When I was three or four,and cricket was still only a nebulous concept,my neighbour asked me who my favourite cricketer was.
Kapil Dev, I said. Was he really my favourite cricketer? I dont know. I hadnt really watched him play. Even as I said it,I felt a vague sense of unease. I didnt really like his moustache,and therefore with that being the extent of my knowledge about him I probably didnt like Kapil Dev that much. But Kapil Dev was the only cricketers name I knew.
No, said my neighbour. Sachin Tendulkar.
I grew to disappoint my neighbour. Tendulkar never came to be my favourite cricketer. That place,over the years,came to be occupied by Ajay Jadeja,Shiv Sundar Das (yes,him) and VVS Laxman.
Gradually,the physical symptoms of hero-worship (that lurch of the stomach accompanying every play-and-miss during the heros first ten minutes at the crease) disappeared,and the question of having a favourite cricketer ceased to matter. But all that while,as Jadeja and Das and Laxman came and went,Tendulkar endured. I watched him on TV,I watched him from the stands,I watched him from the press box. All that while,each time he played a straight drive,I reacted the same way I had when I first saw it.
When he announced that his 200th Test next month would be his last,Tendulkar said that he would find it hard to imagine a life without playing cricket. All around India,cricket fans of a certain age will find it hard to imagine cricket without Tendulkar. It isnt something they have ever known.
Theyve prepared themselves for this moment,of course. Some of them feared for his career as far back as 1999,when a back injury gave them the first,nasty intimation of his sporting mortality. After the 2007 World Cup,some of them agreed with Ian Chappell when he urged Tendulkar to look into that mirror.
Since then,Tendulkar has scored 16 hundreds in Tests and eight in ODIs. For most other cricketers,thats an entire careers output. But over the last couple of years,fans have seen the end loom closer than ever. Tendulkar has grown older than most cricketers who continue to play the game,and his powers have waned. Even some of his biggest fans we all know a few of them have been urging him to quit.
Ive been bitching about Sachin for a few years,not understanding why he wont retire, one such fan wrote in the comments section of Vic Marks tribute to Tendulkar in the Guardian. Now that he has,I feel overwhelming sadness.
All of us who grew up with Tendulkar know this sadness,the sadness of losing the last link to your childhood. And sports fans feel that loss more keenly than most. A couple of months ago,three of my colleagues and I discovered over rum and Coke that we had shared a childhood,living thousands of miles apart. We had watched the same matches,experienced the same thrills and,more vividly,the same heartbreaks.
Late at night in 2002,as May 21 became May 22,Tendulkar had caused all four of us to harbour the hope that India would successfully chase 408 against the West Indies in Kingston. And then,as Pedro Collins got one to keep low and bowl him for 86 (India 170/4),all four of us watching in Chennai,Madurai,Mumbai and Muzaffarnagar cursed the left-armer.
Eleven years on,we were still cursing Collins.