Despite several complaints, time and again, my newspaperwala ends up depositing The Times of India outside our flat. We shifted to the The Hindustan Times long back (it is atleast readable), but I guess the commission is heftier in TOI that periodically he decides to throw it at our doorstep (a rant about TOI some other time). So, many mornings I have to subject myself to read the filth that it spews. What has pissed me however is the way in which - in the last few weeks - there has been atleast a column a day lambasting Sachin Tendulkar, and suggestions from former players (many of whom had to be kicked out of the team) asking Tendulkar to retire "gracefully", as they put it.
I started watching cricket in the early 1990s. I remember seeing my first ODI in 1991 - an India/WI match which was a tie - it was a thriller of a match, with the last WI wicket falling with 1 run required. I was hooked!
It was a very bad time for Indian cricket. We used to lose consistently; defeats from positions of strength were very common; we didn't have many exciting players, no great heroes, the last one - Kapil Dev, only a shadow of his former self. The lineup consisted of such elegant ball-leavers and padders - Shastri, Manjrekar, Sidhu et al (interestingly all commentators now), and the action was provided by Srikkanth, whose batting was more Harbhajan Singh than Adam Gilchrist (both in style and extent of stay). Then, one yearned for a matchwinner, somebody who could singlehandedly take the battle to the opposition, somebody who could swing his bat and grind the bowlers to dust, somebody who wouldn't disappoint you! We got one - a boy, oh! but what a man he was, Sachin Tendulkar!
Every nation-generation needs a sporting hero. While one can applaud Pete Sampras or Michael Schumacher, it is difficult to embrace somebody who lives saat samundar paar and doesn't talk/eat/dress like you. Maybe in a smaller nation, but a nation of 1 billion can't outsource its need for heroes like that. In our generation, who spent our teens in the mid-90s to early 2000s, our hero was Sachin.
Before the ascent of Ganguly, Dravid etc, it was Sachin who would lead the Indian batting show. Azharuddin was a wonderful batsman in his own right, but scandal has marred his legacy. In any case, he never caught the imagination of the nation. The other batsmen were merely support cast. When Sachin would get out, people would close off their TV sets and go to sleep, similarly, until he stayed, hope still reigned that "something" would happen, and it sometimes did.
For many years, Sachin and Anil Kumble were the only two genuine match-winners India had. Most of the matches India won in the mid-90s were through their performances (alone or together) - sometimes almost super-human (the two crazy nights in Sharjah, the 10-wicket haul against Pakistan). They laid the foundation on which Indian cricket enjoyed a golden period in the early 2000s, what with the victories against Australia, Pakistan, England and the WC Finals. But by then, they had company; until then they had carried on, Atlas-like carrying the hopes and expectations of a billion.
Well, and how has the nation responded to them. Anil Kumble has been made fun of by almost everyone - "he can't spin a ball", "batsman can play him as they play medium-pacers", "only on Indian wickets"; nobody noticing the fact that through guile and variation, he tricked batsmen to almost 550 test wickets, that when Tendulkar failed, most of the batsmen didn't leave him with even 200 runs to bowl 10 full overs to. Kumble's story is more about a man not getting his due, but then bowlers have never been given much attention in this game (even Kapil Dev is known more for his dare-devilry with the bat than his exploits with the ball).
As the Tendulkar controversy is unfolding, it is suprising and exasperating that people are baying for his blood, even though he can keep his place in the team purely on the basis of current form - that the team has no bench strength, that to find somebody to replace Sachin, even at current form is not easy. Even his most ardent supporters will agree that he is long past his prime, and is unlikely to be the Sachin of old. But he deserves the right to be allowed to retire when he feels it is time, he has been criticised several times but has come back with a bang - I believe he needs to be given the benefit of the doubt, who knows he still has it in him, and if he doesn't, lets trust him to realize that and quit on his own.
For many years, Sachin was the sporting icon of this nation, and he bore the mantle with grace and dignity. It's just "not cricket" to treat him thus now.