Waiting to be knocked out cold..

The dust has now settled on Tendulkar’s retirement. Personally, I have been surprised at how tough this week’s been on me. Friends and colleagues have inquired about my well-being. My family tried their hand at perking me up. When that didn’t work, the next logical thing for them to do was to call me crazy for feeling so deeply about a sportsman. Yeah, great strategy if you want to help someone move on!!

All these social cues have made me ask myself why I feel this troubled, and what I value so much about this man that his departure has left me in a state akin to mourning. After considerable reflection, I think I have some answers…

There is a lot of talk about Tendulkar’s personal traits, his humility, his conduct, etc. And rightly so. Because those are great qualities and we all love him for having them. But, I realize now that the only thing that ever mattered to me was the weight of his work. Prior to Tendulkar, we had not witnessed such ferocity of talent fused with a titanium work ethic. He made the connect between promise and performance over and over again; so much so that the duration of it all simply challenges all notions of logic. I mean, how can someone be this good for this long? But, he has been. And that in itself is a matter of great discussion. But, longevity and performances are quite different from brilliance and genius; and brilliance and genius is where he had me. If I were to talk about a single moment when Tendulkar reeled me in, it has to be 1992.

Although, he had already been around for a couple of years by then, I had never gotten to watch him during the tours to Pakistan, NZ, or England. But, 1992 was the year of my board exams. And to say that I abhorred academics would be to put it mildly. The only upside to my life was the great game – watching it, playing it, and reading about it. I would be up at 4 AM to catch our performances Down Under, which were almost always humiliating. Still I kept going back for more. What can I say? I guess, we diehards are like that.

And, that’s when I first saw it. The impossible being accomplished before my very eyes. Let me explain.

To play shots square of the wicket on the offside, most accomplished batsmen would move away from the line of the ball, giving themselves more room to free their arms and then swing their bats along a horizontal curve. Even in this, its conventional form, the shot is beautiful to watch and very difficult to execute. Indeed, the annals of the game are littered with the corpses of good men who have perished trying to play some form of the cut shot.

But Tendulkar took it to another level.

On what was the fastest wicket on the planet at that time, with Michael Whitney’s diagonal line wreaking havoc, Tendulkar moved back and across to a delivery angling across his body at maybe 3 or 4 inches outside off stump. He brought himself closer to the line of the ball, thereby giving himself even less room!! Then getting on tip-toes, he swung his bat at warp speed to describe a circular plane that was parallel to his body and perpendicular to the ground!! At a precise point during the downward swing of the arc, the ball found the middle of the open face of his bat and singed the grass on its way to the point boundary.

When I saw the shot unfold, I wasn’t immediately delighted. I mean, I was. But, that came later. First, I remember being stunned into a dumb stare. Wait, what? Did he just….? Oh my God, what the hell was that?!! Were we to now believe that we can breathe naturally underwater? I mean, there were at least three slips and a gully. So, how could you even attempt a shot towards point when the ball was rising up to chin level from good length? And then to play the shot using a vertical bat swing while cramping yourself? That’s just insanity!! And, just as my mind was sorting through these confusing questions, he did it again. This time, he found the boundary at backward point. Then, a couple of overs later, he adjusted to a slightly front on posture and employed the same sequence of actions to smack a similar delivery between covers and point. It was madness, I tell you. Sheer madness!!

But, here’s the real kicker. Each time that he played the shot or one similar to it, my confidence grew, and I started to come to terms with this new solution to the rising ball outside off stump. Unfortunately, just then, someone else would get out edging the ball to the keeper or to slips and serve up an example of the negative consequence of attempting to play a similar delivery. So, while my notions of batting were being shattered to bits by Tendulkar at one end, they were being reinforced by the rest of humanity at the other end!! It was cognitive dissonance at its worst. Imagine feeling elated and miserable at the same time.

Till date, of all that I’ve seen of the man, that’s the Tendulkar image that’s burned into my memory – standing on tip-toes with his feet inches off the ground, his body ramrod straight, his head still and looking towards point, his arms curled up after having gone through with the shot, and his bat pointing up at the sky almost like a sword. And every time that this image pops into my head, it has such searing intensity to it, that he could well have been photographed slaying a dragon. After that, I mentally slotted him into this brand of beautifully explosive batting, and settled down to enjoy what was to come.

And just then, he pulled the rug from under me again.

It was 1999 and the ball was turning square at the hands of Saqlain Mustaq. We could see the pitch crumbling as early as the second session of play on day 1. Those big puffs of dust exploding off the deck with every delivery were simply terrifying. And on that spitefully turning track, Tendulkar crafted an innings of near perfection, full of patience, wrists, forearms, and footwork. If Perth and Sydney were stamps of authoritative defiance, then Chennai was all about discretion and dialogue. The manner of his play that day was an acknowledgement of the prevailing conditions; a symbolic doff of the hat to a spinner at the top of his game – I remember him taking a huge step forward to catch a fizzing off break at half-volley. But, the ball dipped before the expected point of bounce. Tendulkar quickly adjusted to make contact on the rise and softened his wrists to absorb the bite while pushing the ball to covers for a quick single. Not to be outdone, Saqlain let loose another lethal drifter. This one came in wide outside off stump, and the batsman moved forward. Then, the ball pitched and turned sharply, almost 60 degrees!! A surprised Tendulkar compensated by jumping back and pushing his elbows down to keep the ball from lobbing in the air. After contact, the ball bounced high off the deck and almost got past the close-in cordon. But, the fielder at silly point lunged to his left, intercepted it, and in one single action, transferred the ball to his throwing hand, and spun around to fling it at the stumps. Tendulkar who had started for the run, spun back and grounded his bat. Brilliance!! Frustration!!.. Saqlain grimaced and tried again with an airy delivery inviting the batsman to step out. Instead of taking the bait, Tendulkar moved deep into his crease and waited for the prodigious turn to play out. Then, in the last millisecond before a possible leg before, he quietly closed his wrists, deflected the ball to fine leg, and scampered for a couple. This was heart stopping stuff!!

A while later, we saw a floater curving in towards off stump. Tendulkar quickly shuffled back and across. And just when we thought that he was going to play for turn, we watched in shock as he shouldered arms to offer no shot. There was a collective gasp of “ooohhhoowww!!!” as the ball sailed barely 6 inches from off stump, and thudded into the keepers goves. “Well bowled, well bowled Saqlain bhai…. well bowled”, came Moin Khan’s trademark encouragement through the stump microphones. Despite no perceptible change in the the bowler’s action, Tendulkar had correctly read the spin to decipher that this one was going to straighten after pitching. All of us exhaled and looked at each other. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. An epic battle was raging right in front of our eyes, and no one moved.

By this time, it was obvious that Tendulkar’s back spasms were getting worse. The Pakistanis were suffocating him. In his crease, Tendulkar clutched his hip and stayed bent over. We could literally feel his pain and exasperation. What was he going to do, we wondered. Then came the next ball, flighted towards middle stump. Tendulkar danced down in a flash and BOOM, clobbered it flat between long on and the straight boundary!! It was sheer explosion; like he was saying “ENOUGH. I’ve had enough of these restraints, and am going to break free”. As both the umpire and the non striker scrambled to protect themselves from possible decapitation, the stadium went absolutely nuts!!

Minute by minute, and run by painful run, Tendulkar was inching India closer to the target. This was test cricket at its best. The skill on display was breathtaking. And tragic. When he finally skied one to Akram at long-off, I broke down weeping. The knot in my stomach was telling me that the rest of the sorry brigade weren’t going to be able to scrape together the 17 runs needed for a win. Even as I tried to comfort myself at having had the privilege of watching Saqlain and Wasim work their magic, my heart just could not bear the thought of losing after having come so close to victory through an innings of such mastery.

Yes, I remember that day as if it was yesterday.

Through the years, even my own family could not lay claim to my emotions as much as Tendulkar did. Watching him, I felt the perverse pleasure of those who went to watch a gladiator beat others to a pulp. And mind you, it wasn’t just because he was tearing attacks apart. In due time, he had plenty of company there (Virender Sehwag anyone?!). His allure came from the quality of his shot making which was at once angelic and vicious; exhausting, yet invigorative; picture perfect in its devastation. It was savagery elevated to high art.

But wait. Here’s where the script went for a toss. Because if we thought that we were through with our quota of geniuses per generation, we got thrown for a huge loop. Alongside Tendulkar came Dravid, Laxman and Kumble, all of whom became giants of the game; Masters in their own right. Even Ganguly was a sight to see when he was on song. Add to this mix, Lara, Ponting, McGrath, Warne, Kallis, Akram, and Shoib Akhtar, and we were just spoilt for choice. It was a cornucopia of gifted cricketers; a huge windfall of huge talent translated to great careers. And for us to have lived with these greats; to have watched them ply their craft and do battle out in the middle. That’s just been extraordinarily special.

Looking back, I think we just had a lot of plain dumb luck. I mean, after Sunny, Viv, Marshall, Hadlee and Kapil, who would’ve thought that their cricket could be outdone. But, that’s exactly what happened.

Now, with Tendulkar’s departure, it is finally over. The era of sheer cricketing brilliance and greatness as we knew it. And that’s why I have been in a crappy mood. Because despite the achievements of the new lot, I am still waiting to be knocked out cold. Waiting for someone to shake me up right down to my socks. Waiting for them to grab me by my soul and say, “Hey buddy, here I am. Take heart, there is great test cricket ahead”.

Yeah, I am still waiting for that.

I think we desperately need another mild-mannered 15 or 16 year old to make his test debut somewhere in the world.