After a great playing career, he still has some dues to pay to cricket.
So it will come to pass that Sachin Tendulkar’s 200th Test match will be his last, and that double century is a nice summation of his mind-boggling longevity in cricket and a neat sweep of a career of records. For those of us who have tracked his dominance of cricket — and that would include almost every person who follows the game — numbers are key. For the longest time, we have not been able to work out the exact centrality of records to Sachin’s primacy. And by extension, of Sachin’s place in Indian cricket.
He announced his appetite for the big records early, a little schoolboy who would not stop batting when he got a record 664-run partnership with his mate, Vinod Kambli. He established his staying power less than two years later in his debut Test series in Pakistan, in the winter of 1989. Not yet 17, he stared down Javed Miandad’s sledging — perhaps just the kind of welcome worthy of the little boy’s promise — and later refused to retire hurt in the last Test at Sialkot after Waqar Younis bloodied his nose. After the event, he would recall: “It didn’t feel nice, what with blood flowing from my nose, but I couldn’t leave, for the side was not doing well.”
His big hundreds, the rapid flurry of big innings, would come later, but in that recollection of a tough day in Sialkot lay the dynamic that would dominate his career: the brilliance of his individual feats and the contrasting backdrop of a team almost always in trouble, often far too embarrassingly. I recall the fourth day of the Jamaica Test in 2002, when India were chasing 408 for victory. He was in the 80s, Sabina Park had fallen uncharacteristically quiet, intimating the home crowd’s sense that Sachin could carry India through, and it seemed he could even hold off the rain clouds on the horizon. Then Pedro Collins, gentlest in the West Indian attack, had him bowled at 86 — the Kingston gathering instantly recovered its spirit, India changed the travel plans (even before its last batsman was out) of some of the playing XI, so that they would be off to the airport before the scheduled close of play. And them rain clouds? They came early on the fifth day, almost the moment the last Indian wicket fell, and they didn’t let up for days. You could not be faulted for thinking that the clouds had timed it to show up India for how the fight went out of them the moment Sachin was back in the pavilion.
It is difficult to recall all these years later, now that India have long got used to, howsoever sporadically, Test victories, that for a very long time Sachin’s innings were, in essence, all that mattered on India’s scorecard. The rest of the cricketers were just riveting profiles. Sachin’s performance was India’s. His standout innings and records were, in effect, our collective victories. How odd then that soon, definitely by the mid-2000s, the narrative changed, and Sachin began to be berated for playing for the records.
All these years later, looking at his career summary of 198 Test matches, could the case be made that it was during that summer of 2002 that Sachin’s team changed, and we began to fumble to find a fair measure of his contribution? At Headingly, Leeds, that August, India played for an innings victory in a Test that, to this day, is the best recap of Indian cricket’s recent golden age. Sourav Ganguly’s team played to their strength, fielding two spinners on an English track (Anil Kumble took seven wickets). Rahul Dravid took guard after the early fall of the first wicket, kept his nerve through the bruising attack and hit a man-of-the-match 148, and capped a tour of big hundreds that would transform his place in the team. Ganguly played a captain’s knock of 128, taking the lead spectacularly to step up the run rate and allow India time to get England out twice. And Sachin made the biggest century of them all, 193.
Could it be that in a team in which each man did his bit, and often heroically so, it became difficult to align Sachin’s profile as a sum of his records with his place in a team rebranded as New India? The dilemma showed in Multan a couple of years later, when India, pressing for victory, declared their innings while Sachin was six runs short of a double century and his post-match comments about being surprised were misconstrued as a tantrum, not the legitimate query about team strategy they probably were.
As time went by, a pattern developed, especially as his older teammates started retiring. There would be Sachin, there would be the team, together yet apart. He was going to be around as long as he chose to be, an emissary from another era, before T20s fragmented into so many axes along which a cricketer’s place in the game could be ascertained. He was the ambassador of a more cohesive era in cricket. It showed earlier this year, when Australia visited. You had to be present in the stadium to gauge the texture of the standing ovation he got after a rather average innings — the applause was a thank-you message for a longer acquaintance with the man, the day’s scorecard was of no consequence for just that moment.
Even now, as he prepares for his last Test series, it is difficult to comprehend the long arc of his career. He started playing for his country in that time when one-days were still played in white clothes, in that time before liberalisation when colas had not even returned to India to pitch their endorsements on the celebrity of cricketers, before the T20 was even imagined. He must know that his dues to Indian cricket remain. His profile as a cricketer, and a great one at that, will remain ambiguous till he finally starts articulating where he stands on the various crises assailing the game today.
The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’