During the 1990s, there was a famous billboard advertisement that read, “Tendu, Ten Don’t.” That was when bookies waited to gamble until they knew what Sachin Tendulkar did with his wicket; they knew once he was gone, more often or not, the result could be predicted.
India’s not that dependent on the man anymore, and they haven’t been for a long time, thanks to Ganguly and Dravid and Laxman and Sehwag (and now, thanks to Dhoni and Yuvraj). But the man still refuses to follow the typical script of the athlete, the rhythm of the rise, summit and fall that traces the wonder and fragility of the human body. He’s supposed to fade away, but he just won’t — that 175 against Australia wasn’t an anomaly.
Near his retirement, Ganguly once said, half-jokingly, that all cricketers get dropped and re-selected — “except Tendulkar. They’ll never drop Tendulkar.” Fine, say what you want about the man, he’ll decide his own exit and when he does, Indian cricket won’t necessarily crumble.
But what will we do when he eventually heads off? At this point, does anyone anywhere think that much of Ganguly, except perhaps when one of India’s many useless sports channels play his greatest innings reels? Or Dravid or Kumble? Will we forget Sachin once he goes?
Maybe he’ll be different. It’s not just that Tendulkar has played for so long. The man’s career also spanned India’s economic rise post license-raj. In the 1990s, faced with a still-yet uncertain future (and even more uncertain minority governments), we could always rely on Sachin, the one man who wouldn’t abandon the coalition. He almost made capitalist modernity comfortable for India; we trusted in him, and we grew to trust in ourselves (before Ganguly could take his shirt off at Lord’s, Sachin had to hammer the English and Australians). We grew too comfortable; a couple of years ago, a Mumbai crowd booed Sachin (capitalism allows for no gods).
There’s another thing, though: we’re seeing in cricket what’s already happened to most consumer goods. The market has broken into multiple niches; gone are the days when, say, one band ruled all musical charts. Now, there’s Twenty20, ODIs, Test cricket — even fantasy cricket if you prefer the virtual. We all had common cricket heroes and villains; now, we’ll find many mini-superstars who burst with an IPL innings and then disappear until the next slog.
But Tendulkar — or Ponting, or Waugh or whatever — he’s different. When he leaves, we’ll not only lose the chance to see more innings like the one he played against Australia. We’ll lose a certain way with cricket.