And so he left, amid showers of rose petals and hyperbole. A small man, he should have been inconspicuous in the kaleidoscopic stadium. But they had come for him, to show their devotion, to genuflect before his genius. The crowd had anointed him decades before, and now they came to weep at his passing, to pay homage to his achievement.
The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar was never going to be an ordinary sporting occasion, his final match not just another game. His records stand testament to his staggering sporting ability and epic longevity – he made his test debut the week after the Berlin Wall fell. He is both superstar and survivor, an adaptable relic. He played with Kapil Dev, India’s first World Cup winning captain, and then won the World Cup himself in the dusk of his career. He faced up to Imran Khan on test debut, and made an IPL hundred whilst Imran was on the campaign trail to become Prime Minister of Pakistan.
Moreover, he represents the new India, the economic superpower and its globalised present. Much has been written about his assertiveness, his transcendence of cultural stereotypes, his lucrative global image even beyond the diaspora. His deification, cricketer as god. He has become a personification of the nation, a synecdoche for a new breed of sportsmen and people. The American journalist, Wright Thompson, understood both cricket and India through the prism of Tendulkar.
But why Sachin? His success is one obvious reason – his long career and thousands of runs. His hundred hundreds. But Kapil Dev was the leading wicket taker in Test cricket when he retired (an Indian fast bowler!) and Sunil Gavaskar set the record runs and centuries tallies in Test cricket that Sachin would go on to break. Why are they not elevated to the Pantheon? True, Sachin dominated limited overs cricket as well. The careers of Kapil and Gavaskar didn’t coincide with economic growth and the globalisation of the nation. The Indian team as a whole was more successful when Tendulkar was in it.
But I think the reason for the national identification with and the overwhelming love for Tendulkar comes from his nature both as a batsman and a man. For all his brilliance, he is neutral. He is a faceless hero, a blank slate for the nation to chalk their hopes and ambitions, pride and hubris, sorrow and anger on to. No other Indian cricketer of his generation has had the required anonymity to become a national idol. Rahul Dravid, technically excellent, one of the few Indian batsman to perform consistently outside of Asia, was always the man for a crisis – backs to the wall, heels dug in, alone on a burning deck. A country getting a hit of wealth and success doesn’t want a reminder of what could go wrong. Dravid was adored when he was needed, and overlooked at other times.
VVS Laxman played an innings greater than any of Tendulkar’s, perhaps the innings that announced that India had had arrived. Never has counterpunching seemed as elegant as in Kolkata, Laxman’s bat the wand that matched Shane Warne’s wizardry. But Laxman was too laissez faire, never one to rub the oppositions’ faces into defeat. He remained in the old India – adrift in Twenty20, stylish without purpose. Sourav Ganguly was too aggressive, the perfect captain for the new India, bolshie and brash, but too much so to be a national icon. Sehwag? Too simple. Genius, but of a different kind.
Sachin combined the best of these attributes, and went further. His dedication to batting was extreme, but his success was a result of it. He was close to batting perfection because he eliminated error. His wasn’t the dominance of Viv Richards, flair of Brian Lara or bloody-mindedness of Alan Border. Their attractions were in their flaws, their chances. Tendulkar had neither. He just batted. He didn’t play great rear guards, because the situation was never his consideration. He defined the tempo, chose how the game was played. At best it was meditative; at worst, sterile. If Laxman was an artist and Ganguly a politician, Sachin was a surgeon, the smell of disinfectant lingering around his innings. In Sydney in 2003, he made a double-hundred where he eschewed the drive for hour after hour. It was an inhuman display of genius, the batting display of a grand Modernist skyscraper, incomprehensible in scale, all concrete and glass. By contrast, Lara’s greatest innings were ornate, even the longest and biggest. His 375, 400 and 501 were Gothic cathedrals, all detail and artifice. His 153 in Bridgetown was a Sangrada Familia of batting.
Only one other cricketer has consistently reached the perfection of Tendulkar, the inhuman precision in his craft. Both could be described as run machines – that is, mechanised, efficient producers of a product. Don Bradman became a national icon as well, a symbol of Australian self-confidence post-World War Two. Bradman saw something of himself in Tendulkar, and his wife concurred. Perhaps no-one else has matched the Don’s odourless purity; as RC Robertson-Glasgow wrote of him, “poetry and murder lived in him together”. He could have been describing Tendulkar, his grace and his ruthlessness.
Inevitably, with Tendulkar’s fame came constant attention. The personification of the nation can never falter, can never have a moment alone. Urban legends grew, stories of wigs and witching hour drives around deserted cities. His final test was an apotheosis of this tendency, the only private space being the middle, his only private occupation being that he was most famous for. He found calm at the crease, the mechanical conductor of all he surveyed. He duelled with Dale Steyn as he had fought Wasim and Waqar two decades before. He came ever closer to consecration. He escaped to the one place where everyone was watching. When they switched off their TVs, poured out of the stadium, the pressure was back on. He remained an icon because he did not falter, he remained efficient and productive. He retained the aura. He changed his game, won the IPL, but remained the same man, the anonymous representative of national emotion.
Sachin’s facelessness allowed him to remain the symbol of the new India throughout his career as an Indian cricketer. His batting perfection projected him into the position to carry the burden; his disposition allowed him to bear the load. For some, he has subsumed the game. For others, he is overrated. He has retained his persona, his neutral perfection throughout his career, so that he can be whatever people want him to be in their minds. No scandal, no slumps, no silliness. Boys can want to be him; mothers can want their daughters to marry him. Perhaps he deserves to be seen as a deity. For a man admired by Indians, his imagined spiritual profile is curiously monotheistic. He is not accompanied by the lesser spirits, Virender, VVS and Rahul. But he has that feature of the all-powerful: he can be imagined to suit any purpose, but the harder you look for Him, the less you see.