It is almost impossible to predict how Sachin Tendulkar’s career will wind down

I never imagined, in almost a quarter of a century, that there would come a day when I would be forced to write the following, notwithstanding the utter unpredictability of the business of sport.

For perhaps the first time in his storied career, which began less than a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Sachin Tendulkar may be a wee bit nervous about his place in the Indian cricket team. Life does indeed come full circle. For the dominant feelings are just about the same at the beginning of a long career as they are when it approaches the end.

All this might be like saying that Mozart was a nervous wreck by the time he got around to composing Symphony No. 40 in C minor (his second last work), or that Shakespeare broke into a cold sweat, beset by what we moderns like to call a writer’s block as he was penning The Tempest.

Timelessness

But genius is as messy a business in sport as it may be in high art. In Sachin’s case, at worst — as it is now — it may be impossible to live with; although you might think that it might be even more impossible to live without.

This is because genius creates an often compelling and wonderfully comforting illusion of timelessness. Both the creator and those who lap up the beautiful product of the creation tend to believe that time, too, is an illusion.

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But then, mortality sometimes reserves its most brutal stuff for the so-called immortals. And there are plenty of examples that sport has to offer — from Don Bradman’s last innings duck that stopped him four runs short of finishing the greatest cricketing career of all time with a Test average of 100, to the gruesome pummelling that Muhammad Ali received at the hands of his one-time sparring partner Larry Holmes in The Greatest’s last fight.

Not only can clocks never be turned back in sport but also they would appear to be moving that much quicker in the eyes and mind of an ageing athlete. It is as if, with every horrifying tick, Father Time is telling them that the end is round the corner.

“Taking as many punches as I have, I am glad they stopped it,” said Ali, a day after the Holmes fight.

Somebody should have stopped Ali a lot sooner, not just in that fight but in his career itself. This might have saved the most influential and popular sportsman of all time from spending the best part of his post-retirement years battling Parkinson’s.

Sachin, to be sure, plays a much more genteel sport and we can be certain that no matter what happens the rest of his way, the maestro would leave international cricket in the best of spirits, with his mind and body intact.

All the wrong reasons

But for the first time in his unusually long career — one in which he may have surpassed all his childhood dreams and much, much more — Sachin will be stepping out to bat in the first Test against Australia (starting on February 22) at his favourite Chepauk ground with all eyes on him for all the wrong reasons. For, in 2012, he averaged just 23.80 in nine Test matches and did not make a single century.

Is he still good enough to come up with something that might remind us of his great years? Or, has the magician lost his seemingly supernatural powers? These are some of the many questions that might be on his fans’ lips as the great man steps out from the pavilion, loosens his arms and looks skyward while approaching the crease on the fall of the second Indian wicket.

While I am not a heart versus mind dualist, it is indeed irresistible to say something as maudlin and juvenile-sounding as this: the heart says Sachin will go out on a high but the mind throws up a question mark or two.

The problem has always been this: for most people, it has been virtually impossible to observe Sachin detachedly and critically and pass strictly rational judgments, simply because there has been nobody quite like him in Indian cricket before.

This is precisely why — unless you want to come up with some vatic nonsense — it is almost impossible to say whether his career will end in some kind of tragi-farce, as in Ali’s case, or whether he will ride into the sunset after a memorable last hurrah.

But whatever happens, you can be sure of this: the moment will mark the end of an era like no other in the entire history of Indian sport, not just of cricket.

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