Final Innings for a Cricket Giant

The Indian artist Ranjit Dahiya working on a mural of Sachin Tendulkar in Mumbai last week.

The Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar’s ability to generate mind-numbing statistics has survived to the very end of his prodigious career. When tickets for his 200th and final five-day test match went on sale on Monday, 19.7 million hits within the first hour crashed the website selling them.

That overwhelming demand to see Tendulkar’s final test, which starts Thursday in Mumbai, testified to his unmatched standing in India as both a sports and a cultural hero.

“Jordan, Woods and Beckham may cross more boundaries,” the American writer Mike Marqusee wrote in 2002, in a profile of Tendulkar on the ESPN Cricinfo website. “But nowhere do those players carry the weight of expectation that Tendulkar carries in India (and among the Indian diaspora).”

To say merely that cricket is India’s most popular sport would be a vast understatement. Cricket stars smile on seemingly every billboard and television commercial, Tendulkar prominently among them. While soccer has long since taken over as the top sport in England, cricket’s birthplace, in India the nation’s sporting self-image is tied resolutely to its national cricket team.

Much of Tendulkar’s greatness comes from his ability to consistently fulfill those vast expectations. Few players have left so comprehensive a mark in the record books. Simply put, Tendulkar was the greatest batsman of his generation, with every kind of shot in his arsenal, from conventional drives and punches to improvised strokes that could take the breath away.

Tendulkar will become the first man to play 200 five-day tests, and he has already played more one-day international matches, 463, than anyone else. He is the highest career run scorer in both formats. He is also a rarity: a child prodigy who exceeded his potential. He was the youngest active test cricketer when he made his debut in 1989 at 16. He leaves the game 24 years later as the oldest active international player. And his accomplishments continued into the twilight of his career: In 2011, he was India’s top run scorer as it won the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. His extraordinary numbers of matches and runs do reflect the increase in the number of international cricket matches played in recent years. But if there is a doubt where he ranks historically, consider that Tendulkar was the only active player named by Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack to its all-time team last month. The Almanack, the sport’s leading chronicle, had 150 years of cricket to choose from.

“He has no weaknesses; he has been the complete batsman,” Geoffrey Boycott, the English player who left the sport as the leading test scorer when he retired in 1982, wrote in The Guardian.

Perhaps the definitive tribute came earlier in Tendulkar’s career. Donald Bradman, who played for Australia from 1928 to 1948, is the one batsman in the game’s history who can be conclusively listed ahead of Tendulkar. His career average of 99.94 runs per dismissal in test cricket was, it has been calculated, the statistical equivalent of a .394 lifetime batting average in baseball.

When Bradman looked at the diminutive stature of the 5-foot-5 Tendulkar, at his unmatched balance and footwork and at his extraordinary bat speed, he admitted to recognizing more than a little of himself.

Bradman’s life also provided a taste of what was to come for Tendulkar. Bradman’s greatness made him not just a sporting hero, but a symbol for an emerging nation. But where he carried the hopes of at most eight million people, Tendulkar has been burdened with the aspirations of 1.2 billion.

“He has carried India for 20 years, so now it is time we should carry him,” Virat Kohli, the best and brightest of India’s next generation, said as Tendulkar’s teammates hoisted him on a chair for a lap of honor after their victory in the 2011 World Cup.

Tendulkar’s career was not an unbroken string of triumphs. Two brief spells as team captain in the late 1990s were mostly unsuccessful, and he battled injuries for a time in his 30s. But those faults are far less likely to be remembered than his sheer excellence and prodigious longevity.

That role as the pre-eminent hero of modernizing India has made Tendulkar, a son of the Mumbai middle class — his father was a university professor — immensely rich. Forbes magazine rated him this year at No. 51 on its list of the world’s highest-earning athletes, with an income of $22 million. Wealth X, a Singapore-based analyst of the superrich, has estimated Tendulkar’s personal worth at $160 million, more than the next four richest cricketers combined.

Fame robbed him of his privacy, but never of the psychological balance that underpinned his triumphs. He was eloquent with his bat rather than with words, sidestepping any controversies and remaining free of the slightest hint of scandal.

At the core of his existence remained his genius as a cricket player. The Australian player Matthew Hayden described his batting as “a stillness in a frantic world.”

Records can be broken. South Africa’s Jacques Kallis or England’s Alastair Cook may one day overtake his test numbers, but Tendulkar’s impact will remain.

And if the sense of loss is most intense in India this coming week, it will scarcely be any less in the rest of the cricketing world.

Source: NYTimes


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