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How could Sachin Tendulkar not be the greatest ever?

Mumbai: The ambience was almost serene when I first met Sachin Tendulkar on April 27, 1992, compared to the utter mayhem of November 14, 2013 at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai.

I couldn't help but think that life had come full circle for me on the first day of Tendulkar's 200th and final Test against the West Indies. My association with him was now complete.

I reflected back on that fateful day in 1992 when an 18-year-old school boy looked at me through innocent eyes, studied me with a naked curiosity, before holding my hand in a firm grip to introduce himself saying, "Hi, I'm Sachin. How are you?"

I looked at a boy who was making the transition into an adult, but I could never comprehend that he would one day become a legend by virtue of having the most complete cricketing career. He allowed me to be a part of three days of his high octane life. I accepted him as an integral part of my world for 24 years.

Two decades later, I am back at the Wankhede, sitting amongst a raucous crowd, when the stadium exploded at the fall of Murali Vijay's wicket. In walked Tendulkar for one final tryst with the forces of destiny that have rewarded him amply for the homage that he has paid to the game and its principles.

Aware that every minute which ticked past was hastening his retirement from the game, Tendulkar did something which one has never seen him do before: he touched the pitch in worship and respect, as if invoking a superior power to give him that last but all-important shot at attaining cricketing immortality as he walked off into the sunset.

aACAyTino sucks, Tino sucks', bayed the crowd, the noise shaking the rafters of a hot and humid Wankhede Stadium on Thursday. The West Indian fast bowler had just bowled two bouncers in a bid to upset the rhythm of Mumbai's favourite son and the 33,000-strong crowd that had housed itself inside the stadium roared out their disapproval. They were willing, praying and hoping fervently that Tendulkar would sign off his final innings in style, after one last flirtation with the forces of immortality even as experts predicted that the second Test would not last its allocated quota of five days.

The little master proceeded to turn the clock back and impose his presence with a batting style that was so distinctly him -- retro and refreshing -- it was vintage Tendulkar, playing with the bowlers, testing the mental fortitude of the fans and teasing the fates to come forward and derail his scheme to sign off in a blaze of glory.

The crowds responded with an outpouring of love and, in keeping with the advancement of the times, with gushing tweets. It was delirious abandon. In boring times such as this with election fever in the air, and scheming politicians begging for votes, this was welcome relief.

Which begs the question: How could Tendulkar not be the greatest ever? Who else can we summon up in our limited universe? He's dedicated to his craft, reverential of the game and proud enough of his abilities to continue their enhancement well into his 40s.

The Kohlis, Sharmas and Dhawans, despite their outrageous talent, will have to wait for their moment for they are peripheral mini-dramas in a theatre which has only one protagonist.

Tendulkar has played more games consecutively than any other cricketer, dead or alive. Punched in and out of work for 24 long years and yet retired while in his early forties. Retirement day was memorable with people refusing to go to work and making up all sorts of excuses -- from common cold, to stomach bugs and high fever -- just to slip into a Mumbai train and head for the Wankhede, or sit glued in front of their television sets after praying to every Hindu deity who could calibrate the planets and put them in favourable positions so that it would benefit India's favourite son.

High performance athletic lifetimes come with the usual perks of fame and money. To the performer, however, these are incidental. Tendulkar would have traded in quite a few of the millions that he has earned through every year of his long career, just to sign off with a century in his final Test, to prove to his mother, who has never ever watched him bat, that her son could indeed write poetry with a cricket bat and tug at the heartstrings of an entire nation in doing so. To make her believe that what she saw for 24 years was not some long running soap opera on television but the real life story of her youngest son.

He did more than just win over the loyalty of every Indian with his batting. He influenced them with his doggedness, stoicism, gladiator's spirit and told them it was okay to sacrifice everything at the altar of performance. He assured the fan that they need not settle for just anything, anymore. They were entitled to have the best for the money and attention they were paying at a time when huge salaries and sordid commerce has infected the game. He singlehandedly restored the public's faith, when the portals of Indian cricket were shaken with sordid allegations of match-fixing; when heads and reputations rolled, he made the public believe that he was batting for the nation with fresh, clean cut authentic centuries; and they came with amazing regularity. It made him a first-choice in the Indian team from the year he made his debut till the day he retired.

In sport, one is accustomed to celebrating freaks of different and unique abilities. Tendulkar was a freak of his disposition. He just liked to play cricket and he played as many games as he could and as hard as he could, stopping only to listen to the doctors when they told him that his shoulder was on the verge of coming apart and that he needed to rest: which is what he did. He then came back to storm cricket's bastion with a renewed and sustained assault on every imaginable record that was there for an individual to possess.

Not once did he falter, making his endurance and spirit the new standard in sport. No one could ever question the purity of his motives. He didn't bounce around, act cool, or invite unwanted attention to himself. He didn't exaggerate his love for the game either, or act like some caricatured goof. He just showed up to work and this attitude oozes out positive values to those who seek inspiration.

Of course, a country as abashedly schmaltzy as India does not reward an athlete with affection based on attendance alone. Which is why he gave them a 100 hundreds; 200 Test appearances; in excess of 15,000 runs in Tests; an average of 50 plus and over 50,000 runs in all forms of the game. He was the pivot upon which the fortunes of the Indian team revolved and by virtue of that facility it was important that his mental reserves remained stable and impregnable to pressure.

Stubborn is the word that comes to mind when summing up Tendulkar's personality. He was devoted to principle. Whether that made much sense to the rest of us is irrelevant it was, nevertheless, something to marvel at.

His devotion to this code -- to play well at every opportunity -- coupled with an aversion to losing knows no season. But at no point did he give off the air that he was bigger than the game. Rather, he illustrated the significance that he was there because of it and therefore it was his duty to play it well.

Are we mentally prepared for what we are going to miss when he walks out of the Indian dressing room for one last time? Is India capable of dealing with the vacuum that he may have left behind? To believe that is to subscribe to the view that Tendulkar was selfish. Far from it.

He has made sure that he leaves behind a very rich legacy of young Indian cricketers who grew up idolising him, wanting to play like him and be like him. They are in the process of stepping up to the plate in a bid to live up to the high standards and achievements that he leaves behind as a cricketer and a role model.

A cold winter is slowly coming upon us. A sense of loneliness hovers over those who have lived their lives in tandem with the two decades that Tendulkar has played cricket. Which cricketer must we subject to unreasonable expectations now that he will no longer be there?

It is unfair to today's athletes that our expectations of them must be ambiguous. We want them to behave like adults, while playing with the fervour of children; to act unassumingly while we shower them with attention; to be responsible to their sport, while we treat it like a game. Not many could deal with our adverse yearnings as well as he did.

Let us play it safe, arrest our growing cynicism and put up a benchmark, in honour of Tendulkar, for the others to pursue. Let that be the benchmark to greatness.

A 100 hundreds perhaps?

It has a nice ring to it.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Nov 17, 2013
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