It is dangerous to predict anything when it comes to Sachin Tendulkar. The 2007 World Cup was meant to be his last, you thought. Then, he played the 2011 World Cup to achieve “the greatest moment” of his career.
The 2011 World Cup would be the end, surely. No? Then, the 100th hundred? Not yet done. The 2007-08 series, supposedly his last on Australian shores had them showing up in droves, but he made it back for 2011-12. And here he is a year later. And likely to be on that plane to South Africa eight months from now.
But the odds really do seem stacked against another international appearance in India – the next Test at home is October 2014. Surely, that’s what dragged his extremely elusive and superstitious brother Ajit into watching him at the Feroz Shah Kotla during the fourth and final Test.
The flurry of Australian wickets on Sunday morning meant a mad dash to the Kotla when we realised it could all be over on the day. My friend and I made it past the two-tiered security and elaborate checks (resulting in the confiscation of our pens and Indian coins) with just two Australian wickets to fall. The “Sachin Sachin” exhortation was already at full volume with Peter Siddle and James Pattinson still digging in.
Has any other batsman’s walk to the crease been as anticipated as Sachin’s, in the history of the game? There have been moments for sure: Don Bradman at The Oval in 1948, Steve Waugh at the SCG in 2004, Ricky Ponting at the WACA in 2012. Has the fall of a second wicket ever elicited such boisterous celebrations even when it is the wicket of one of your own? This is unique only to Indian cricket. And Sachin.
The moment Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay walked out to bat, the crowd had just one thing on their mind – Sachin. Since his debut in November 1989, nearly 900 players have made their debut appearance in Tests. But the arrival of no other batsman before 1989 or since has been as awaited. By as many people. For as long.
The friend who accompanied me to the Kotla has reported three Olympics – Sydney, Athens, Beijing – and volunteered at London 2012. She’s covered the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. In 2008, she wept as the sound of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ filled the Beijing Shooting Range Hall after Abhinav Bindra shot his way to India’s first individual Olympic gold.
She loves all sport but none more than athletics. She’s watched Usain Bolt and Mo Farah gallop to their record-breaking feats and interviewed a roster of top-class athletes from around the world. Her greatest sporting hero is PT Usha. And our long-standing, and as yet unresolved, argument with each other is my love for cricket over any other sport and her love for all other sport over cricket.
At the game on Sunday, she found herself just as taken in by the drama as the rest of the crowd – laughing at the desperation for a wicket to fall, at the collective oohs and aahs each time there was that faintest glimmer of an Indian wicket, the echoes of “sh*t yaar!” each time Australia’s desperate pleas were rejected, the polite requests to Virat Kohli to get out (since it seemed more likely he, not Pujara, would oblige), the fervent prayers to the almighty to make Sachin come to the crease. Anyhow. Somehow.
“It gives me the goosies that one man can have this effect,” she said. “For over 20 years. This is what sport is about.” The moments that turn you inside out, that bring a tear to the eye, that make your hair stand on end and your heart leap.
At Hill B, where we sat, to the right of the Indian dressing room, in an uncovered makeshift stand in 34 degrees, the crowd cast worried glances at the players’ balcony. What if Sachin didn’t come out to bat at all? Only 55 to get now. This can’t be happening.
As the sun beat down on our backs, we were in serious threat of being reduced to a giant puddle. But nobody grumbled about the heat. Not the young girl who licked away at her butterscotch cone. Nor the young boy, about 7 or 8, who listened patiently as his father explained nuances of the game. Not the couple behind us who recounted animatedly, to everyone around them, the last time they watched Sachin live – the World Cup semi final in Mohali. Everybody had just one complaint: why is it taking Sachin so long.
This is why I could never take to the glass cage that is the press box. I’ve been in and around it for the better part of 11 years. But the pure joy of watching cricket, for me, lies in watching it with the crowd. To hear the noise, soak in the tension, eavesdrop on the punditry, to be among a sea of flags and painted faces. To ditch objectivity.
Anybody who tells you they’re not a fan first, that they don’t take sides, is lying. To be in the press box is to be removed from all this emotion. And there is no running away from feeling every thing you can possibly feel when the man you grew up with may never play before you again.
Finally, the second wicket falls! The crowd roars Kohli back to the dressing room. Their wait lasted 144 balls with India needing just 32 runs in the chase for 155. It’s ok, you said. You’ll take whatever you can get when it comes to Sachin’s last dig on home soil.
It is part of why the romance with Sachin is even greater when it comes to Test cricket – a sense of anticipation that one just never had with him in the limited-overs game. You could argue he had a much greater impact on the one-day game and on India’s results in this format. But it pales in comparison to the drama of his arrival in Test cricket. On any ground. On every ground.
It is like the anxious, impatient wait long-distance lovers must endure. Great expectations in the lead up to a meeting that seems an eternity away, when you implore time not to take its time, hoping feverishly it will be everything you imagined it would be, followed by the heartache when it’s over all too soon. Then, the waiting again. Till next time. You hope there will be a next time. Soon.
It was all over in a matter of eight minutes, five balls and 1 run, the scorecard will tell you. It doesn’t matter. You were looking forward to this for hours, days, weeks, months – replaying that moment over and over in your head when he would step out to bat – imagining what it would be like ten ways to Sunday. Waiting for Sachin is almost as good as watching Sachin.
Sixteen wickets fell on the third and final day of the Kotla Test. None as anti-climactic as this one. The crowd let out a gasp, then a moan, then a sigh. The man next to us wiped a tear from under his sunglasses. And then, 20,000 people stood up to say goodbye. If someone keeps track of quirky sports statistics, Sachin has to be number one on the list of all international sportsmen to receive the most number of standing ovations at a stadium.
Everybody, you included, wants a part in this story. To be able to say, “I was there when Sachin played his last Test innings in India. Out for one. Leg before to Lyon,” you’ll say someday. To anybody who is willing to listen.
Behind us, a lady says, “This is like watching Bradman score a duck in his last innings.” The drama is unmistakable. The symmetry too. A nought off two deliveries, bowled off an inside edge by leg-spinner Eric Hollies at The Oval in 1948. One of five balls, leg before to off-spinner Nathan Lyon in 2013 at the Kotla. The Don was 10 days short of his 40th birthday, Sachin 30 short of his.
The day Bradman was bowled in his final innings, John Arlott described it thus on BBC Radio, “Hollies pitches the ball up slowly and …he’s bowled…Bradman bowled Hollies nought…bowled Hollies nought…and what do you say under these circumstances? I wonder if you see the ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you’ve played some of the biggest cricket in your life and where the opposing side has just stood round you and given you three cheers and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket. I wonder if you see the ball at all.”
What do you say under these circumstances? You wonder if Sachin saw the ball clearly in what is most likely his last Test in India. You wonder if he saw the ball at all…