I began watching cricket in 1987, when I was six years old. Needless to add, I have followed the entirety of Sachin Tendulkar’s career (one of the first ever pieces of cricket action I saw on our own TV was his assault on Abdul Qadir in that exhibition game in 1989). And I have savoured and enjoyed every moment of what turned out to be a career spanning at least four different eras for Indian cricket. And now that he’s stepped off the field for the last time, the battle for his legacy and its definition has begun in earnest. I was 9,000 miles away as the events unfolded at the Wankhede in Mumbai and was resigned to catching highlights and YouTube clips of his last innings (Harsha Bhogle was so excited he blurted out ‘And a half century in his last test innings’ as Tendulkar got to his fifty with India still trailing the West Indies) and then, that speech.
The sheer honesty of emotion in that speech obviously floored everyone including yours truly (in fact, it just made me feel a little bit more alone as a frame of reference I have pretty much known all my cricket watching life dissolved). But here is the thing. The speech was stirring primarily because this was the first time we were seeing a Sachin behind that zen-like aura that he would exude as he went about his business on the cricket field. Whenever there has been a controversy or a talking point about him, the rest of the country has debated it to bits but hardly, if ever, we heard anything from him. In a way, it was a good thing. But the unintended consequences of always letting his bat do the talking were deeper than Tendulkar could have imagined. It polarized his fans (yes,everyone, even those who have made a career out of criticising him, is deep down, a fan) into two camps – the one that had nothing but divine reverence for him and the other that looked for ever sharper critical needles to puncture the Tendulkar myth.
It is said that ‘if you torture data long enough, they will confess anything’ and the data driven prosecution has been tirelessly on the case forensically slicing and dicing the extraordinary number of data points Tendulkar generated by just being around for so long. I am currently a doctoral program candidate and I know that in the social sciences large enough datasets can be used to pretty much demonstrate anything. I am not taking sides here – both parties have equally leaned on the data to make their case. That, as I wrote in an earlier post, has been a problem. The upshot has been an extraoridnary statistical zeal that whiffed the last remaining bits of romance out of watching Tendulkar. For those of you wondering why the swansong end of Sachin’s career felt so long, you need to look no further than ‘the-waiting-for-the-next-milestone-with-baited-breath’ syndrome for your answer. Everything had to be a round figure. 100 International centuries (whatever that means!). 200 Tests. Most this. Highest that. Sachin’s zen like silence didn’t help. And that is why I believe that now the burden is off his shoulders, there is a likelihood a more candid Sachin provides his legacy a new angle – one that comes from his point of view.
When Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ in Zaire, many rightly reasoned that the younger and more brutal Foreman would have the edge. Ali, though, had a trick up his sleeve. And that was his ability to absorb the pressure and the blows and hit back as Foreman grew tired to score the knockout. And he knew who he was doing it for. The throngs in the stadium in Kinshasa and the millions worldwide who were screaming ‘Ali bomaye’ (Ali kill him!). Ali was an artist and despite his missteps and clumsy attempts at comebacks late in his career (a fight against Larry Holmes was particularly embarrassing) the moniker of The Greatest still sits well on him if go by his moves in the ring and his sheer willpower in terms of not giving up (the Thrilla In Manilla against Joe Frazier was such a fight). But Ali’s outspokenness, the very trait that made him such a sensation apart from his skill at boxing, became his enemy in his latter years. He was perceived and dismissed as a gloater, a trash talker who didn’t have anything left in the tank in terms of boxing.
In Tendulkar’s case, the very trait that made him the zenith of batsmanship in the modern cricketing era, his ability to shut everything out, was the one that acted against him towards the end of his career. The silence created enough space for all sorts of theories to flourish on either side of the debate; both the statheads and the worshipers jostling to impose their definition on a legacy that does not belong to either of them. But now that we know from the man himself how much he admires his admirers and as he sheds that zen boundary around him, I think it is time to just step back and let Sachin define that legacy himself.