“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” — Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Watching Sachin Tendulkar laughing in the dressing room — perhaps sharing a joke with his mates — shortly before lunch on the fourth day of the third Test between India and the West Indies on Friday, a little over an hour after he had fallen six runs short of a 100th international century, Camus's rationalisation of the ceaseless Sisyphean endeavour came to mind.
From the time the Mumbai maestro scored his 99th hundred (111) against South Africa in the World Cup on March 12, tens of millions of person hours have been lost in a losing cause as fans have filled stadia and nervously plonked themselves on couches in front of television screens, waiting for a moment that has never been witnessed before in international cricket.
Their hero may not show his disappointment, but as television cameras panned the stands at the stadium on Friday, it was obvious that those awaiting a rare moment of triumphal delirium were crestfallen, their disappointment tinged with disbelief.
Since his last international hundred, Sachin has played in four ODIs and in 12 Test innings. In the event, for his fans, the wait has been excruciating. What should have been a surging crest of applause at the Wankhede Stadium turned into sepulchral silence as the Little Master departed after a mouth-wateringly promising half an hour at the crease.
To this columnist, what is obvious is this: Sachin has been too self-conscious, too aware of the enormity of the prospective feat, once he came within touching distance of it. In the event, a slight nervous twitch here, a cordon of tension across the back of the neck, and the moment eludes him yet again.
The physical side of sport is over-emphasised; the mental side is often downplayed. But it is the latter that is the key even for the greatest of performers when historic moments beckon.
It is easy to make a birdie putt on the 18th green if it is just another tournament. But when it is the Green Jacket — the traditional winner's prize at the Augusta Masters — that is hanging up there in the clubhouse and the whole world is watching, your hands can begin to shake and your mind wander, even if you happen to be Tiger Woods.
Doubt, anxiety, worry and, most of all, fear… the fear of failure — this monster can knock down the best of men playing at their peak form. Fear of letting down oneself and one's tens of millions of fans is a sort of mental virus that can eat into a player's psyche and stop him or her short of magic milestones.
Burden of expectations
And the problem is compounded in team sports — especially in the case of Sachin in a nation of over 1.2 billion people, to many of whom cricket is a religion — where the burden of expectations can be unreasonably high if you have been the country's most celebrated star for well over two decades.
To call someone who has just returned to the pavilion after scoring 94 runs with an array of dazzling strokes a failure may be a dreadful thing to do. But in Sachin's case, the time-span between his last hundred and the one the whole world wants him to get is turning out to be gut-wrenchingly long.
The point is, Sachin has to forget who he is and cease to think of what lies ahead of him to accomplish the feat. He has always been a master of living in the present, functioning in the here-and-now like a Zen monk, seemingly devoid of ego.
After a rather poor series — by his own standards — in England, the great man appears to have lost that art. He now needs to go back to his past and relearn.
Sports psychologists call this process mental rehearsal. “What was the state in which I functioned when I got all those hundreds as a matter of habit?'' This is the question Sachin has to ask himself.
All sports create moments of intense anxiety, both for the performers and for the viewers. This is why we love sport. But great winners use this sort of anxiety as a positive means of arousal, an adrenaline-charge, to catapult themselves to extraordinary heights. Losers melt in the heat of the moment.
Regular readers of this column do not need to be told in which category this writer would put Sachin.
It — the 100th ton — will come some time soon. Sachin just has to stop thinking about it.
Sachin has to go back to his past and relearn, writes Nirmal Shekar