LAST WALTZ AT THE WANKHEDE
IT IS NEVER OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER. LIFE AFTER RETIREMENT BECKONS BUT THAT CAN WAIT AS SACHIN TENDULKAR GOES INTO ASILO WITH MUMBAI ON HIS MIND.
It was a few minutes to 3 p.m. on October 11 when the phone buzzed. Seeing ‘Unknown Number’ calling, I wondered who it might be. I’d spoken to Sachin Tendulkar at length that morning and was sure it wasn’t him. There was no reason for him to call. I picked up the phone. “Just thought I’d let you know that have decided to retire after the West Indies series,” Sachin said without preamble. “I have conveyed it to BCCI.”
The words did not register for a few seconds. While working on his autobiography for the last two-and-a-half years, we had discussed the issue a few times. We had touched upon it that morning as well. Yet, I had absolutely no idea. There was an odd silence while I regained my composure. Sachin, however, was calm and composed. “Don’t get emotional,” he said. “Anjali (his wife) and Ajit (his brother) are getting emotional. Don’t portray me as a retired cricketer even before I have retired,” he laughed. “I still have two Test matches to play and I want to play them well.”
Sachin had already started planning for the West Indies series. He had sensed what could happen around him for the next few weeks and had decided to shut himself off from all the hysteria and frenzy. It was time to get ready for the farewell. Well past midnight, Sachin was still awake, trying to come to terms with the announcement that had rocked all of India; trying to accept the fact that he had decided to give up the only thing he has done for the last 30 years of his life—play cricket.
What about life after retirement after 40? What will he do come November 19? Is the future all chalked out for him? These are difficult questions and there are no definite answers yet. The fact is it hasn’t sunk in, even for him. Knowing Sachin, he isn’t ready to face up to retirement just yet. He still has a duty to perform: Walk out for India one final time in flannels. And that, more than anything, is occupying his mind at the moment. There are three different post-retirement probabilities. First, as Nita Ambani has confirmed, Sachin might play a significant role for the Mumbai Indians in IPL
MANDAR DEODHAR/ 2014. Second, as Rajya Sabha member, Sachin has always nurtured an ambition to contribute to the improvement of sport at the grassroots. He had submitted a working paper to the human resource development and sports ministries earlier this year outlining the way forward. He is likely to follow through on and push forward those plans. Finally, he will be a more doting father than he has had a chance to be because of his playing schedule, spending time at home with Anjali and his children Arjun and Sara.
Now that he is hanging up his kitbag, what does cricket mean to him? Answering this question will help contextualise his life after retirement. Cricket, simply put, is his life. It is his passion, livelihood, obsession, and profession. I remember asking him about retirement in the middle of the Test series in Australia in early 2012. I wanted to know by when he thought we needed to wrap up the book I was writing on him. “Let’s not talk about this at the moment,” he said. “We will see when we get there.” It did not take much to gauge the apprehension in his eyes. It was as if he had been born to play cricket and the very thought of giving it up one day was petrifying. Records, accolades, statistics, nothing really mattered in the end. All he wanted to do was pick up the willow and stride out to his temple, the 22-yard strip. That’s where he found his refuge and that’s what he is now giving up.
Days after he had made known his intention to call it a day, I requested Sachin for some time to record the book’s next chapter. It was important we documented what prompted him to make the announcement. Sachin wasn’t too keen. He was in his zone and wanted to give it his all to get ready for the West Indies. “Let’s get back to the book after the series is over. I’d just want to concentrate on preparing for the next few weeks,” he said. That he’d play the Ranji trophy match against Haryana to get into the right frame was a foregone conclusion.
What we did not know was what awaited him in Lahli. “It is a green top,” he wrote at the end of the first day’s play. He was dismissed for 5 in the first innings, to a delivery that jumped awkwardly, and Mumbai were struggling to chase 236 after the loss of some early wickets in the second innings. Sachin knew what he had to do. He had done it for 24 years. This time, he was doing it one final time for Mumbai with a match-winning 79. He knew the country was watching. He was aware that for once in its history, the Ranji Trophy would have the TRP of a saas-bahu serial.
“It was real good preparation. The pitch had a lot in it for the bowlers. God is great,” he wrote after the match was over. Did he mean preparation for the South Africa series or did he mean preparation for the twin Tests at Kolkata and the Wankhede? Had he, maybe for a split second, forgotten that he was not going to South Africa? He wouldn’t have to play on a green top at either the Eden or the Wankhede, so what was the preparation for?
Sachin landed in Kolkata on the night of November 3,
why the best of umpires—Simon Taufel, Aleem Dar, Rod Tucker and now Nigel Llong—sometimes make simple mistakes when it comes to him. Does his stature put additional pressure on them? Sachin was left to debate these questions as he left Kolkata for Mumbai for his farewell. Anjali, who desperately wanted her husband to shine, was left to feel the pangs of pain.
Kolkata, however, partly made up for the disappointment. The way they felicitated him left a lasting impression. Sachin was overwhelmed as Saurav Ganguly embraced one of his closest friends on the cricket field, much to the delight of the Eden crowd. He was also glad that the 199 kilogram of rose petals weren’t showered on him, as they were supposed to be. “He would have been crushed under the weight,” quipped one of his closest friends, Vivek Palkar, before breaking out into a hearty laugh. “At least he would have smelt nice,” added another of his childhood friends who had made it to Kolkata for the Test match.
As Wankhede approached, Sachin again got down to what he is best known for—prepare to perfection.
What made the occasion extra special for him was the presence of his mother Rajni, who watched him from the stands for the first-ever time in his life. Soon after the Kolkata Test match ended, Sachin texted friends in Kanpur reminding them to deliver a special pair of shoes for his ailing mother to make it comfortable for her to step into the Wankhede. A ramp had already been constructed at the stadium under his watch.
On the eve of the final Test, his close friends hosted an evening in Sachin’s honour. Organised by childhood buddy Sunil Harshe, it was a personal tribute to the legend by what I call ‘The Sachin Gang’. As Anjali said during the India Today Group’s ‘Salaam Sachin’ Conclave on November 12: “We just want to live each and every moment. Every gesture that is being made is special. Sachin and I will remember these days forever.” While they will cherish these days, we, as a nation, will not forget the last 24 years.
When Sachin was leaving for Kolkata, he said it was the last time he was saying goodbye (before he went to play a Test). As he left, I could not stop my tears. I had to go to Kolkata.”
a day earlier than he usually does before a Test match. India were to practise at 10 a.m. the following morning and he could well have taken the early morning flight on the 4th. But Diwali at home could be given a miss, not preparation for his 199th Test match. His attention to detail was best brought out when we met on November 4 at the Taj Bengal. Sachin was typically engrossed with his bat. The logo, which is just below the bat handle, was smudged. I asked him how this had happened. “The bat laminate comes off on occasion and when you are playing on bouncy wickets, like in Lahli, it may result in an edge. I did not want to take a chance.” Such attention to detail is rare in any discipline, not just sport. As Allan Donald, one of his foremost adversaries, says: “His preparation is what sets him apart from Ponting and Lara. It also explains his longevity over the last two and a half decades.”
The first day at Eden Gardens had two unexpected spectators, Anjali and Arjun. Neither was supposed to come and Sachin was surprised to see them. Anjali had been saying for two weeks that she wouldn’t want to come to Kolkata because her being there might be a distraction for Sachin. At the last minute, however, she could not resist. “At Mrs Nita Ambani’s birthday party, a very dear friend of mine told me that after a few days I’d never get the opportunity in my life again. It was a shocking realisation,” Anjali says. “And then, when Sachin was leaving for Kolkata he said this was the last time he was saying goodbye to me before he went out of the city to play a Test match. As he left for the airport, I just couldn’t stop the tears. I just had to go to Kolkata.”
Sachin was delighted to see her and Arjun. Soon after the first day’s play ended, he managed to spend an hour with them in his room. He gave Arjun a ball, which he happily carried back to Mumbai. “In the one hour we spent together, not for once did Sachin leave his bat alone,” says Anjali with a smile. He had done all he could to prepare for his innings the next day.
However, not always do the best preparations yield the best result. Umpire Nigel Llong’s finger went up to declare Sachin LBW after the ball had hit his thigh pad and was clearly going over the stumps. For Sachin, it meant the end was near. With India piling on, thanks to a brilliant debut hundred from Rohit Sharma and some great bowling from Shami Ahmed, Sachin was left with just two possible opportunities to bat at the Wankhede. He was left to ponder
SACHIN WALKS OUTFOR HIS HISTORIC 200th TESTAT MUMBAI’S