How Tendulkar helped a generation of Indians make sense of their lives
Sachin Tendulkar has retired from one-dayers.
Does this mean anything to you?
Did you feel numb on Sunday morning? Or maybe it was Saturday night in your part of the world. Did the various stages of your life flash in your head, as they are supposed to in the instant before you die?
Do you remember one-dayers 23 years ago? Travel back in time. What do you see? Red leather balls, players in whites and some one-dayers in England with umpires stopping play for tea.
What else do you see? Doordarshan - the feed hanging this moment, back live the next, your grainy screen filled with men who sport stubbles and bushy moustaches, the camera facing the batsman one over and the bowler the next, commentators screaming "that's hit up in the air".
Gradually the texture changes. Coloured clothing and floodlit games become commonplace, fielding restrictions alter the definitions of a "safe total", Duckworth and Lewis appear, so do Powerplays, Supersubs and Super Overs. Pinch-hitters, a novelty for a few years, lose their sheen. Now everyone must pinch, everyone must hit.
Tendulkar has seen it all. Sometimes he has initiated the change, on other occasions he has adapted. A master of the game in the mid '90s, a master in 2011. The one constant in a wildly changing format. He was around when one-dayers were blooming, he was also around when they were allegedly dying.
You have been around too. Are you a kid from the '80s? Or the '90s? Or are you a straddler, part of the Tendulkar generation that has one feet in both decades?
Ah, you stand on the threshold. You have experienced Doordarshan before leaping to the riches of satellite, you have seen Shah Rukh Khan as a fauji on TV before he soared onto the silver screen, you know of life before the internet but are quick to embrace the wonders of technology, you have watched monochrome but are a child of the colour TV age.
What else do you see?
Tendulkar in a white helmet, his white shirt unbuttoned to his thorax, blitzing Abdul Qadir in an exhibition game in Peshawar. Until that point cricket is merely a fuzzy idea. Tendulkar gives it shape, adds meaning, wraps it in colourful paper and winds a ribbon around the packing. He makes you understand the game's place in your life, teaches you its significance.
You grapple, trying to swerve banana out-swingers with a tennis ball. Standing in front of a mirror, you imagine the opposition needing six off the last over. The stadium is a cauldron. A hundred thousand fill the stands. Can you restrict the batsmen?
One morning in 1994, when large parts of India slept, you awake to life and freedom. What a rebellion at Auckland. Eighty-two off 49 balls. A cameo that unshackles the mind. The greatest one-day innings you have seen. Can anyone better this?
You are carried along the Tendulkar slipstream. When he is stumped off Mark Waugh, after illuminating the Mumbai sky, you sense the game will slip away. It does. A few days later his hundred against Sri Lanka in Delhi ends in defeat - the first Tendulkar ton in vain. You hope it's an aberration. You wish.
You observe his every move. In 1996, when he fires a swinging yorker to dismiss Saqlain in Sharjah and sends him off with an emphatic "f**k off", you blush. Four years later your vocabulary has expanded. When he mouths off Glenn McGrath in the Champions Trophy in Nairobi, you puff your chest, as if vindicated.
It's 1998, a time for decisions. Academics or sports? Arts or science? Biology or computers? To meet her or to continue with phone conversations? To buy a copy of Debonair or to take a sneak-peek? These are the burning questions that occupy you.
Do they matter? Tendulkar is dismantling Fleming, Warne and Kasprowicz in Sharjah. A desert storm, a birthday hundred and a ballistic Tony Grieg. A straight six off Warne when he starts around the wicket. Another straight six off Kasprowicz. "Whaddaplayaa," screeches Grieg. It imprints itself in your head.
In your inconsequential gully matches you bat with an amped-up ferocity. You nod to tell the bowler you are ready, you hold your pose during the follow-through, you reverse-sweep and attempt straight-bat paddles.
You pump your fist when Tendulkar manhandles Henry Olonga in Sharjah.
You start college. You are ragged, often with little imagination. Some of the courses don't interest you. Many of your classmates speak about things you have never heard of, in languages you are not fluent in.
You are sipping tea in the canteen when someone switches on a television set. India are playing Namibia in the World Cup. You find your bearings. This is a familiar world. Tendulkar is nearing a century. This is your comfort zone. The next 10 days are some of the most joyous of your life. That six off Caddick, those fours of Akram and Shoaib ... you feel you have turned a corner.
You hate your job. You begin to care for little other than your pay-cheque. This is not what you expected when you graduated. You assumed this job would be interesting. How wrong you were. Tendulkar is still at it, obsessed with his craft. Despite a lean patch, he says he must go on. He knows no other way.
You are engaged, then married. Life gets busier: an apartment, a car, daily chores. Tendulkar is brutalising Brett Lee in Sydney. An uppish cover drive, then a bullet past the bowler. Lee offers an angelic smile, Tendulkar stands still, zen-like, unconcerned about the past or the future, immersed in the present.
You switch jobs. You like your new role but your boss sucks. He is a slave-driver. You take sly peeks at a live scorecard tab that is open at your desktop as India chase Australia's 351 at Hyderabad. Tendulkar is flying but there is no TV. You wish you could get back home but what if he gets out when you are on your way? Would you be able to forgive yourself? India lose. You call out sick the next day.
You relocate abroad. Cricket matches are on a different time zone. You scavenge illegal internet streams, slap your head when the feed hangs. You are reminded of your days of watching Doordarshan. The sun is yet to rise outside your apartment, and Tendulkar is batting in the 190s against South Africa in Gwalior. Cricinfo is hanging. Cricinfo didn't even exist when Tendulkar started. Your twitter feed is on valium. He has reached 200.
You watch every ball of India's World Cup campaign. How could you not? A hundred in Bangalore, a hundred in Nagpur. You suffer palpitations in Mohali. Then the eruption in Mumbai. Kohli raises him aloft and talks of Tendulkar's burden. He speaks for you. He understands how you feel. There are tears everywhere, including on your cheeks.
Here's John Steinbeck in Cannery Row:
Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical and aesthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American Nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than solar system of of stars ... Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few of them were born in them ...
You can apply the same to your generation. To understand us is to take into account the moral, physical and aesthetic effect of Tendulkar. To feel your pain, when he retires from a format he made his own, is to know what it means to grow up with him.
You are the lucky ones. Cherish the memories. He was, and will remain, your Model T.