For fans of cricket, particularly those in India, the world as they knew it for close to 25 years has changed forever. Sachin Tendulkar’s decision to retire after his 200th Test match, scheduled against West Indies in mid-November, brings to a close a career like no other. There have been several exceptional careers in cricket, but save for Don Bradman there hasn’t been a phenomenon — in terms of the collective experience of the artiste — like Tendulkar. For long the most startling thing about his iridescent career was its inevitability. Great deeds were foretold when he was still a boy, the lofty predictions scarcely allowing for sport’s inherent caprice. “Gentlemen, Tendulkar never fails,” the late Naren Tamhane is reported to have said in a selection meeting, when someone wondered if a 16-year-old should be sent to Pakistan to face the likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, and Abdul Quadir. (Waqar Younis made his debut in the series as well.) And incredibly, almost supernaturally, beginning with the debut series in 1989, the master has fulfilled all but the wildest of predictions. Until the arrival and establishment of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar was India’s lone reference for excellence in testing conditions abroad. The pressure to succeed every single time, the claustrophobia that comes with every little action being scrutinised can scarcely be conceived. And yet Tendulkar wore it with lightness and dignity, making brilliance commonplace, unremarkable.
Indeed the essence of Tendulkar’s greatness lies as much in his preternatural ability as in his handling the weight of being cricket’s biggest icon. For many in India, Tendulkar was God — a statement, from the evidence of the frenzy he frequently triggered, several came dangerously close to believing. Certainly much of Tendulkar’s batting seemed like a gift from above. But the impression short-changes him for no one worked harder to hone natural talent. And no one was less concerned with his image as a batsman — struggling for touch in England in 2007, he sublimated his ego and eked out runs. But just as the experts said the newer version of Tendulkar was effective but unappealing, he did what great champions do. He challenged popular perception by reprising later in the year in Australia, the thrilling, spontaneous style of his early years. At 37, he had his most fertile year (2010), scoring more than 1500 Test runs and forcing a revision of how both the great batsman and the old batsman is viewed. Longevity is the gold standard of greatness for nothing is left untested; the arc of Tendulkar’s career ensures it will be the new gold standard. In recent years, the national obsession with him hadn’t dimmed, but it had been distributed among the members of a resurgent Team India. These next two months will see a return to the old days, one final celebration of the Age of Tendulkar.