Tendulkar, and life after the moon landing

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A few weeks before he turned ex-president, Barack Obama sat down with television host Bill Maher for an interview. The first question posed to him was how he would spend the rest of his life, knowing that he would never have a job as exhilarating as the one he was leaving behind. 3 months into his post-presidency, Barack Obama made his first official public appearance yesterday, when he addressed students at the University of Chicago. Like most others who have traversed the road reserved for a chosen few , he is still trying to find an answer that some seem to have found, and which seems to have eluded many – where do you go after you go to the moon?

When astronauts who went to the moon returned to earth and normalcy, a few of them battled depression. For once you’ve gone to the moon, what else is there to aspire for? For the rest of us, our bucket lists are dotted with exotic locales, but the moon? If returning from a vacation is reason enough to go into a funk, imagine what it is like to return from the moon and go back to work.

Sachin Tendulkar’s moon landing lasted for 24 years. Through near career-ending injuries, self-doubt, heart-wrenching defeats, failed stints at captaincy, for 24 years, all the world was a stage for Tendulkar. No cricketer will ever be able to command the blind adulation that he has.

So how has life been for Tendulkar after his moon landing in November 2013?

Well, he turned 44 yesterday and he celebrated it at the Wankhede stadium with fans cheering him on. His team didn’t give him a victory as a birthday present, losing narrowly by 3 runs to the Rising Pune Super giants, who are staging a resurgence of sorts. He has been here and there, still trying to find an identity for himself, one that doesn’t involve him holding a bat and playing God so that an entire country can sleep better.

He has adopted a villages in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra and according to reports, has helped change the lives of residents.

Of course, there have been missteps. Like this terrible effort at being a singer and ostensibly trying to reach out to a younger audience.

There have been murmurs of dissent over his no-shows at Parliament but at the same time, he has used most of the funds allocated to him as a part of MPLAD funds.

Even in retirement, he hasn’t spoken against the functioning of the BCCI, the Supreme Court’s intervention in how cricket is run in the country, the unceremonious manner in which the board was dismantled and the shamelessness of his one time boss N Srinivasan, who after being banned by the BCCI still sees himself as the President of the ICC. Actually, no ex-cricketer of stature has spoken about how cricket is being run in the country. At the same time, he has come out in support of other athletes like boxer Sarita Devi who was suspended by the boxing association for not accepting a medal. He has made it clear that politics is not his forte and has stayed away from administrative roles, lest his near-perfect image gets sullied. While Kapil Dev burnt his hands with a coaching stint, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri have played it safe by toeing the BCCI’s line. Now, we can add VVS Laxman to the list. Rahul Dravid, whose diction and clarity of thought are tailor-made for a never-ending commentary stint has chosen to mold the future by actually nurturing the next generation through coaching and mentorship roles in various capacities. Anil Kumble is currently the head coach of the Indian team and Sourav Ganguly has set his sights high in cricket administration.

Actually, where do you go after you go to the moon, after you’ve played God and then come back to earth?

Diego Maradona nearly snorted and drank himself to death before he was saved by gastric bypass surgery. His personal life is in constant upheaval mode as this recent piece articulates.

Pete Sampras retreated into private life to regain his sense of normalcy.

Back home, Tendulkar has molded himself to the demands of the social media generation where every mundane event is broadcast to the world. A largely private person who lived his life with the cameras thrust at him at every step of the journey, is now letting his followers into his world via facebook and instagram. The current crop of cricket stars sport tattoos and weird hair cuts, date film stars and live for the moment. They prefer to burn out rather than to fade away and whether we will see careers that stretch beyond a decade is yet to be seen.

The biggest problem faced by sportspersons who retire as icons is how to protect their hard earned legacy. Politicians have no sense of shame and can make comebacks scandal after scandal but a sportsperson’s equity lies in the feats they perform and the memories they leave behind. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to witness your sporting heroes grow old, sport a paunch, grey at the sides and appear in commercials selling retirement plans? Creating a career worth idolising without losing one’s way is only half the battle. Securing with it with a dignified retirement is another. After living a tunnel vision life where sporting excellence is the sole pursuit, normal life possesses a smidgen of that heady rush.

To a generation of die-hard fans, Tendulkar isn’t 44, he is forever 14 with a flock of curly hair and an impish grin, the boy who became a man who became a legend who became a God, all under the harsh glare of the unforgiving spotlight. When he began his career, we had one channel and homes had one television, mostly black and white sets that were the only source of  news and entertainment. When his career ended amidst an outpouring of tributes and tears, the television was competing with social media and live streaming of matches on mobiles.

His image maybe a little too squeaky clean for our liking, his transgressions, however minor, unable to hold their own in the face of blind faith and worship. His utterances are mostly politically correct and his every move revolves around preserving an image that we have of him – that of a middle glass boy who is grounded and hasn’t lost his head or himself to fame.

If there is only wish, it is this – that we are slowly given a glimpse of not just Tendulkar the legend but also Tendulkar the man. He will never be able to lead a normal life in the country of his birth but maybe the second half of his life will have him still bringing a smile to people’s faces, sans cricket. Maybe he will let his guard down a bit, speak up more and not resort to singing songs to reach out to his fans.

For someone who was always asked for the moon when he had a bat in his hand, life after the moon landing has just begun.

 

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Good Will Hunting and Osho’s epitaph

Test cricket has always been the measure of a cricketer’s fortitude, mental stamina and technical ability but approval from the purists never seemed to be on his agenda. He may not have been a great test player but he is no doubt one of the greatest cricketer’s India has produced. And in that paradox lies his uniqueness.

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Never born. Never died. Only visited this Planet Earth between December 11, 1931 and January 19, 1990.  – Inscribed on the epitaph of controversial mystic, Osho Rajneesh

In the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays Will Hunt, a mathematical genius who is forced to confront his demons that are keeping him from fulfilling his potential. A telling scene in the movie shows his best friend Chuckie (played by Ben Affleck) imploring Will to do justice to his incredible gifts and tells him that he is waiting for a day when he finds that Will has left town without leaving as much as a note or offering an explanation. And that moment comes to bear when one day he rings the bell at Will’s house to pick him up for work and he doesn’t answer the door. He has, as Chuckie hoped he would, simply taken off without a note or an explanation, presumably towards a future befitting his intelligence and capabilities. That’s how Mahendra Singh Dhoni chose to let the world know of his intention of not being a test player anymore – without a note or an explanation.

There was no guard of honour, no farewell press conference, no emotional send-off from the game’s most revered format. He just simply walked away like Will did in Good Will Hunting. And in Dhoni’s case, the end was like the beginning – unexpected. Indian captains don’t always resign in a straightforward manner. Two of Dhoni’s predecessors, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, resigned without any prior notice. Rahul Dravid’s captaincy suffered a jolt after the first round exit at the 2007 World Cup. A few months after the debacle, he led India to an overseas test series victory over England after 21 years. Just when it looked like he was regaining his equilibrium after the forgettable World Cup, he returned from England and abruptly quit captaincy. It was only after his retirement that he let his guard down and revealed how captaincy had sucked out the joy from his game. Anil Kumble, who was in the autumn of a magnificent career, was given the task of leading the side and nurturing Dhoni for the ravages of test captaincy. A year into his role, father time caught up with his aging body and fighting spirit and in the series against Australia (which was also Sourav Ganguly’s final series) he called time on his career at his favourite ground, the Feroz Shah Kotla. The news of his retirement was conveyed through the mega screen on the ground and the crowds rushed in to catch a glimpse of his final moments as an Indian cricketer. There was a sense of poignancy too – the Feroz Shah Kotla was where he cemented his place in the history books by taking all 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan. Dhoni took over officially as captain in the next test which was played at Nagpur, a match which India went onto win and seal a series victory.

In Test cricket, Dhoni inherited everything a captain could wish for. The side was on the ascent and he had one of the greatest middle orders of all time in the triumvirate of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Virender Sehwag was still his pomp, Harbhajan Singh hadn’t lost his sting and Zaheer Khan hadn’t yet run of steam. India’s climb to the top began with Sourav Ganguly’s captaincy and when the No. 1 ranking in Tests was finally accomplished in 2009 , MS Dhoni was at the helm. Sure, the credit wasn’t entirely his as the work had begun in right earnest even before he made his debut but for a while, he seemed like an alchemist who turned whatever he touched to gold. And then all the gold turned to lead weight.

Maybe the beginning of the end was England 2011. Precisely, July 21, 2011, when Zaheer Khan pulled over in his 14th over and was excused from the remainder of the series. In hindsight, it seemed as though the series had been lost at that pivotal moment. And the fall was swift and cruel. A bowling attack that lacked application coupled with an aging batting line-up saw India losing the series 0-4  and relinquishing their No.1 ranking. The Australian series a few months later was to be a memorable swansong for the star studded batting line-up, the last chance to stake claim to a frontier that hadn’t been conquered. Instead it resembled a tour ripped out from the pages of an Indian fan’s worst nightmare and ended in a 0-4 annihilation, heralding the end of a glorious era. There were to be no excuses this time around, no list of injuries and illnesses that had plagued the side during the ill-fated tour to England. IPL fatigue, everyone’s favourite punching bag, couldn’t be summoned to the boxing ring. Dravid and Laxman retired soon after, leaving Dhoni with the unenviable task of rebuilding a side.

The home series loss to England in 2012 came as a setback on the road to redemption. On turning tracks that were expected to aid the spinners, it was Monty Panesar who seized the day and led England to a 2-1 series victory. When Australia visited, India avenged the 0-4 humiliation by paying them back in the same coin. The series saw Dhoni score a career best 224 and the innings was a throwback to a time when he played without a care in the world. By now, he was no longer a carefree player with the flowing mane, the grey hairs a testimony  to his ever growing burdens. Bereft of a bowling line-up that could take 20 wickets and bowl to set fields, he seemed at sea in the Test format. Gautam Gambhir’s and Virender Sehwag’s fluctuating fortunes at the top of the order after an impressive run didn’t help. It was said that he was voted out by the selectors but kept his job because of his proximity to the most powerful man in world cricket, N Srinivasan. He was accused of being defensive, an ODI wonder, but a test cropper. There were calls for his axing as the test captain – the small town boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Through it all, he didn’t say much.

2014 was a challenging one, but gratifying in some aspects. The tours of South Africa and New Zealand saw the team put up impressive performances, but victories were still elusive. The highly anticipated England tour saw a spectacular effort at Lord’s where he instructed a reluctant Ishant Sharma to bang the ball in short. The ploy paid off and a stunning victory ensued. But the euphoria was short-lived and it all careened off course from there. The side crashed to 3 successive defeats, each worse than the one before, bringing back memories of the 0-8 whitewash where a fight was conspicuous by its absence. If successive defeats in away tours were taking a toll, he didn’t reveal it. And when Virat Kohli’s in-your-face captaincy earned plaudits in the Adelaide test, maybe he thought the time was right to make way. No, walk away.

The thing about Dhoni is that he isn’t a prisoner of statistics. Playing 100 test matches was surely not something on his to-do list. Yes, he is India’s most successful test captain but history won’t remember him as a great test player. For in his own strange manner, Dhoni redefined cricketing greatness.

Test cricket has always been the measure of a cricketer’s fortitude, mental stamina and technical ability but approval from the purists never seemed to be on his agenda. Dhoni always seems to come into his own when playing a limited overs game for in the shorter formats, he doesn’t have to worry about a bowling attack that sprays the ball all over the place because he backs himself and his team to chase the target. It is a format where the ability to take 10 wickets isn’t an essential ingredient to victory. And if it all boils down to him taking the team home, he relishes the challenge even more. He may  not have been a great test player but he is no doubt one of the greatest cricketer’s India has produced. And in that paradox lies his uniqueness.

In another life, MS Dhoni was a ticket collector from Ranchi. His journey from a small town in heartland India to leading the Indian side is a story in its own right. He inherited a position he never aspired for and went about it with a quiet dignity. When his name was dragged into the muck of the IPL scandal, he must have simply wanted to get on one of his numerous super bikes and ride away from it all. His story isn’t over. He is still a vital cog in the limited overs format and will lead India in their defence of the World Cup title. After that it is anyone’s guess.

I am not a fan or follower of godmen or spiritual gurus. But in this regard, the epitaph of Osho Rajneesh attempts to portray him as a mystical figure whose passage on earth was just a pit stop in his seemingly eternal journey. Dhoni’s cricketing journey is quite similar. Many writers have pointed out how he seems unfazed by the circus of fame and adulation and how it isn’t tough to imagine him leading a contented life outside the environs of the pressure cooker of international cricket. Maybe he’ll join the army. Or just ride his bikes. When his time finally comes to walk away, maybe he’ll just fall off the face of the cricketing world, just another visitor to the game of cricket.

And one hell of a visit it has been.

The god who made atheists believe

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What makes a god? Or better still, what is god to a non-believer? A history lesson? Fanaticism? Desperation? Hope? Or is god best relegated to the believers? Then where does it leave those who close their eyes and fold their hands, a force of habit from a time when they believed? Does it still make them non-believers?

The journey to atheism is a long and arduous one. Faith is tried, tested, challenged and finally, is irreversibly broken.

The journey to belief is the polar opposite. It occurs in a flash, with a sleight of hand, a word, a vision, or in a momentary lapse of reason.

Maybe that’s why I recall precisely when I became a believer – 27th March, 1994.

Opening the batting was supposed to be measured and erudite, not a crash course in reckless abandonment. All of 9 years, I sat in a drawing room and watched a man, all of  5 feet 6 inches, plunder 82 runs off a measly 49 balls and lay siege to the self-worth of an entire nation. Though it was still early days of the liberalized economy, India was held to ransom every time a cherubic lad with a plop of curly hair strode on to the pitch. A land with more gods than it can count, found in its heart space for another god.

Did a young Sachin Tendulkar, like young Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad, seek immortality before he set foot on a cricket field? After his final innings, should a chariot descend from the heavens and escort him, will we look at each other and say ‘I told you so’? He, whose walk to the crease is reminiscent of Moses parting the red sea, the crowd on both sides in the stands inching closer to him but parting the moment he walks past. He, who converts stadiums into coliseums, the crowd’s deafening roars steadily increasing as if some invisible force was turning the volume knob up as their favorite gladiator readies for battle. He, who like Jesus, is expected to turn water to wine and deliver us to the promised land every time he takes strike. He, who like Hanuman, performed feats that mocked the left brain and carried on his shoulders a burden that only got heavier with time. Won’t he be a strong contender to play the protagonist in Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece ‘IF’? http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_if.htm

Is god a crutch you can’t get rid of even if you tried? The only thing that keeps you alive in the winters that never end and the invisible force that hoists you up in the morning when you’ve thrown in the towel. Does belief have a number, a statistical measure, or is just a habit?

His journey transcends generations, centuries and world orders. Who never walks alone for we all walk with him, the treasurer of our dreams and hopes. Who causes shops to shut, roads to clear, marriages to be postponed and unlocks a wellspring of childlike joy in the billionaire and daily wage earner alike. Who causes the elderly to reclaim their youth, even if just for a little while and causes children to abhor homework more than they already do. Because in a land where celluloid stars have temples accorded to them and political discourse is blotted by the stains of bigotry, where does one seek salvation?

Do you remember watching wide eyed as he struck like lightning at Wellington in 1994? Did you share his tears of abject dismay in 1999 when we lost to Pakistan and 13 runs was all that separated euphoria from despair? Weren’t you prancing in the living room like a keyed up toy on red bull on those two crazy nights in Sharjah that were most definitely not of this world? Did you wish your home had a trampoline so that you could just go on jumping in exultation? Didn’t your face resemble Shane Warne’s after he was smashed for a six over his head? Were you too ashamed to let anyone see you cry after he scored a century against Kenya in the ‘99 world cup – days after he cremated his father? Did you give Shoaib Akhtar the finger with both your hands when he was greeted by a six at the Centurion in the 2003 world cup? And just when you were recovering from that greeting, he gently nudged the next ball to the onside for a four and saved his best for last – a straight drive. The straight drive, the shot he made his own and every time he plays it, you wish the ball never stopped in its trajectory toward the boundary and went on forever and ever, amen.

Did you switch off the tv when he charged Mcgrath and was caught in the very first over of the 2003 world cup final? Did his 241 in Sydney, where he willed himself not to play a single drive on the offside, earn your admiration or your exasperation? Did you pretend to hoist him after he scored the first double century in ODIs? Did you make his tears your own, not just his tears of joy, but also those of despair and sadness? Did you ever wonder how much electricity was saved every time he got out?

Even Gods have their demons. While they slay them, they also have to battle their own. Because without demons, there will be no need for gods.

Did you prod him to speak up in Indian cricket’s darkest hour when it was discovered that there were Judases in the team who sold their souls for a few bars of gold? What of the ball tampering incident that he never came clean about? Is silence always golden, even for the the prodigal son? No, he wasn’t perfect. Far from it. In Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath he found a cast of warriors and gentleman. No longer was he the sole custodian of greatness. But he was the crutch everyone leaned on, a habit we couldn’t wean ourselves from.

If you were handed a magic wand, would you rewrite the last two years of his career. And change the script so that the last you saw him in colours was in the world cup final and not of him tottering to his 100th ton against Bangladesh? And in your revised version, would he have secured his ton of tons at Lord’s, or at the MCG?

Is god allowed to fail? If your prayers aren’t answered, would you still be steadfast in your faith?

How many 40 year old disillusioned potbellied men wished they were in his shoes – untold riches, immortality and retirement? It’s like the lottery that every 40 year old wishes for but doesn’t receive. Now that his duty and dharma have been fulfilled, will he, like Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata, find peace in an afterlife, away from his 22 yard temple? For all the times we crucified him, will we be able to forgive ourselves for we didn’t know what we were doing?  If indeed reincarnation is for real, will he come back in the same form to grace this earth again? Should he take a cue from Lord Rama and go on a self imposed exile to relearn what a normal life is, however impossible that maybe?

In the twilight of his career, how did he do battle with his own cricketing mortality ? For someone who could count atheists, agnostics and skeptics as a part of his flock, did he seek counsel from those closest to him or did he wake up one day and decide he didn’t want to play god anymore? Have we, a nation starved of heroes, made peace for life without Tendulkar? Has he made peace with himself?

For all that is being made of his farewell series and all the swords that are being drawn on the lavishness and overblown celebrations, we must remember that it was us who put him on a pedestal.

All he wanted to do was play cricket.

And it was in those fleeting hours, minutes and seconds that we were all ordained as believers.