AS passionate as we are, it is still impossible for West Indians to fully comprehend the intensity with which the people of the second most populous nation on earth are gripped by cricket, a game bequeathed to their widely diverse people by their one-time colonial overlords.
The fervor in India is most conspicuous when it relates to the nation’s greatest player, Sachin Tendulkar. It was never more so than in the outpourings that followed his decision last week to retire after his 200th Test, the second against the West Indies in December.
Of the hundreds of thousands of words prompted by his simple letter informing the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) of his intention, ten in a headline in an Australian newspaper were most appropriate: ‘Nation mourns as its Little Master prepares for final innings’.
Tendulkar has played alongside other outstanding batsmen in his time-most notably Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman (both now retired) and Virender Sehwag (soon to be). Younger batsmen, some not yet born or mere babes when Tendulkar played his first Test in November 1989, are now lining up to fill the gaps.
The West Indies ‘A’ team encountered one last week, Cheteshwar Pujara, who reeled off his third first-class triple hundred against them; he already has an average of 65 in 13 Tests with a double and three single hundreds.
But no one expects Tendulkar’s likes will be seen again. And, in an age when the longest and purest form of the game is fading from the itineraries, it is certain no one will survive for 200 Tests, unless science devises some magic formula to preserve youth for centenarians.
It was not as if last week’s announcement was unexpected. Tendulkar is now 40; the passing years have inevitably taken toll on eyesight and reflexes. The last of his 51 Test hundreds was in January 2011, against South Africa in Cape Town; he gave up the one-day game in March 2012 after scoring his 49th ODI, and 100th internati onal hundred.
Yet, for 24 years since his debut Test, aged 16, he has been the central figure of India’s eventual rise to the top. And, rational Indian leaders contend, his influence extends beyond cricket. On the field, they point out, his standards of excellence were an example that epitomised the nation’s economic boom.
His statistics are as staggering as his longevity and as his unassuming modesty in an environment that regards him as a demi-god. In an era of lucrative returns for players, especially in his homeland, he has inevitably become a very wealthy man. But there has never been a controversy to tarnish his image, on or off the field, never irritation at the constant fawning of his millions of devotees, from high-profile Bollywood stars and moguls of media and business to lowly taxi drivers and fruit sellers.
He has accepted his status that confines him to driving through the streets of Mumbai in his favourite sports cars in the dead of night, to avoid being mobbed.
Had he been West Indian, he would have been free, as the other sublime batsman of his time, Brian Lara, is to jump in Carnival and Kadooment or Chris Gayle to mingle with the fans in the stands without adoring harassment.
India’s is a different culture. It explains why his 1.2 billion countrymen mourn in the distressing reality that, after December, they won’t again rejoice as Tendulkar churns out more runs for their nation.