrity that afflicts Tendulkar that the more public a figure becomes, the more private they also become.
“I have taken stands before, but often whatever I say gets misinterpreted and meanings are attached to it,” he once explained. “If you know that whatever you say will become a controversy, why get into it unnecessarily?”
This is not a shirking of the authority and voice that comes with his stature, and let’s face it, nobody has attained the stature he has, not Kumble, not Dravid.
Every word he utters, starchless as it may be, does carry far more weight, but also more risk than any word uttered by any other cricketer.
In that way it is equally remarkable that he has gone 24 years in the public eye, without putting his foot in his mouth.
Another way to look at it is that it goes some way to explaining his success. He has been so devoted to the single act of batting, so closed off to everything else, that perhaps the wider game and its health has just not troubled him unduly.
That devotion was evident in the gesture on his last day as an Indian cricketer, when he broke away from the throng of his celebration, went to the pitch, bowed and touched it in respect, gratitude, prayer, honour and love.
Should Tendulkar the reticent matter? Not really, but if you think of the career Tendulkar has not only had but lived through, you cannot help but wonder at a kind of intellectual disengagement from the game itself. The impression is that he would have preferred for his career not to have been cursed by the Chinese, jinking a way through interesting times.
He was captain, after all, through the early match-fixing years; he was accused of ball-tampering; he grew through the rise of India, the BCCI and the ensuing administrative polarisation; slap bang in the middle of Monkeygate was Tendulkar’s testimony; he has seen the Indian Premier League, Twenty20 and the great upheaval that has wrought.
Yet all this remains essentially uncommented upon by Tendulkar, setting a marker during the first wave of match-fixing.
“The players should have some freedom to speak about the game, not about things like match-fixing because that’s a sensitive issue,” he said in 2000. “Anybody who opens his mouth should also provide proof. It’s important not to create controversies.
“I don’t think as an Indian cricketer I am a diplomatic person. Rather, I would say that I have always been soft-spoken. To me it’s natural not to say much beyond the game.” (In his defence, it is said he played a big role behind the scenes in ensuring tainted players could not return.)
We are a spoilt, unreasonable constituency. We expect giants not just to be giants on the field in body but off it in voice.
Who knows, we might discover another side of Tendulkar now that he is gone. He may find his own voice, long hushed in deference to the game.
Even if he does not remember, it will make him no lesser. Not for as long as the image of a Tendulkar on-drive remains, the bat in elegant recoil on impact with ball, like the first vibration of a tuning fork being hit: maybe it is just that nothing could be as pure an articulation of a man as that.