x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Sachin Tendulkar: there is sense in the sentimentality

Sachin Tendulkar’s send-off may have been over the top but then the India cricket legend did not deserve anything less.

India will struggle to find a player of the calibre of Sachin Tendulkar, who held a post-retirement news conference in Mumbai on Sunday. Divyakant Solanki / EPA
India will struggle to find a player of the calibre of Sachin Tendulkar, who held a post-retirement news conference in Mumbai on Sunday. Divyakant Solanki / EPA

“Sachin leaves India in tears,” said one newspaper headline, the morning after. It was no exaggeration.

After more than two decades as India’s most popular cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar had left the stage after his 200th and final Test.

He made 74 in his final innings, and India won the two Tests against West Indies in less than six days, but all of that seemed secondary. This series, shoehorned into the calendar at the last minute, had been all about saying goodbye to one of the game’s greats.

Were some of the tributes overly cloying and sentimental? Of course. Did it disturb both believers and atheists alike to see a 40-year-old sportsman deified? Without a doubt. Just whose bright idea was it to dive-bomb Eden Gardens in Kolkata with 199 kilogrammes of rose petals? Did we really need commentators to describe his final moments on the field, when silence would have worked so much better?

These, though, are minor quibbles. Yes, if you go strictly by the Future Tours Programme, a document that countries other than India also pay lip service to.

Tendulkar would have been in South Africa now, preparing to play his 199th and 200th Tests. There are those who say that would have been a more apt farewell, against the best team of the day.

How many Indians would have been able to watch him, though? Unless extremely well-heeled or well-connected, fans would not have been able to make it to the Wanderers in Johannesburg or Kingsmead in Durban.

Would those venues have enabled him to read out a 24-minute love letter to family, friends, coaches, fans and the game itself? And while the way tickets were allocated and distributed in Kolkata and Mumbai was a disgrace, the two Tests did give Tendulkar a chance to bow out in front of his most passionate fans.

Is any individual bigger than the game? Not even Tendulkar. But if you have followed sport in the country down the years, you would know just how big a factor he has been in Indian cricket’s rise to global preeminence. He was not just an agent of change. He embodied that change. There had been half-a-dozen great Indian cricketers before him. But not one who so swiftly and emphatically inspired a generation to shed an inferiority complex that went back decades.

That will be Tendulkar’s greatest contribution to India cricket, even more than the 15,921 runs or the 51 centuries.

MS Dhoni, the captain, was eight years old when the “Little Master” started playing. The rest of his teammates in Mumbai were even younger. Without exception, they grew up wanting to be like him. The man they found in the dressing room years later was no inaccessible legend. It was someone who went out of his way to make them feel they belonged.

After his century in Mumbai, the fifth of a short career, Cheteshwar Pujara spoke of how Tendulkar had helped him with a few technical adjustments in practice before the game.

“Not only me, but a lot of youngsters have got a lot of benefit from his inputs and the kind of conversations we have during the nets,” he said.

Doesn’t sound like the work of a selfish, record-seeker – as some made Tendulkar out to be – does it?

When India take the field for their next Test, at the Wanderers in a month’s time, the 10 survivors from Mumbai will boast a total of 187 caps.

To say they will confront a Tendulkar-shaped void does not begin to cover it.