Can Tendulkar be a `walking' example?

WITH sportslovers in India increasingly displaying an all-new desire to look beyond the boundaries of a game — cricket — that has long been a national obsession, and a pair of brilliant young stars — Formula One driver Narain Karthikeyan and the teenaged tennis champion Sania Mirza — boldly moving to centre-stage, the country's sports scene in recent weeks looked like a staging of Hamlet with the Prince of Denmark nowhere on stage.

In the event, the obvious question was this: how long can the soap opera of Indian sport go on without Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar in the spotlight, right in the middle, the virtuoso conductor of an orchestra that no Indian sports fan will ever grow tired of?

Certainly, not for long. The average Indian sportslover's mind-set may have changed and he/she may now be willing to accommodate more than the odd tennis player or race driver; but it is unlikely to alter radically enough to eject Tendulkar from a position that he alone has seemed capable of occupying over the last two decades.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the maestro was back where he belongs, dominating our sporting consciousness as he came close to conquering yet another peak on Thursday. But then, even as the most celebrated summiteer in Indian sport fell six short of a world record 35th hundred, the question that popped up again and again had nothing to do with his unquestionable genius as a batsman.

And you don't really need to lay claim to any moral high ground to ask the question. Should Tendulkar have walked if he had been sure in his mind — which, perhaps, he was — that he had been fairly dismissed (a bat-pad catch at silly point off the bowling of Danish Kaneria) quite early in his innings?

The majority

A few walk. The vast majority choose to stay put. Men such as Adam Gilchrist, the most famous of modern walkers, promote the cause of their ilk with missionary zeal.

The ones on the other side of the walking divide argue that it is not their job to make decisions but merely to play and accept the decisions of the umpires.

To be fair to Tendulkar, when it comes to accepting the decisions of the men in the white coat, the little master is a paragon of virtue. Even when he is handed out a poor decision, the great man would make his way to the pavilion without so much as a hint of dissent.

No tantrums, no emotional outbursts, just a philosophical shrug perhaps — even that in the privacy of the dressing room.

However, in an age when it is becoming increasingly difficult for umpires to be seen to be making correct decisions all the time — with dozens of TV cameras magnifying their all-too-human mistakes — should not a player of the stature of Tendulkar set an example?

Brian Lara, rather more flawed a human being when compared to the squeaky clean Tendulkar, used to walk long before Gilchrist played in his first Test match. Unlike Gilchrist, the West Indian chose not to lecture his mates or opponents on the virtues of walking. He did it every single time. And that was good enough for him.

Heated debate

Of course, there is still a lot of heated debate in the cricket-playing world about the merits of walking. If you apply game theory to the issue, using something called the Prisoner's Dilemma, walking is for losers. Winners should almost always stick to the crease until the finger goes up 22 yards in front of them.

For, if a virtuous soul from Team X chose to walk, what guarantee does he or his captain have that in a similar situation someone from Team Y, the rival side, would reciprocate? There are, indeed, no such guarantees, no matter that a lot of our moral philosophy is based on reciprocal altruism.

This is why the whole issue comes down to a matter of personal belief. If a batsman, great or good or merely average, believes that walking is the right thing to do — no matter what his enlightened self-interests are, no matter what the situation in the match is — he will certainly not wait for the umpire's finger to go up once he is sure that he has been dismissed fairly.

Cricket may be a team game, but ultimately the noblest of decisions are made by individuals. There can never be a collective decision on walking. And the player who chooses the Lara-Gilchrist Way must do so for a better reason than that it makes him feel good — because it affords him a transient `do-gooder's high'. If he did not, he would be just as selfish perhaps as the man who chooses to stay put.

And what better reason can there be to do it than the desire to set an example? This is precisely why it would be hugely significant if a player such as Tendulkar joined the tiny band of walkers.

For, then, he would be setting an example, which a great many cricketers, at every level of the game — from schools cricket up to the World Cup — would want to follow.