Sporting mortality might appear alluringly predictable, but we have to be rather cautious when making sweeping statements, writes Nirmal Shekar

YOU got the feeling that if he had a revolver in his hand instead of a cricket bat, he might have contemplated shooting himself. So uncharacteristically remorseful, and so self-deprecating, was the act that you had trouble associating it with the actor himself. But there it was, happening right in front of your eyes.

As Sachin Tendulkar raised his bat in self-directed anger on seeing a Tim Southee delivery flatten his middle stump on the fourth day of the second Test against New Zealand in Bangalore, the incident brought back a kaleidoscopic wave of memories in me.

There I was, on the old No. 2 court at Wimbledon, almost as stunned and shell-shocked as the man I was looking at. A few feet away, long after his conqueror, a little known Swiss called George Bastl, had left the court, Pete Sampras was staring at the turf in front of him, looking so devastated that you wondered if he was hoping that the earth would cave under his chair.

It was the great man’s worst moment in a tournament that he won seven times in eight years. Amidst disappointment tinged with sheer disbelief, for many of us that moment had an emotional valence that went way beyond the quotidian, way beyond the mere fact that a great champion had lost to a qualifier in a second round match. It was a moment infused with an aching sadness.

Glad to get it wrong

Even for veteran sportswriters, ones who believe they have seen it all and done it all, this was a moment when rationality was hard to embrace. In the event, emotions oozed out of my slightly shivering fingertips as I reported that match for this newspaper and somewhere along the way hinted rather cleverly — as only experienced sports hacks can — that it may be the end of the road for the American.

Three months later, I was not only glad to eat my own words but also astonished how a 30-something man who had looked completely washed up in late June could have reinvented himself as a great champion in such a short time. That was after Sampras beat Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open final to win his last Grand Slam title.

Now, as the Sachin-gate debate dominates the sports media in this country, I would like to steer well clear of making a confident assessment vis-à-vis the maestro’s future.

It is more than just a case of once-bitten-twice-shy; it is an honest admission that I do not feel I can assert confidently that India’s greatest and most celebrated cricketer is incapable of doing a Sampras on me, so to say.

Sporting mortality might appear alluringly predictable, but we have to be rather cautious when making sweeping statements in the rarest of rare cases — the ones involving men such as Sampras, Sachin, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods.

Windbag discussions about their impending demise can hurt us more than it does damage to great athletes. Of course, experts who have played the game at the highest levels deserve to be heard, but you cannot conduct a nation-wide referendum on the question whether it is time for Sachin to quit.

Nor, for that matter, can we simply pick someone from Central Casting to take on Sachin’s role in the Indian team overnight. For, this is a man who has dominated the Indian sporting landscape for almost a quarter of a century — a rare and luminous talent who has withstood years and years of hype-laden canon-making and undeserved criticism alike to achieve feats of surpassing greatness.

His longevity and skills have created an almost compelling illusion that time itself may be an illusion. Only the greatest of the great can make it appear that timelessness may be a reality.

Now, as he finds himself surfing the chaotic waves, with questions regarding his footwork consuming as much newsprint and television time as Coalgate and assorted other scams, we must acknowledge that Sachin is intelligent enough to know that he is a mortal, however much millions might have believed — when he was at his peak — that he wasn’t.

Reality check

He might be India’s sporting emblem of incomparable heroism with an iconic incandescence, but Sachin should know about the mercurial and merciless actuarial table of sport.

If a Hemingway or a Faulkner had written a book that was trashed by critics and bombed in the market, readers of that era could not have been sure that these great writers did not have another masterpiece left in them.

This is exactly what I think is the case of Sachin. In the event, I have neither the courage nor the predictive power to stick my neck out and say that he is finished.

Finally, a very pertinent question: if Sachin is hanging around beyond his time, is he selfish? The answer from me is a clear NO. But if you asked me if he was so passionate about the game that he may find himself ignoring his use-by date, then the answer is this: we will soon find out, won’t we?

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