Cricket in my life is an unacknowledged passion. Though I never write about it or actively think about it, I follow cricket fanatically. I browse Cricinfo for innocuous statistics like Carl Hooper's batting average in Australia or the win-loss record between New Zealand and Pakistan. Discussions on cricket make my ears perk up and I always have an opinion, a very stubborn one at that, on all things cricket. Basically, like any other Indian cricket fan, just a little crazier!
The topic that is doing the rounds in my brain cells, as in the mainstream and alternate media is Tendulkar – Is Tendulkar over? Is he a past great? Will he rise again like a phoenix? Is he the only immortal to have walked the cricketing pitches?
The answer to the last question, for me, became a definitive 'No' on the last day of January in 1999. The first test of the historic India-Pakistan series at Chennai was underway. I have always been an admirer of Pakistan Cricket and the prospect of a test match between Pakistan and India, after ten years was very exciting. After three days of very absorbing test cricket where fortunes swung and my heart missed its beats, this was the final act. India had put on 40 for the loss of both the openers at the end of the third day. Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were at the crease.
I woke up unusually early and sat down to watch the day's proceedings, brimming with bright optimism. On the ground, the conditions were cold and foggy. Dravid, still to score a big innings had not the slightest clue against the wiles of the Ws – Waqar and Wasim. Sure enough, he soon departed, bowled by the most magical ball I have ever seen.
Tendulkar, at the other end, looked resolute and impenetrable. It appeared that the man, who had bamboozled the Australians less than a year back, was all set to play that one champion innings missing from his portfolio. He defended dourly, stroked the good balls and avoided the balls outside off-stump like the plague.
The remaining two full-time batsmen did not last long either, falling to the spin of that under-rated off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq. Each fall of the wicket shook my confidence, only for it to be restored by the batsmanship of Tendulkar. I believed that as long as he lasted, and he looked like he would for ages, we still had a chance.
In walked, the last world-class wicket-keeper to have played for India – Nayan Mongia. He had one major innings, a slow and ground-out 153 against Australia in 1996. I uttered a silent prayer for the Gods, who smiled when he played that innings, to smile again.
For the next 192 minutes on that winter afternoon, I felt an impending sense of victory. So often had India had collapsed in such scenarios, so much so they could not touch the finish-mark of a paltry 120 against a weakened West Indies team in 1997. But today was going to be different. I had lunch when the players went off to lunch and took toilet breaks only when there were drink-breaks. I did not miss a single ball that was bowled nor the masterful artistry of the bat by Tendulkar. If there is one cricketing stroke that truly wamrs the cockles of my heart, it is the trademark straight drive Tendulkar unleashes. Each time he played a similar stroke, I smiled the smile of a devotee blessed with a boon. And this was no ordinary pilgrimage. It was a pilgrimage to banish the devils of uncertainity and seal a victory in trying conditions.
Wasim Akram had tried all the tricks he had up his sleeve. Saqlain employed the crease, both sides of the umpire and half the team inside the circle, to try and weed out the batsmen. Tendulkar dismantled each of his ploys with an authority bordering on the disdain. But he did not play a single casual stroke. Like all champions, he deemed to have a stable head that ensured no weak chinks in his armour.
Around five overs into the post-tea session, Wasim brought himself on to the attack. I am curious to know what it was that was going through Mongia's head as he slashed at a short one to offer a looping catch to Younis at mid-on. Yet again, the floor of certainity I stood on shook disturbingly.
In walked Sunil Joshi, no mean schmuck with the bat, at least in regional cricket. I clung on to the hope that Tendulkar will shepherd Joshi and the rest of the tail to an easy win. After all, there were just 53 more runs required.
And then, the cloak of immortality Tendulkar had put on, slipped. In one poorly thought-out stroke, that was executed much more poorly, Tendulkar tried to swat Saqlain out of the ground. Yes, Tendulkar was tiring. Yes, his back was hurting. But this was supposed to be a champion innings. An innings that was to lead from the front and take India to the victory. Hurdles and injuries be damned when you are on the battlefield. But, how can you, O Sachin the Great!, play a stroke so careless and so senseless?
As Tendulkar, the mere mortal for me from that moment on, walked out drudgingly, holding his back, I knew it was over. The finality of defeat that only threatened, at best, in the morning was a sure-shot certainity now. I was shattered. My dad was back and he could see the sadness plastered on my face. I went back to my room and shed a silent tear. It is one of those days I remember when I was distinctly and vividly depressed.
The contrast and the marked mortality of Tendulkar has just been emphasised over the years by the feats of other Champions. Less than two months after the Chennai Test, Brian Lara played a freakishly similar innings for West Indies. With one major difference. He stayed till the end and took his team to victory with just one wicket left. A few months later at the World Cup, Steve Waugh thrived in similar conditions against the South Africans, eventually leading his team to a famous World Cup victory.
Tendulkar is the greatest batsman India has ever produced. Tendulkar has provided me with more joy than any other Indian sportsman has. Tendulkar bludgeoned bowling attacks with an authority unmatched by any Indian batsman, ever or since then. But, in my eyes, he will never be the 'God' that he is to so many other fans.