London: “Sachin!” they chant. “Sachin, Sachin, Saaaachin!” They stand on their seats at Eden Gardens and shout and wave excitedly. All he has done is push a single to midwicket.
Many great batsmen behave like princes, but Tendulkar is a man for the people. His role in life is to make runs on behalf of the masses, to momentarily elevate every lowly Indian above their station, out of the squalor of their life. That is his duty. Tendulkar is their temporary passport to prosperity. It is not the winning they care about. It is the statistics, the records.
Tendulkar is the leading run-scorer of all time in Test cricket, has made 100 international hundreds, and he is theirs. He is like a villager’s imaginary secret stash, the bundle of runs in the corner of a poor man’s mind that gives him security, self-belief and satisfaction. It makes them proud to be Indian.
It is this responsibility that Tendulkar grapples with every day. And it is becoming crippling. He is so consumed with it now that he is unable to engage much with the rest of the team. He grazes on the boundary, fielding the ball to the inevitable applause, but otherwise seems a detached figure, lost in his own world of fading powers, wondering how to regain the hearts of the nation.
The truth is he can’t, not now, not on the field. He can only lose them. So often, the person at the centre of such a quandary cannot see the solution. It is like holding a book too close to your face so you cannot make out the words. But the sight of him at deep square leg looking sad, forlorn with tired eyes, the boyish face becoming drawn — suggests the reality is beginning to dawn.
The bowlers are swarming around him like young, ruthless predators gathering to finish off the ailing alpha male. He still hustles around the boundary like a teenager, puts in a dive, hurls the ball back. It fools nobody. At the crease he is like an ageing dancer partnering a young girl. He will always have the style and the steps are still there, but the beat is too fast and he can’t keep up.
He looks vulnerable early on, poking unconvincingly at balls he would once have repelled with total conviction. If he does survive those first few minutes, most of his early runs come behind the wicket in the third man area, a sure sign that he is not sighting the ball so well. The fact that he has been dismissed bowled or lbw five times in his last eight innings backs up that assertion.
He did make 76 in the first innings in Calcutta. But the overall impression was of a man desperately trying to keep the flickering light aglow. He took 16 balls to get his first two runs and 43 to get to double figures. He patted half-volleys back down the pitch where before he would have punched them for four.
The bowlers, especially Monty Panesar, were always in control of him, yet the pitch was flat and the ball old. His first half-century for 11 innings was greeted with predictable excitement in the ground, but his meek celebration gave the game away. Jimmy Anderson’s insistent reverse swing eventually proved too much. He lasted only a few balls in the second innings.
It sounds harsh but his continued presence is holding Indian cricket back. Test cricket has moved into a new intense phase where fitness is becoming as important as finesse. Tendulkar, like Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan, is from the old school, trusting their skills and their skills alone. They do not like, or overexert themselves, in training. It sets a bad example to the younger generation, but there is no one strong enough, or willing, to persuade them to change. So India stumble along, lopsidedly, and make no progress.
It is Tendulkar too who is mainly responsible for India’s continued resistance to technology and the Decision Review System. He believes, against all evidence, that the system is unreliable and/or prone to manipulation. Intrinsically he views it as a batsman’s enemy. It borders on paranoia but a man of his status is very persuasive. Lack of acceptance of the DRS lays Indian cricket open to ridicule.
Tendulkar has been one of the sport’s greatest cricketers and a wonderful ambassador both for the game and his beloved nation. He dissected the best bowling attacks every country could muster for more than two decades. His longevity is remarkable. But it is time for him to go now, and, when you put his countrymen on the spot, that is what they say too.
They do not want to see their great champion humiliated by lesser men. As former India captain and teammate Sourav Ganguly said this week: “Tendulkar is not performing and I think if I were him, I would go. But it’s up to him. We want to see the great man going with a bat held high and not in terrible form.”
His countrymen are becoming resigned to finding another hero, and they will. Even if he makes a century against England in Nagpur, it should be his last Test. Only in retirement will he and a billion people find salvation.