Notes from a swansong
It hits home when he says, thin voice scaling over the din of the crowd, “Goodbye.” Sachin Tendulkar, a constant in Indian life since 1989, will not play for India again.
“Goodbye” is the last of almost two-and-a-half thousand words he speaks over 20 minutes in the bright but hazy noon at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium. The speech has already earned a place in the canon of public oration in India. There is a sheet of paper he consults during the address, but the rest of the words pour forth from the moment.
The overhead sun and his white floppy hat cast a shadow over the top half of his face. All you can mostly see is the nose and mouth. This is the opposite of when he batted, when you saw his eyes over the visor of the helmet.
For once, it is his mouth doing the talking.
The length and power of the speech surprise people.
Tendulkar is not known to conquer with words, though he has improved remarkably. People expect him to be drained. What can he say? What is there to be said? The same old things. They are indeed the same old things. But they are spoken from the heart. That, combined with the fact that this is his last appearance for India, make the speech an emotional tour de force. People stand still, rapt. Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly, famous men more accustomed to being watched, are happy to be spectators, watching their former teammate on a giant screen from under a blue umbrella, the sun glinting off their dark glasses when they step out of the shade.
The one thing that continues to be in motion is Sudhir Gautam, the famous Indian cricket fan who perhaps bathes in Asian Paints. He stands towards the eastern side of the ground, pushing the Indian flag from side to side. When you run into him later, he says he has left behind his conch shell, his other prized possession apart from the national flag, and darts off.
After Tendulkar’s speech is a lap around the ground on the shoulders of teammates. And then the last homage to the pitch. This soil is revered by cricketers. Academies and tournaments are often inaugurated by the breaking of a coconut on the pitch. In 1995, Tendulkar had inaugurated the Elf Vengsarkar Academy at the Oval Maidan in similar fashion. Sanjay Manjrekar was also there. Tendulkar called him ‘Manji Boy’ then. Seems like the day before yesterday.
Around the Wankhede, facial muscles twitch. ‘Not a single dry eye’ is the phrase being thrown about. For once, it is accurate. The drama is genuine. Because Tendulkar, for the most part of his career, has been genuine. The same cannot be said of the politicians and administrators who stand near him now. The crowd knows this and boos them.
Journalists are victims of seen-it-all-ophia, but now the press box is silent. For the first time in journalistic history, the lunch lies ignored. West Indies captain Darren Sammy comes for the press conference. Of the nearly 170 journalists in the press box, only about a dozen attend the interaction with Sammy, that too after almost being implored to do so by organisers.
Tendulkar announced his retirement from all forms of international cricket on 10 October. Expectedly, his swansong often degenerated into the farcical, preyed on by political and commercial opportunists, sycophants and hyperbolic media. But there were redeeming factors. And often they had to do with cricket and not the tamasha.
The first of these moments was in Lahli, where Tendulkar’s goodbye tour began with Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy engagement against Haryana. The trip got off to a chaotic start. The dressing room at the Bansi Lal Stadium was in such a state that Tendulkar, who normally takes the high road and doesn’t complain, was prompted to wonder, “Yeh dressing room hai?” The town also showered him with suffocating love, without wiggle room for so much as a stroll to the wicket minus the hordes following him. The Haryana team too was guilty of some over-the-top gestures. It is one thing for grown-up men to give a man a guard of honour, another to salute him.
But the game was refreshing. The green wicket, village fair atmosphere and even contest between bat and ball compensated for the circus of the days leading up to the match. Tendulkar was out cheaply in the first innings, but in the second, he scored an unbeaten 79 to take Mumbai over the line.
Eden Gardens came next but it made more news for the way everyone fawned over Tendulkar and the wax statue that looked more like Piyush Chawla.
Then came Mumbai.
At first the fever seemed to have plateaued. The night before the match a media accreditation official agreed that things felt forced, not least because of the quality of the West Indies side and the contrived manner in which the series was slapped together to facilitate Tendulkar’s exit. But when it is cricket and the player is Tendulkar, the number of followers remains large. The day before the match, the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) office is filled with people seeking passes. There also are service providers awaiting their accreditation cards. People in various uniforms are present, as if Maganlal Dresswala had started operations in the building. From one cabin emerges a commando in Army fatigues. A chef wearing a white apron with the logo of Moveable Feast, the catering service, waits to meet an official. There are two women players in blue India shirts. Somewhere, there is a traffic cop.
It is a smoggy morning when the match begins. The mega-screens flash a countdown. ‘Time to SRT 200, 94 seconds… 93…92…’ SRT 200 is how this match, India’s 474th Test overall and 90th against the West Indies, comes to be known. The Indian team wears customised whites commemorating SRT 200. The Star Sports commentators wear SRT 200 blazers. SRT makes his speech with an SRT 200 microphone.
The West Indies bat first. Before the first ball is sent down by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Tendulkar, positioned at mid-on, bends to touch his toes. Then he goes down on all fours, as if to walk on his limbs, and jogs his legs. The gossip is that the West Indies are not too invested in the contest and have been rather busy after sundown. They are all out before you can say ‘Shivnarine Chanderpaul’.
Things look interesting. For once people want two India wickets to fall quickly. They do, and Tendulkar walks in, turning his shoulders side to side, wheeling his right arm and looking up at the sun. He starts carefully, getting his eye in against the likes of offspinner Shane Shillingford, who got him in Kolkata, though thanks to a disputable decision from the umpire. Gradually, he opens up. The chant of ‘Sachiiin, Sachin!’ gathers momentum too. You hear bugles, plastic bottles banging against seats, shouting, whistling, rhythmic clapping. A roar ripples around the stadium during Mexican waves. On Staircase 6 of the Vijay Merchant pavilion stand two blue-shirted, corporate looking men, likely in their thirties. For a while they don’t say much. Ultimately one of them joins in the ‘Sachiiin Sachin’ chorus. He does it half-heartedly. The grown-up in him makes him self-conscious. But he must have started watching Sachin in his teens and that teenager wants him to go ahead and give it all.
The mind travels back to 1989. And this must be the case with anyone in the 35-50 age bracket. Arguably, this is the crop that best witnessed and registered the entire arc of Tendulkar’s career, in particular the period 1989-99, Tendulkar’s best years. This was a time when he played a certain way, television telecasts had recently improved and everything was new and exciting. And what does one say about 1989. Memories of Tendulkar’s selection in the Indian team for the tour to Pakistan are still clear. The Afternoon newspaper carried a photo of his on the front page, a beaming Tendulkar sitting with pads presented to him by Sunil Gavaskar on his lap. On the day of the team’s departure, Doordarshan interviewed Tendulkar inside the airport. “People have expectations of me, and I will try my best to fulfil them,” he said in Marathi. About a month later Maine Pyar Kiya released, and the nation fell in love with Bhagyashree Patwardhan. Those were indeed the days. The longevity of Tendulkar’s career made us feel younger than we were. If someone who started playing when we were in college was still at it, how could we be that old? Now that defence is gone.
Back to 2013. Tino Best bowls a determined but fruitless spell on the second morning. He comes close to getting Tendulkar and earning a mention in history but the snick eludes. Tendulkar is shaping up well for a hundred, and along the way has treated the crowd to some trademark straight drives. But a hundred would have been too perfect an ending. Off-spinner Narsingh Deonarine gets him for 74 to become cricket’s new Eric Hollies, the man who dismissed Sir Don Bradman in his final match. The first two deliveries after Tendulkar’s dismissal are fours, the first by new man in, Virat Kohli, the other by Cheteshwar Pujara. Last checked they are India players. But not many clap. It does not strike them that fours have been hit.
Pujara and Rohit Sharma score centuries, the latter with a bat presented to him by Tendulkar. There is no way India will bat again in the match. At best, people can hope to see Tendulkar bowl. The demands start early on the third morning. “Ganpati bappa morya, pudhchi over Sachinla dya.” (Ganpati bappa morya, give Sachin the next over.) His family has been in attendance and now the emotions start welling up in some of them. Seeking some privacy and respite from the attention, Ajit, Sachin’s reclusive older brother, finds a place high up in the Divecha Pavilion. A liftman points him out to a magazine photographer. “Aap jaao, unkey saath foto khichao na,” the liftman says. (Go ahead, take a photo with him). The photographer is baffled.
The liftman tells him not to worry, many took photos with Ajit. A little later, Anjali Tendulkar also comes to the stand, but attracts too much attention and leaves. On her way out, she hears on the public address system that her husband is to bowl. Raising her right hand, she does a small jig as the crowd chants ‘Sachiiin Sachin’.
Some two hours after everything is over, a few thousand still hang around the seats near the dressing room. They want to see Tendulkar one more time. He obliges them, emerging on the balcony. The man who has arranged this bonus goodbye is the MCA’s Vinod Deshpande. Deshpande gets resounding applause as he walks down the steps from the dressing room. He is unable to contain the width of his grin.
Somehow, people don’t want to leave the Wankhede, and seem paralysed by the moment. Moulin Parikh, a 27-year-old reporter with The Asian Age, sits at the foot of the long stairway that leads to the dressing room, staring at the field. “The other day the highlights of the 2003 World Cup match between India and Pakistan were being aired on TV,” he says. “My father was watching and refused to get up for something my mother wanted him to do. These were highlights of a match played ten years ago. My father is 64. I don’t know if there will be another player who will mean so much for people of all ages.”
The sign ‘Home Team’, in Roman and Devanagari, is fixed above the entrance of the Indian dressing room. It has chairs with red cushioning and wooden arms arranged along the periphery of the room. A long wooden table occupies the centre. In one corner are boxes of Twi- nings tea bags. In another corner is Tendulkar’s black cricket trunk with metal trim. The name ‘Sachin Tendulkar’ is emblazoned in cursive font on the trunk. Next to it is a blue plastic bag with floral bouquets sticking out. An attendant says Tendulkar will collect the kit later.
The West Indies team has left a while ago without much fanfare. Now, at last, the Indian team is ready to leave too. Anjali Tendulkar has the window seat of the first row to the left of the white Volvo bus. Sachin sits to her right, still in his whites, save for his footwear, which are black training shoes. Once more, a roar. Once more, a wave of the hand.
The next day, he meets the media at the rooftop of the Trident Hotel in Nariman Point, 350 feet above the ground, on the 35th floor of the hotel. His career is over, but the media frenzy around him has not gone down. I ask a photographer how many frames he has shot of Sachin in his half an hour at the Trident. “457,” he says, when the norm for a routine press conference shot is 50 frames maximum.
Leaving aside the chaos at the event, the ambience is of relaxed luxury, a far cry from the dust and sweat and tears of 24 hours ago. Lounge music from the Café Del Mar collection plays before Tendulkar’s arrival. Subdued blue lights cast a glow on the white ceiling and walls. Tendulkar wears an India tie, sharp suit, gleaming dress shoes and a watch that radiates wealth. He does not look like a man mourning the end of his career. He looks like a king, ready to spread his kingdom.