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India's Lavish Farewell to the World's Most Famous Cricket Star : The New Yorker

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India’s Lavish Farewell to Sachin Tendulkar
Posted by Samanth Subramanian
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An hour before lunch on Friday, Sachin Tendulkar left a cricket field with a bat in his hand for the final time . He made no great fuss about it. The world’s most famous cricketer, and India’s favorite son, had just scored an impressive seventy-four runs. Now he briefly acknowledged the chanting, hollering crowd at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium and climbed the steps to the dressing room. His departure was as crisp as his batting.

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The moment was a watershed. For two years, India had chattered manically to itself about Tendulkar’s retirement, about when and how he should choose to leave the game. When he finally announced his decision to quit, in early October, the country fell into collective gloom . A national election lurks around the corner, but over the past month it has appeared to be of far smaller consequence than Tendulkar’s exit. The newspapers hummed with eulogies, nostalgic essays, and editorials about his career; one media group assembled an entire conference on the subject, called “ Salaam Sachin ”—a daylong orgy of speechifying and tribute-paying. There were serious suggestions that Tendulkar—who was named last year to a seat in the upper house of India’s Parliament—should transition swiftly into politics, and perhaps even become a member of the Cabinet . All around, you could feel a country anxiously gird itself to face the unimaginable trauma of a life after Tendulkar.

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The immediate prologue to Tendulkar’s last game had none of his own dignity or economy. As soon as he had made up his mind to retire, the Board of Control for Cricket in India—the famously rapacious national governing body for the sport—organized a farewell of prolonged lavishness. The Indian team’s planned tour of South Africa was summarily cancelled; instead, the B.C.C.I. arranged for the West Indies—easier opponents—to tour India. The West Indian visit included two Test matches, the classical five-day-long form of the game, scheduled so that Tendulkar could play his last and two-hundredth international Test—thirty-two more than any other player in cricketing history—at home in Mumbai.

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A special gold coin, embossed with Tendulkar’s image, was commissioned for use during the ritual toss at the start of each Test. In Calcutta, before the hundred-and-ninety-ninth, Tendulkar was given a wax statue of himself, the replica bearing only a muddled resemblance to its muse. He was also given a tree cast out of silver , with a hundred and ninety-nine leaves. Fortunately, the game in Calcutta finished too early for the organizers to get a helicopter into the air and shower Tendulkar with a hundred and ninety-nine kilograms of rose petals, as had been planned. On television, the Mumbai Test was billed and referred to exclusively as “Sachin’s two-hundredth”; the West Indies very quickly became forgotten accessories, attendants holding up Tendulkar’s train. All this was the B.C.C.I. at its preening, bullying best. On Saturday, feeling that not quite enough had been done, the Indian government gave him the Bharat Ratna , the country’s highest civilian honor, awarded previously to Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.

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Addressing the question of why Tendulkar matters so much, his admirers point first to his remarkable statistics. He first played international cricket in 1989, as a tousle-haired stripling of sixteen, plucked out of Mumbai and hustled onto a larger stage in a series of away matches against Pakistan—a nerve-shredding transition for anybody but Tendulkar, who built a twenty-four-year career upon that début. He has played more international games than anybody else, in which he has scored more runs than anybody else: thirty-four thousand three hundred and fifty-seven; his nearest competitor has only twenty-seven thousand. He has scored more than a hundred runs in an inning a hundred times, far more than any other cricketer. His average in Test cricket is 53.78 runs per innings—which, over such a long career in a medium that prizes every fifty-plus score, is some kind of marvel.


But statistics can inspire only esteem, not love. The enumeration, in these ways, of Tendulkar’s achievements does nothing to explain the adulation that poured out of the bleachers at Wankhede Stadium when Tendulkar was at bat, on Thursday evening and then again on Friday morning. Every single ball he faced was negotiated to the thundering, unflagging soundtrack of “Suh-chin! Suh-chin!” His spectators stood to watch him, as if in worship. On Saturday, immediately after India had won the game with brutal authority in two and a half out of the allotted five days, Tendulkar delivered a speech : a little long, a little cheesy, but sufficient still to rend the heartstrings of the spectators. Grown men standing next to me made no attempts to hide their tears. This was no retirement; this was a bereavement.


Breaking down Tendulkar’s game into its constituent virtues yields no clues to the reverence that he drew. He was a batsman of profuse elegance, for instance, but the Indian team has had at least two other batsmen in the past two decades who were even more elegant. He was grand and aggressive while batting, but rarely in the gut-busting, seven-eighths-crazy, unsophisticated manner of some of his peers . His technique was like the coaching manual sprung to life—but again, this was even more true of another one of his longtime teammates. Tendulkar won matches for India, but not nearly as many as he could have, one suspects. There are other batsmen in the world, recently retired or still playing, who can lay empirical claims to similar greatness.


So how did Tendulkar become, as a former South African cricketer phrased it, “Maradona and Pele put together”? In India, we have arrived at a kind of retrofitted narrative to explain why he came to loom so large in our obsessions. He burst into cricket just as the country began to reinvent its economy and its spirit, and Tendulkar was already everything that India had started to dream of being: competitive, assured, hungry, world-beating. The delights and disappointments of his career can be overlaid almost perfectly upon India’s: the golden promise of the early nineteen-nineties, the soaring successes later that decade and early in the two-thousands, the consolidation and the insecurities thereafter, and the distressing wane of faculties in the past few years. Tendulkar was not so much an athlete as a projection of his country’s psyche.


This narrative sounds all right, but I’ve come to dislike it. It makes too little of the fact that in sport, and in life, we often give our hearts in mysterious ways that don’t reward profound analysis. It also shrinks Tendulkar’s mastery over his game, a timeless expertise that should evoke a sense of amazement in any country and any era. My favorite genre of Tendulkar anecdote involves other top-drawer cricketers talking about him, recounting instances of his consummate skill, expressing baffled awe about how he did what he did. How he had eons more time—some microseconds—to play the ball than any other batsman. How he could read a bowler’s mind. How he seemed faultlessly engineered to bat. Every sport seems basic in the range of its mechanics, requiring only that you hit a ball hard, or kick it accurately, or run really fast. You wonder how much better something so basic could possibly be done, until Tendulkar or Roger Federer or Usain Bolt shows you, and then you feel nothing but comprehension and gratitude.


Tendulkar did this again in his final innings in Mumbai, batting with measured patience for a hundred and fifty minutes, playing with concision and grace and deep knowledge, sending the ball exactly where he intended it to go. He stood in the middle of the arena, a tiny figure in white, tugging at his trousers, scrunching his eyes, adjusting his helmet, and crouching into his stance, in precisely the way he had been doing for twenty-four years. The waves of sound seemed to not touch him at all; he sucked the stadium’s energy into himself and remained absolutely poised. He made no mistakes until he made his last one, slicing the ball hard into the hands of a fielder positioned near him. The roar of the ovation began, but only after a few seconds of silent, grief-stricken shock. Tendulkar walked in solitary splendor towards the Indian team’s dressing room, but he paused for a moment to lift his arms towards his people, bat aloft. Then he was gone.


Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National and the author of “Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast.”

Indian students and cricket fans make a sand sculpture of Tendulkar in the northern city of Allahabad. Photograph by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty.
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