Over the last fifteen to eighteen months it was gradually dawning upon me that it was only a matter of time. The reflexes seemed slow, the dismissals were more loose, the body appeared tired and the aura seemed to be diminishing with every passing game. I knew the moment was approaching. It was with a foreboding sense of an unpleasant arrival that I would watch each Sachin Tendulkar dismissal in recent memory. After the defeat to England in the home series last winter I had a passionate discussion with an uncle and a cousin bemoaning how Tendulkar was stretching it out too far and that it was perhaps time he realized that we did not want his last memories being those of failure.
And then I thought to myself - what has the world come to, when the devoted seek the discontinuation of their idols. I was six when I first watched Tendulkar bat. He flayed Abdul Qadir for multiple sixes in an unofficial game on the 1989 tour of Pakistan and watching the game on a tiny grainy black and white television set, I was instantly drawn to this young aggressive kid who seemed to hold no fear. I remember crying after India lost that game (my wife would testify that even at 30 I come quite close to achieving that feat after every significant sporting disappointment) and my father went on to impart one of the most important lessons of life right then and there - victory and defeat are part of the journey, learn to take them in the stride and move forward. Those words helped in assuaging my hurt every time I saw Tendulkar get out cheaply or India lose its way after he had all but won it for the team (Chennai 1999 anyone?)
As a young boy I only wanted to see Sachin on the field. I wished he could bat at all positions, bowl most overs and field everywhere. I would be thrilled if he would take a key wicket, effect a run out or take a remarkable catch. I would hear commentators laud his batting but more importantly appreciate his willingness to be part of every moment in the game. Tendulkar for me had to be in the middle of every real or imagined cricketing scenario. If I was daydreaming of India winning the World Cup, it had to be him lifting the trophy or hitting the winning run. If it was a fantasy of defeating Australia away from home it had to be him hitting that crucial test century. Through him I explored the geography of the world. Places like Perth, Old Trafford, Auckland, Nottingham and Jo'burg became familiar names to be lived in animated discussions with school friends. Even obscure small towns like Benoni in South Africa have their place in the mind of an obsessed cricket fan because Tendulkar blazed away an attack there. I perhaps never confessed this to my wife but on our honeymoon last year I took her along to the Sydney Cricket Ground on our first day in Australia to see a Big Bash game. It wasn't the T20 I was interested in, it was the venue. Sydney was where Tendulkar scored his first century in Australia in a 1992 test. He would come back there to score an epic 241 in 2003 - a knock in which he eschewed all offensive off-side strokes till he reached a hundred simply because he had been dismissed caught behind driving at the ball in the two tests before. In 2007, he was back again at the SCG scoring a memorable century in an acrimonious test. SCG was SRT's favorite test venue - and how I could I miss an opportunity to experience it.
In many ways Tendulkar symbolized different things to the different generations that saw him play. To young kids like me who grew up while watching him play, he was the hero who did no wrong. Our innocence gave way to cynicism as we came of age and learnt of practices like match fixing as well as generally realized that the world was not as simple or so straight forward as our young years promised it to be. And yet through that evolution Tendulkar remained the pole star, the man who was the standard of behavior. To an older generation he was the carrier of excellence, the lone bright spot amongst a team struggling to assert itself in the 1990s. With him rode our hopes and when he was out, many a TV set were switched off. To the vintage connoisseurs of the game he was an attacking reincarnation of Gavaskar - the same diminutive stature but now packed with an aggressive turbo engine that could charge at the most feared of the bowlers and take them apart.
The first half of his career coincided with the boom in satellite television in India. He was the icon Indian cricket needed at that moment. The saturation achieved in the cricket calendar and the TV coverage of the game would arguably have come slower had Tendulkar not been around. He symbolized in many ways a growing, emerging self-confident India, free of its earlier burdens and not hesitant to stake a claim. To an extent he also reaped the benefits of the spread and popularity of the game with many of the young kids who grew up idolizing him joining the team and contributing to many of the victories that would have surely made the second half of his career more sweeter.
There are too many Tendulkar moments to compile and too many to mention. A nostalgic and heavy heart stops me from listing them out tonight. The videos will always stay around but what are irreplaceable are the visual memories of the atmosphere of those innings. Those evenings of a young childhood watching him battle an Australian attack and a desert storm to single handedly win two games back to back. That excruciating winter afternoon when his back and India's lower order gave way in a thrilling chase in Chennai. The cozy comfort of a warm blanket on an early January morning watching him make his Sydney classics or simply the crisp spring air that blew around as he tore into Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib in March of 2003 at Centurion.
When another one of my idols, Rahul Dravid retired, I lazed around and never got down to writing a tribute. I promised myself casually then that I would definitely write one when Tendulkar goes. That time has now come. Tendulkar for me represents something larger thank cricket. He was in many ways the last link to a memorable period of my life long gone. A childhood that in some ways found an extension as he kept playing game after game, year after year. That period of fascination that began when I was aged six seemed never to have gotten over, until now. Today, I feel a sense of ageing. Today I feel the grey hair on my head and I feel 30. It is as if a link with a distant time, preserved carefully, has been eased away. Tendulkar will no longer be on the cricket field. Things will now be a quite different.