The Ferozeshah Kotla is not among my favourite cricket grounds. An unnerving experience of being lathi-charged during an India-Pakistan match in 1999 convinced me that a city of VIPs (of the 'don't you know who I am' culture) isn't the best place to watch a game. All that changed last week when I decided to go and see the finals of the T 20 Champions League. The joyous atmosphere was infectious and even the sight of Mallika Sherawat giving away the prizes did not take away from what was a special occasion: the legendary Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid on the same field for one last time.
Rahul and Sachin: a number 3 and 4 like Indian cricket has never seen. In any all-time Indian eleven, their names will be the first to be penciled in. If Rahul was the wall, Sachin was the mountain. If Rahul's defensive technique was a masterclass, Sachin's range of shots were breathtaking. They were great individual players, but as a duet, this was a partnership made in heaven. They were to cricket what Rafi and Lata or a Kishore and Asha were to film music: contrasting approaches to the art of batsmanship but united by their sheer genius.
Right through his cricket career, Rahul was always in Sachin's shadow. Statistically, Sachin's hundred international hundreds is a monumental record which won't be beaten in a hurry. But there are other statistical measures that place Rahul in the same league, well almost. He has scored more runs that any other batsman in India's overseas wins, faced more balls and been involved in more century partnerships. If Rahul has never quite been seen as an equal of Sachin, it is only perhaps because a Tendulkar is, in every sense, a once in a generation cricketer whose iconic status dwarfs all else, a bit like how the great Australians in and around the Bradman era never quite got their due.
And yet, something strange has happened in the last two years wherein Rahul's 'second' innings has lifted his stature further even as questions have been raised over Sachin's future for the first time. Part of this has to do with the manner in which these two champions have chosen to bid farewell from the game. 18 months ago, Rahul decided to quit international cricket after a disappointing tour of Australia. He wasn't the only Indian batsman to fail, had just scored a remarkable three centuries in a series in England only a few months before, and could easily have continued for a while longer. That he chose to quietly walk into the sunset without any grand farewell, without being lifted off the ground by teammates or any lap of honour, is perhaps typical of a man who preferred to let his broad bat do all the talking. His role in guiding a young Rajasthan Royals side to play above themselves is in many ways a tribute to his obsessive determination to place team above self, to guide and mentor generation next.
Contrast that with Sachin. The master blaster's decision to retire comes after he failed to score a hundred in 22 tests and has just two half centuries in his last 12 tests. He has been bowled a shade too frequently for a great batsman and worrying questions have been raised over slowing reflexes and a fraying technique. The BCCI has been accused of 'designing' a series only for Sachin to achieve the 200 test milestone.
Even Sachin's entry into the Rajya Sabha as a nominated Member of Parliament has not met with unanimous approval. The fact that he has barely attended a couple of hours of Parliament over the last year has sent out a negative message: almost as if he has treated a position of responsibility purely as a ceremonial honour. Questions have been raised whether it was necessary for Sachin to become an MP even while continuing with his cricket career.
This is not to suggest that Sachin should have gone the Rahul way and retired when people said why, and not when they say, why not. Retirement is a highly personal decision, and when you have achieved as much as Sachin has over such an extended period of time, then you deserve to be the best judge of when you feel enough is enough.
Yes, I do believe that retiring after the famous World Cup win in Mumbai in 2011 would have been the perfect fairytale end to a glorious career but after batting so well in that tournament, one can understand the temptation to go on just that bit longer. After all, cricket for Sachin has been an all-consuming passion since he was just about old enough to hold a bat in hand.
Tearing yourself away from a sport you love so much is never easy. Look at Roger Federer, remember Mohammad Ali. There is always the belief that maybe you have that one more Grand Slam, one more fight, one more great innings in you. It's a natural desire to constantly believe there just might be one more peak to be scaled, one more moment of excellence to be savoured. Those who have questioned Sachin's desire to play on tend to forget that he had his most successful year in 2010, a year when he seemed to roll back the years and bat with an authority scarcely seen since his pomp in the late 90s.
In the final analysis, the retirement debate will scarcely be a footnote: what will dominate are the golden memories: of a Sachin punch off the back foot, of a Rahul cover drive. Both these middle class India role models have been ornaments to this great sport, masters of the game who remained servants to its fine traditions. Rahul has gone, Sachin will follow him next month. No wonder there is an emptiness within. Watching Indian cricket just won't be the same again.