Thursday, November 14, 2013

Farewell to Cricket's Little Master

India's Sachin Tendulkar, pictured in the first Test against West Indies on Nov. 8, will start his final international match Thursday. Demotix/Press Association
Today  for more than a billion people, the world as they know it effectively comes to an end. The second Test match between India and the West Indies that begins on Thursday in, inevitably, Mumbai, will be the last international appearance of one Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. You might have heard of him.
For so many people—essentially, anyone more than a couple of years younger than him—Tendulkar more or less is cricket. He has been the game's most recognizable figure for two decades, its biggest star and very frequently its finest batsman. His retirement removes a constant from cricket—the game's purest source of technically perfect batting pleasure, a source none of us really believed in our heart of hearts would ever go away.
As well as appearing in a record number of matches—Mumbai will be his 200th Test—Tendulkar holds more or less every batting record in the game: 15,000-plus Test runs, 18,000-plus One-Day International runs, 51 Test centuries, 49 ODI centuries—you name it. Those figures will almost certainly never be surpassed, simply because of the sheer unlikelihood of a player breaking into an international side aged 16, staying in it until the age of 40, and spending almost all of the intervening period at the very top of his game.
But it isn't his statistical record, or even his perfectly compact, spare, balanced, faultlessly complete batting technique that makes it unlikely that there will ever be another cricketing figure of comparable stature. Tendulkar's career coincided with the game's period of money-driven hyper-expansion, particularly in India; he was both the poster child for cricket's incredible growth phase and a link with its antediluvian era, someone who had been an international cricketer for 14 years before the first domestic Twenty20 match was even played.
The joy of Tendulkar is that he doesn't seem to have changed much between 1989 and 2013. He still unites the game's constituency in admiration, and he still exudes the same sense of soft-spoken integrity—in a quarter-century at the top of the game, he has attracted only the mildest controversy, and only very rarely. He has never even really said anything that you could quote back critically at him.
The endless rolling hoopla around his retirement—to which this article is a modest contribution—like the yearlong feeding frenzy around his hundredth international hundred two years ago, can get a bit deafening, but then that devotion is precisely what makes Tendulkar unique. As he was about to walk out to bat following the dismissal of Murali Vijay in the first game of the two-match West Indies series, the crowd at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata provided possibly the most extreme version of the extraordinary roar that always greets the fall of the second Indian wicket in home Tests—one of the very few cases ever of a crowd habitually cheering one of its own team's wickets, whoever it is that's out.
His disappointing 10 in India's only innings of the Eden Gardens game, which the home side won by an innings and 51 runs, ended when he was trapped LBW playing back to off-spinner Shane Shillingford, the sort of dismissal that has crept into his game in the past couple of years. The ball, in fairness, looked to be going over the top of the stumps, but India's refusal to use the Decision Review System meant Tendulkar couldn't refer it upstairs.
Ultimately, his latter-day drop in form will be forgotten; a couple of years don't mean much in the context of a 24-year career so magnificent. There is also no reason to assume that he held on so long for reasons for personal vanity—why would he, when he has nothing left to prove? Much like Ricky Ponting of Australia, he was the last and greatest man standing among a generation of great batsmen, and didn't want to leave a vacuum: Rahul Dravid's , VVS Laxman's and Sourav Ganguly's were big shoes to fill. He's been successful in that, meaning that in retirement, the hole he leaves as a player isn't too huge, something that would have been thought impossible even just a couple of years ago.
Heading the generation of new talent hoping to replace those greats is Virat Kohli, increasingly talked about as the Little Master's likeliest successor—although admittedly that sets the bar unrealistically high. Cheteshwar Pujara and Shikar Dhawan are both richly promising, an adjective that has also been over-applied for years to Rohit Sharma, who suggested that he might finally be ready to step into the big time, after years of shortchanging his own outrageous talent, with a characteristically graceful debut 177 at Eden Gardens. None of these young batsmen, though, has played more than 20 Test matches, underlining how important to the team it was that Tendulkar carried on playing longer than he might perhaps have wanted to.
Naturally, the other of the two teams actually playing in the current series, the West Indies, has pretty much disappeared from view. That's particularly a shame for the man who sits eighth on the all-time Test run-scoring list that's headed by Tendulkar: Shivnarine Chanderpaul. For him, the Mumbai game is also a landmark: his 150th Test. Where Tendulkar has 15,847 career Test runs at an average of 53.71, Chanderpaul has 10,897 at 51.89. Where Tendulkar been a member of several generations of the Indian team, sometimes taking his place at the heart of a great batting lineup, sometimes apparently carrying it entirely on his slight shoulders, Chanderpaul has been a quite remarkable rock for the West Indies during one of the most challenging periods in the team's history.
And where Tendulkar has done it all with a technique that appears to have been machine-tooled to perfection with diamond drills by white-coated boffins in a Zurich laboratory, Chanderpaul has done it with a technique apparently constructed from the bits they shaved off, powered by a profoundly pragmatic open-chested sideways lurch across the crease as the ball is delivered that would have most old-school coaches reaching feebly for the smelling salts.
At 39 years old, Chanderpaul soldiers on, but not for much longer—another great on the verge of retirement. For the West Indies, he will be irreplaceable. 
The difference with Tendulkar is that he will be irreplaceable for every cricket fan; a tiny man who leaves the most massive of holes, he is cricket's greatest ever superstar.
Nov. 12, 2013 1:38 p.m. ET

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