Whenever I have written about Sachin Tendulkar here it has mostly been about the joy he used to bring to all of us watching him bat (or, for that matter, just watching him play cricket, really). But with all the discussion about William Shakespeare (it being the Bard’s 400th Death Anniversary yesterday – 23 April 2016) immediately followed by Sachin talk on the Master Blaster’s 43rd birthday (24 April 2016) triggered in me the memories of when watching Sachin was like watching a story that was heartbreakingly beautiful in its inevitably tragic conclusion.
Much like some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which confronted us with the paradox of life where defeats and disappointments are plenty and yet we somehow want to believe we can defy them (my English prof told me that; I am not making it up), some Sachin innings I have seen and remember most vividly are ones where his efforts went in vain. India did not win, and it was pattern, particularly early in Tendulkar’s career, that would go on to spawn a thousand jokes. The days of Sachin batting along side the Fab Four were different in that Tendulkar had less of these Sisyphusian outings where he would wage a lone battle only to fall agonisingly short of the ultimate goal – an Indian win.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the emperor of Ephyra who was punished by the Gods by being condemned to roll a heavy stone up a steep hill only for the stone to roll back down when he neared the top. He was to repeat this futile exercise for eternity, stuck in his own vicious cycle. Watching Sachin early on, as a young batsmen took on all comers and often single handedly fashioned wins, sometimes felt like that. Watching a tragic hero, not because he gave you hope or inspired but because there was something damningly beautiful about embracing tragedy, and letting anguish and suffering define some part of you.
Mind you, I was not one of those who could grow numb to this idea that by now we should expect this. I lived and died by the tragedy afresh every single time I sat in front of a television and Tendulkar took guard and went about planting hope where it had no right to spout. Sports fans, much as they believe they are shaped by the glories of the team and players they support, are actually defined and shaped internally by the agony they suffer. I present to you four such Sisyphus Sachin knocks where the inevitability of eventual doom hung over you like a spectre from Hamlet but I as the watcher hung on despite the dread, dreaming fretfully that maybe this time, the stone does reach the top of the hill.
1996. Wills World Cup v Australia, Mumbai.
India had done well after a Mark Waugh century to restrict Australia to a seemingly gettable 258. But the Mumbai pitch had some life in it and a chase under lights (it was the first ever day night game at the Wankhede) was always going to be tough. Damien Fleming, he who shares his birthday with Sachin, decided to turn it on snapping Ajay Jadeja and Vinod Kambli while Glen McGrath started with 3 maidens in a row. Yes, in a one dayer. It seemed India had no way back till Tendulkar started the fight back – exquisite drives off McGrath for two fabulous fours. He would get to 90 off 84 balls with India at 143, seemingly taking the game away from Australia with a counterattack of the like I had not seen in Indian cricket in my almost a decade of cricket watching back then. And then he got stumped off a wide delivery off Mark Waugh. Pretty much in classically tragic style that would make the Bard himself raise an eyebrow. India would get close (242) but pretty much everyone knew the game was over with that stumping. And I got to know of it not while watching (there was a power cut thanks to a freak storm outside) but listening to it unfold on radio. The surreality of the storm and the cackling radio signal added to the drama and the tragedy in a way the Bard would be proud of.
India had been hammered and humiliated at Durban by the SA pace battery. South Africa batted first at Cape Town and declared at 529. India were quickly reduced to 58/5 by early Day 3 when Azhar joined Sachin at the crease. The two would put up a 222 run partnership that would be lit up by Azhar’s bravado (surely everyone who witnessed it remembers those consecutive 4s off Klusener) and take India to 280, still well adrift of avoiding follow on. At Azhar’s departure Tendulkar’s strokeplay seemed to acquire another dimension as he gave you the outrageous hope that India might even be able to push 450 odd. He made sure Indian went past follow on and his body language in that innings is closest to the physical embodiment of the cricketing equivalent of the burden of Sisyphus I have ever seen. He seemed invincible yet resigned to fate all at the same time. Eventually he would be the last man out at 169, and needless to add, India lost the test.
Every Tendulkar and/or cricket tragic knows this knock all too well. So, I’ll not go into a recap of how a 4th innings 136 on a crumbling track and against a top of his powers Saqlain took India painfully close to victory only for the familiar script to unfold as soon as Sachin fell. But I’d like to mention how I felt. No, not just emotionally but physically felt. Tendulkar batted through back pain and watching him grimace, stretch and soldier on made my back feel heavy. I could feel, I kid you not, something pricking on my back. Perceiving and empathising with pain is one thing but to feel it? I have never had that sensation while watching sport. Ever before. Or ever again. After every pull of Sachin’s I would look away, lest I see our tragic hero well again. I have never felt so physically and mentally exhausted after watching a cricket match as I did on that day. And it was the innings that taught me how things can be heartbreakingly, even soul crushingly, beautiful.
2009. ODI series v Australia, Hyderabad
It had seemed that Tendulkar’s fruitless one man battles doomed to fail like the Light Brigade’s charge in Tennyson’s poem had become a thing of the past. And then Hyderabad happened. In a singularly remarkable innings that for me was one of the picks of the last quarter of his ODI career he posted a sublime 175 off 141 bossing a chase of 350 (these were days before T20 would redefine the limits of chases) in which he had literally scored half the runs. But he got out with just 19 more needed off three odd overs. And India, in almost an homage to the 90s template, conspired to lose by 3 runs.
I loved the knock and I know that maybe Sachin should have closed the chase but the game brought that feeling back. That feeling of dread of having to confront life’s paradox like my English prof had said.
I am not trying to romanticise pain or loss here, just putting on the record how I am as richer in life for watching and being affected by the tragic hero side of Sachin Tendulkar as I am from having watched the super hero side of Sachin Tendulkar. That however bad things may seem, as Stephen Hawking put it in The Theory Of Everything, “there is always something you can do…while there’s life, there is hope.”
Happy 43rd, Sachin!