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Flaw in the flawless
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 15 - 11 - 2013

Dr. N. Janardhan

A few months ago, I heard a conversation on the radio about Sachin Tendulkar. One cricket enthusiast asked another if it was true that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had put Tendulkar on retirement notice. The friend mockingly replied: “With the kind of form he has been in over the last few years, thank God, someone has taken ‘notice' of him!”
Such a joke may not be an appropriate way to honor a legend who quits competitive cricket in a few days, after scoring 100 international hundreds, playing 200 Tests and accumulating 50,000 runs across all formats, apart from scores of other records during an international career spanning 24 years – many that may remain unbroken.
Tendulkar's greater virtue has been his performance off the field. As much as the public made him a larger than life figure, his real life conduct has remained ‘almost' impeccable, unlike many other ‘fallen' sports heroes.
But, amid the rightfully-earned admiration and outpouring of superlative-laden farewell eulogies to one the greatest cricketers ever, here is an alternative perspective — without questioning the performance of Tendulkar, the individual cricketer.
Instead, the focus is, first, on the impact of his contribution on Team India's performance, vis-a-vis other ‘greats' who donned the India cap during Tendulkar's reign; and second, if Tendulkar, the player, detrimentally grew to become bigger than the sport.
Like every hero has a tragic ‘flaw', so is the case with an otherwise ‘flawless' Tendulkar.
On the first point, the grouse against Tendulkar is not because he is the greatest cricketer of this era, which is hard to contradict, but his individual contribution to the team's victories pales in comparison to the individual and collective performances of Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, V.V.S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly (who first turned things around for India as an aggressive captain, followed by the unorthodox and ‘street smart' captain, M.S. Dhoni, thereafter).
If not for any of these or all of them, India — even with Tendulkar — would not have been as successful as it has been, much like the ‘losing' Indian Test team with Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tendulkar was a defining cricketer in terms of individual class, style, impact on Indian cricket in general, longevity, etc., but he was not a defining individual contributor to the Indian team's success, definitely not in the same league as any one of the above-mentioned ‘Fab Five'. There are ample statistics and analyses to support this.
The question this raises is: Is cricket just entertainment? Given the amount of time, money and emotion that enthusiasts invest in following the game, it is fair to judge that it is much more. But many of us are guilty of treating it as mere entertainment, heaping praise on the ‘great entertainer', and forgetting the unsung heroes who have really done India proud.
A part of the blame for relegating the other greats to the status of ‘backroom boys' rests with the Mumbai commentary ‘mafia' — comprising Sunil Gavaskar, Sanjay Manjrekar, Ravi Shastri and Harsha Bhogle — which has reduced a team game to a one-man show.
How else can we explain the comparatively diminished buzz surrounding Dravid's impact on India's performance? If we combine his 24,000-plus runs and 400-plus catches in Test and One-Day formats, he obviously had an equally great, if not greater, impact. Ditto with Kumble's nearly 1,000 wickets in both formats; same is the case with Laxman's innumerable rearguard rescue missions batting at No. 6; and, again with Virender Sehwag's blistering starts, which helped India fairly consistently score 300-plus runs in one day of a Test match, after years of sub-250s, thus setting the stage for a definite and, more often than not, positive result for India.
On the second point of focus in this alternative perspective — yes, there was no other way for Tendulkar to fade out, except to announce his retirement himself, and rightly so. But the fact that he did it at least two years too late was unjust for him, unfair for cricket lovers, and unwarranted for the game.
When a player of Tendulkar's caliber, who did not have to prove his worth during his peak, began to get his fans tense about his tentativeness and took nearly two years to move from his 99th to 100th ton, the ‘champion' should have known it was time to gracefully leave the stage on his own for the sake of his team.
That took a bit of sheen off his otherwise glorious individual career. It has now again been 17 months since he scored a century and nearly three years since he got a Test ton!
By prolonging his career, Tendulkar has had a damaging impact on a few rising cricketing guns in much the same way as Kapil Dev's pursuit of 432 wickets had on Javagal Srinath losing out on at least two years of his good bowling years in the early 1990s.
Compare this with the selfless timing of Dravid's retirement and the rationale for it — to enable his successor (Cheteshwar Pujara) to ease into his role on home turf before heading for a tough overseas tour.
Also, consider the unceremonious way in which Laxman's retirement panned out with the BCCI reportedly telling him that the series against Australia in India would be his last and that he would be picked only if he agreed to treat it as a farewell series. Laxman eventually quit rather than yield to such insults.
On the other hand, every time Tendulkar's retirement issue was broached, he and his innumerable fans – even the selectors – claimed that it was Tendulkar's prerogative to make the final call. So much for cricket being a team sport!
To add insult to injury, the Indian cricket board went against all odds to brew a storm with its South African counterpart, by delaying the tour, and cooking up a series with the West Indies team to ensure that Tendulkar's farewell match took place in India, and that too at his ‘home' Wankhede Stadium because this was the only way his mother could view the match live! It was also meant to be a ‘risk-free' farewell as opposed to the more ‘hostile', ‘risky' and, probably, ‘non-memorable' farewell series in South Africa.
All these suggest that while Tendulkar's individual achievement is worth celebrating, cricket — a team game — was lost in translation.
However, even after this critical assessment, when the No. 4 Indian batsman walks out for the first Test against South Africa during the 2013-2014 series, all cricket enthusiasts, including me, will miss Tendulkar – not ‘the greatest', but – ‘one of the greatest' cricketers and human-heroes that the game has produced.

— A sports aficionado, Dr. N. Janardhan is a political and international affairs analyst based in the UAE.

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