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In the next month, the most sought-after ticket in India will be for a retirement party: the 200th and final Test match to feature cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, who last week finally announced plans to leave the game.
The decision was long in coming and (while few here care to admit it) had also been quietly hoped for. At 40, Tendulkar is no longer the dashing player his admirers choose to remember. The acclaim that greeted his announcement was thus tinged with relief that the greatest batsman of recent times had gone before frailty tainted his many achievements.
Sporting feats alone cannot explain the affection with which this diminutive figure is held in India, although they are the basis for it. Having first played international cricket at 16, he boasts records including the most runs and the most centuries scored by any international player. While it is often said of retiring greats that their triumphs will not be matched, Tendulkar’s longevity alone means that his successes really are unlikely to be surpassed.
Yet it was style as much as talent that distinguished him from the other feted Indian cricketers with whom he played, a standing confirmed by the fact that he alone is known just by his first name: Sachin. And this style in turn came partly as a response to the moment in which he played – one that, as many commentators noted last week, meshed almost exactly with India’s economic liberalisation after 1991.
Tendulkar embodied the successes that became possible in this era. Yet unlike many other icons of cricket and Bollywood – the twin poles of Indian celebrity – he did so while sustaining a reputation for both humility and probity.
One newspaper reported this weekend that he chose to play his final match in Mumbai, his home town, so that his elderly mother could come and watch. The story is likely to be at best partially true, given that his retirement has been the subject of lengthy and complex behind-the-scenes negotiation with the country’s cricketing authorities.
Yet it nonetheless fits his simple, decent and grounded reputation as a man who avoided the stains of extravagance and corruption that now mark both Indian sport and national life more generally. If cricket is the national obsession, this is why Tendulkar has been its true love, and the object of a devotion as tender as it has been passionate.
It was a bond cemented during his emergence as a teenage prodigy in the early 1990s, a point at which the country found itself mired in communal disharmony as well as economic dysfunction. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, just as Tendulkar began to build his reputation during a high-scoring tour of Australia. The following year rioting occurred in many of the biggest cities, including Mumbai.
It was against this troubled backdrop that the man known as the “little master” became an unusually unifying figure, with a popularity that stretched across India’s many divisions, providing hope in troubled times just as baseball stars such as Lou Gehrig are said to have lifted the spirits of Depression-era America.
Yet his renown was also helped by a further factor, namely that until the past couple of years at least, his career got better as it went on. True, his first decade contained many of his most exhilarating performances but these were often made in pursuit of losing causes. It was only in the 2000s, when surrounded by a wider group of unusually skilful teammates, that Tendulkar’s greatness coincided with broader successes for his nation, and India went on to produce arguably its best ever team.
It is worth remembering that Tendulkar made his international debut in 1989 against Pakistan, a country that at the time was much richer than its neighbour, as well as better at cricket. Today, India is transformed, being both the dominant force in the sport and on its way to becoming an economic superpower.
It is a measure of the new self-assurance stemming from these facts that Tendulkar’s retirement was greeted with much sadness but little angst. Where once he would have been seen as irreplaceable, now there is faith that India will prosper without him. He has been the country’s greatest player but it has grown confident alongside his prowess. That may also be the best of his legacy.
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