Thursday, November 14, 2013

Childhood's End

Yet another Tendulkar post? Why? Why? WHY? I'll tell you why. You see, when people say stuff like, "There'll never be another like him," they're usually full of shit. If there is, or was, already one like him, then why can there not be another? It makes no sense.

Which is why, when there is one chap who can say with complete honesty (and accuracy) that there will never be another like Tendulkar for him, you should listen to him.


So many people talk of childhood as something idyllic, a glorious period to which they would return in a jiffy, if only they could. In some ways it is true. I think my imagination was more active then. And I didn't have to file income-tax returns. But in all other ways it was a total wet blanket. I didn't own my time. It was ruthlessly cut up by humans and gods (who never asked my opinion) into calendars, seasons and terms; and into various 30-to-45 minute periods, on a variety of subjects, most of which I found a complete bore.

I would get bundled out of bed at an obscene hour. I would then lose the majority of the day with folks to whom the only thing I had in common was that we endured the same classes together. I would get a couple of hours for myself in the evening, watched over broodingly by The Clock, but right after that it was on to the homework, then dinner and bed. No one would ever listen to anything I had to say because no one listens to kids, really. I didn't have any money of my own, so I couldn't have the things I wanted. On Sundays, they even dragged me to church. Seriously, what kind of a life is that?

Imagine a seven-year-old bearing the crosses described above. A kid just discovering a sport that everyone around him is crazy about. Imagine then, that just as this kid is learning about life a little and the disappointments therein, a curly-haired imp breaks into the national cricket team. The kid can empathise with the imp - the imp is just a few years older than him, and looks way out of place amidst the stiff, serious saps that constituted the Indian cricket team then and the moustachioed men they played against. But the imp is good... really, really good. Little though he is, he makes his dour team-mates look like the journeymen that they are and even, in very un-Indian fashion, takes the fight right to the opposition camp. There is much of the bully in the imp. When they pull a knife, he pulls a gun. When they send one of his to the hospital, he sends one of theirs to the morgue. Etc. Pretty soon, one of the moustachioed men is heard whispering to another moustachioed colleague, "This little prick's going to get more runs than you, AB."

Tendulkar was a hero in ways that no words can describe and in emotions I can never again recapture. Because I will never again be seven. I will never again bestow loyalties and friendships like I did then. I will never again be as trusting or so free of cynicism. Above all, I will never again need a champion. And that was exactly what Tendulkar was: he spoke for us little ones. If you knew anything at all about the Indian cricket team of the 90s, you'd know that "shambolic" was a kind word for it. If ever a team was made to make other teams feel good about themselves, this was that team. It was an almost exact metaphor for my general dissatisfaction with the world I lived in.

But there was Tendulkar, shining in the midst of it all! From amidst the squalor of that disgrace of a sporting team, he conducted endlessly, effortlessly, symphony after the other of backfoot drives and counter-punches. Of course, he would inevitably end up on the losing side but what of it?! That's how life was - kids never knew any permanent victories; they would win their little battles but would get caught at the end, or even if they didn't, the next day life would go on exactly as before. But still, Tendulkar... he showed us that the little ones were indeed better and cleverer than the oldies, held back only by circumstance, by an implacable fate that ruled over an unfair world. His batsmanship was more murderous rage than textbook grace - and that appealed to me, too. In a world of unending routine, of textbooks, rules and where The Clock reigned, Tendulkar stopped Time itself. He showed me the possibilities.

I don't know how many people have had this experience. Of having a genuine all-time great not only introduce them to a sport but also grow up along with them. Tendulkar took his first steps on the world stage just when I was starting to be aware that there is such a thing as a world stage. Since then, I've watched him grow from the Promising Kamikaze Kid into, first, a contender for the Best Batsman In The World to, later, an Immortal Of The Game. And while I watched he would even hold my hand or give me a leg-up now and then: corny as it may sound, you really had to be there to know how much of us we had invested in him. His disappointments were our tragedies, his successes - be they the occasional miracle or the more frequent belligerent defiance - elevated us with him. He carried not just a cricket team but a whole generation, and who knows, maybe even a nation.

Thus the thumping hearts when the master blaster walked to the crease, the inevitable crescendo of strokes around the park, and the agony and the chair through the television set when he got out. I remember sitting in the library one day, reading a Sportstar article on what Tendulkar would be like in 10 years time, when he was all grown up. No, it could never happen! Sachin would never grow up! Cricket wasn't a sport for me back then, it was a boy.

We have a great team now: bowlers capable of bowling out the opposition twice, a fielding side no longer the laughing stock of the world, and a top order lined with genuine batting gems - all of them as good as each other, and none the obvious lynch-pin of the batting; there is no Tendulkar amongst them and they have no need of one. And for all these reasons this team is a lot less interesting than the Indian team of the 90s, the one atlased by Tendulkar. But the unforgivable sin was committed by the man himself: he grew up. He became less impetuous and more calculating in his game. And as the imp grew into the senior citizen I gradually lost interest in the game, for my allegiances have always been to individuals, never to teams.

Not that I blame him... not too much anyway. After all, the kid - the one with treasons, stratagems and spoils jostling about in his head - he too grew up and disappeared without so much as a by-your-leave. In his place is now another of the big ones, so despised by the kid back then. And one who never did change the world the way the kid once intended to. So who am I to blame the imp? Everyone grows up.

The one sadness, if that is the right word, I have about Tendulkar is that in a way he has been too successful. Statistically successful. Already, people have him buried under a mountain of numbers and I guess, as time goes by, that is the element of his game that will be remembered the most. He will not be remembered the way V.V.S. Laxman will be. His career will be analysed and dissected by numbers. And for a guy who hates maths, and for whom Tendulkar was once a ticket to a world away from numbers and rules, this is more than just irony - it pushes dangerously close to tragedy.

So... if I may reuse (slightly edited) something I wrote a while back:

I watch less and less cricket these days, and the day is not far when I stop watching it altogether. The memories that top the list should a stranger tap me on the shoulder and, in answer to my enquiring eyebrow, break the silence with "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days of auld lang syne?" will not be of Dhoni holding aloft the World Cup, or any number of trophies won in Australia or South Africa. It will be of Tendulkar in the 90s, caught in a floundering team but all the more magnificent for it. Tendulkar the record breaker, Tendulkar the accumulator, has his place but the real legend is the Number Four forever walking in at 10 for 2 on foreign shores and yet who never took a backward step; the batsman who carried a side not with dour defence but with the most dazzling array of strokes in world cricket.

I hope that when his career is remembered, it is the imp that comes first to mind; before the icon, before the record books, before the scalpel, there was the curly-haired bully and his cleaver. Tendulkar is so much more than just some numbers and Indian wins.


Prashant Srivastava said...

You made me nostalgic :)

Still remember getting goosebumps when Tendulkar walked on to the ground. When everyone else seemed just so pedestrian (cause they were). And when the team collapsed when he got out.

The team of 90s was Tendulkar.

Rohan said...

For old times' sake, I switched off the TV just now when he got out... :)

Sangeeta Mishra said...

Lovely George, very very well put, kudos to the legend !!

Hari Om said...

Nice essay. I found your blog and its very good. Keep it going!