As Sachin Tendulkar's career was nearing its end, his fans were having a tough time. Every time he was going in to bat, I knew I would be missing all this soon. While I wanted to savour every innings, every shot, every battle; there were noises that kept obsessing over some number or statistics every time he went in to bat. While they feared if Sachin will end his career without checking some more boxes in his records list, I feared the day when I won't read his name on the score sheet.
The hundred hundreds was a made up record for me as it involved adding up number across formats. Shane Warne had crossed a thousand international wickets and no one ever noticed when he crossed that pseudo landmark.
It was as if some of these people were looking at a race horse they had put their money on and not a national sports icon who had played the game with distinction for over two decades. That there was a game of cricket going on and all Sachin himself wanted was to enjoy every contest and help India win more matches wasn't a priority for this lot who viewed cricket for its numbers and didn't care so much for the subtle beauty in the grind and struggle of the battle.
When Sachin announced his retirement in October 2013, I resolved to watch the final two Tests as I would watch any other match. Enjoy the game, enjoy watching Sachin bat, bowl, or even chew his nails on the field like I have done for two decades. There will be enough time to get nostalgic once this is over, I said to myself. This, however, became impossible as my own mind kept going back to some instance in the past, and the TV broadcast and social media that owns part of my thought process kept gushing over Sachin's career.
My own life started appearing to me as a collection of memories related to Sachin's career milestones. I remember the 1996 World Cup where he was batting without a bat sponsor and charging fast bowlers at will. My mind used to be in a state of ecstasy at his batting and tensions over my school exams. The 2003 World Cup match against Pakistan was a mental conflict between pure exhilaration of that upper cut against Shoaib Akhtar and the apprehension of my upcoming engineering entrance tests. It wasn't just a sportsman retiring from the game, it was a close personal friend bidding farewell leaving innumerable memories of time spent together. Interestingly, and in contrast to the prevailing noise at that time, none of my memories were in the form of a record or a statistics from his career.
In the 1990s, Sachin was often the only reason for joy for us as a nation. A country that was trying hard but still struggling to stand up on its feet had finally found someone who was truly "world's envy, India's pride" as that famous TV ad went. The country needed a folk hero to rally around. You didn't have to look beyond this humble middle-class boy from Mumbai, gifted with a rare talent, who had worked extremely hard to become the best in the world at his trade.
At the fag end of the millennium, the news media was becoming aware of its clout and had started to delve into reporting that was becoming borderline absurd. I can't recall how many times the news channels repeated the line about Sachin giving Warne nightmares. Yes, Warne had said this in a manner of speaking while giving an interview and had later clarified that he wasn't seeing actual nightmares of Sachin. Our news channels had picked it verbatim though and repeated it a zillion times till it became imprinted in our collective minds.
They didn't stop at hero worship. At some point, the media realised that criticising what is sacrosanct in our minds can rattle us and help them grab even more eyeballs. This is not to say that Sachin was beyond criticism as a cricketer. There were some sensible voices giving a nuanced view and constructive criticism. But some "experts" were often criticising him just to get noticed with their counterviews.
It would have been bearable though if the criticism was just on cricket. The Ferrari incident was a watershed moment of sorts. It was a realisation that people were willing to digest the utterly absurd. The collective noise on Indian news channels was questioning Sachin and showing visuals of his effigies burnt. It was the time I grew cynical of news and I sensed Sachin too continued to distance himself from the unending din of media to stay focused on his game. To steal a line from that Batman movie he became "A hero we don't deserve yet but need desperately".
Back on the ground in the farewell series, Rohit Sharma on his Test debut and Ravichandran Ashwin against his favorite batting opposition ensured that Sachin batted only once in Kolkata, an innings many remember for umpire Nigel Llong's decision to give Sachin out LBW. Perhaps fittingly, an umpire made the headlines in Sachin's final series. Throughout Sachin's career, the easiest way for umpires to become household names was to adjudge him out when replays would show otherwise. Another thing that stood out from the Test was that Sourav Ganguly-Sachin Tendulkar hug at the presentation ceremony. One for the ages.
In the final curtain call at Mumbai, we got to see the Sachin we know. He looked in ominous form and played all his trademark strokes. There was a time late in the day when they showed Sachin's mother on the giant screen. She was watching her son bat for the first time ever. As gripping as it was to watch on TV, Sachin later revealed that he found it slightly insensitive on the part of TV producers to do that as it made hard for him to control tears and focus on his batting.
Tears weren't held back when he got out against the run of play and fans realised India may not have to bat again in the match. Grown up men who didn't sob while watching Darsheel Safari wail in Taare Zameen Par were now unable to control their tears. It wasn't just the spectators in the stadium, for once everyone on the ground was a fan including Sachin's teammates and opponents. The guard of honour he got when he walked out of the ground at the fall of West Indies' last wicket, the way he went back to touch the Wankhede pitch for the last time, the speech he gave with a lump in his throat all passed by in a daze as people were finally coming to terms with the enormity of Sachin's exit.
For me, I didn't have enough energy left to cry as I was busy absorbing it all. I was too busy looking back at the Sachin years, something I am still doing three years later. They say your whole life flashes by when you go through a near death experience. For me, those flashes will not be complete without a bunch full of Tendulkar straight drives!