It had to happen some day. Some day, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar would stop doing what he had been doing for 24 years and would retire from cricket. He would walk back from a 22-yard strip of grass and gold, only this walk would be longer and lonelier than the others. There was nothing anyone could do about it.
Except say thank you in person.
Many summers ago, when he was a different Sachin – young, brash and fearless (and we were like him) – my best friend and brother Daddu, and I had vowed that if Sachin were to ever give the world a heads up about retiring, we’d be there. No matter what was happening in our personal or professional lives. It’s a big promise to make, and it almost proved too big to pull off. But luckily, only almost.
We’ve been known to have XXL mouths, but so far we’ve managed to avoid putting our feet into them. Like the time we said (after Kargil) that should India (read Sachin) ever tour Pakistan, we’d be there. Some 15 of us made that earnest pledge, but only the two of us kept it. You can read about that here, but it’s another story.
Promises – even crazy ones – are easier to pull off when you’re younger, unmarried and lower down the corporate pecking order. The advantages are obvious. You won’t be missed as much at work. There’s lesser at stake personally. And as you’re a foolish 23-year-old, the world will be indulgent towards you having a passion other than passionately earning your EMI. But throw in words like Creative Head, Biggest Pitch Ever, Home Loan, Family, Child and suddenly passion can take the appearance of Don Quixote charging at the windmills.
At times like these whom you’re married to (if you’re married) makes all the difference. My wife, that lovely woman who doesn’t understand my craze for Sachin but understands me, gave me the permission to get fired, should things come to that. And so wearing a bravado that was more borrowed than ballsy, I made my plea to my bosses. I wouldn’t do injustice to The Biggest Pitch Ever but I had to be there at Wankhede. Otherwise, I’d end up hating my job and would never forgive myself. I wasn’t given permission to go but to take a “call as an adult”. I headed to the airport. It was the 13th of November 2013.
Now, going to Mumbai and going to Wankhede are two separate things. Especially if Sachin is playing for the last time. Tickets were harder to get than a one-line speech from Manmohan Singh, and we had nothing in our hands at the time of flying out.
But leads were aplenty. I had contacted an ex-colleague who has access to both the MCA and Vengsarkar, and he was confident. Then another friend’s wife, who works at a leading newspaper, was trying her best to get us two tickets. My ex-junior and not-ex-brother Shashi called me on his own and said he’d do something for us. I also called and spoke to Vinod Naidu – Sachin’s agent whom I now know over the course of so many ad shoots – and he said he’d try. I toyed with the idea of calling Sachin –I have his mobile number for a while now – but as I’ve never called or texted him out of respect, I didn’t want to start now. You can gauge the desperation of my efforts by the fact that I even tried logging on to kyazoonga.com a few times.
Daddu too had his contacts. But our sources came and went. “Confirmed” tickets suddenly got unconfirmed, and the only thing that was certain was that the two of us would land in Mumbai and would be watching the match together – be it only on a TV screen.
Then magic happened. Late at night before the day we were to fly out, Shashi said that two 5-day season tickets had been arranged for 10K apiece; did we want them? Does Stevie Wonder need a break from Stevie-Wonder-jokes? They were for the Sunil Gavaskar stand, and originally priced Rs. 500 per season pass. But given that the going rate was 40K per ticket – if you could find a seller that is – we said “yes” faster than Shoaib Akhtar running down a fat pickpocket.
Daddu landed before me and collected our passes. I met him at the Grand Hotel, Ballard Estate, where we had booked a room for a night. Let’s say that the hotel had somewhat exaggerated their credentials, but the loo was clean enough and the bed manageable. And the tickets in Daddu’s hands made us feel like we were staying at the heritage wing of the Taj.
14th November 2013 dawned early and we were at the stadium gates at 8 for a 9am start. But even though it was a Friday and a working day, the line was longer than Mayawati’s handbags stacked in a row. But enterprising as we are, we requested a couple of youngsters at the very front to let us join them. And just like that – we were amongst the first 20 to enter the stadium!
The second happy moment happened when our tickets dutifully beeped at the entry turnstile (there was a slight apprehension that they might be fakes as we had heard some reports from the match at Eden Gardens). As we ran up the stairs, we saw yet another sign that nothing could go wrong with this trip: Sachin was warming up right before us, right in front of our stands.
As the old chant of Saaachin Sachin left our lips with a new desperation, he turned and waved in our general direction. We took our seats and realized that our view was better than what we’d hoped. We were expecting to sit behind ‘Point’ – a veritable blind spot as everyone knows – but as the stand stretches and curves, our seats ended up being closer to Extra Cover. Also we were at the right height – not low enough to feel the wire fencing on our faces and not high enough to feel like the MRF blimp. Our seats were also in the shade, a fact that we appreciated as we saw the poor sods in the opposite stands getting suntanned for free.
A word on the crowd then. The bleachers were getting filled even as our throats were getting hoarse, and it was a beautiful sight. How do you explain a 45-year-old woman sitting all by herself in a plastic seat under an indifferent sun? She was neither cool looking nor coolly dressed, just a middle-class housewife who must have packed her husband lunch and seen her kids off at the bus stop, and then taken the train quietly to Churchgate Station for a man who was neither spouse nor child but perhaps at that moment, something more. Or the old men at our hotel, 60 something to a day but happy as children trick-or-treating. They had flown all the way down from England, leaving their wives behind, one last boy trip for the love of a boy who had realized after 24 years that he was too old to play. There were many others. 10-year-olds too young to be inspired but old enough feel the magic in the air. Infants hoisted on shoulders, the day a blur but who would later find themselves in a photograph taken on a cheap mobile phone, and point themselves out with pride and a claim to memory. Most people looked like they didn’t know anyone influential, but the ticket stub in their pockets showed that they knew how to get in. Sachin’s family was there too. His mom was watching her son’s first match, and brother, wife, kids and Achrekar sir, possibly the most loved coach in world cricket. There were also the bigwigs – politicians, businessmen and film stars. But none bigger than a small man in white; lion tamer, gladiator, conductor of an orchestra bigger than the sport itself.
For that’s how trivial the match had become. You could have put Australia instead of West Indies, and the crowd wouldn’t have known. All they knew, and all they cared about was that Tendlya was playing for India for the last time. Perhaps this is why tickets to the series were harder to come by than the World Cup final ones – that was for India, this was something more personal. Sachin had become the game, and the cricket– not Herculean to start with – blurred from contest to context. It was like the crowd, some 35000 strong and so much louder than that, wanted Sachin to know how much they loved him. A loud roar would engulf him from the stand he was fielding closest to, and even if it were Shami bowling to Samuels, the chant would have his name. At some point, the crowd asked for Dhoni to hand over the ball to Sachin, and the Indian captain became a national hero when he obliged. When it was our turn to bat – the Windies were all out for 182 – the crowd couldn’t wait for Sachin to come. Tradition has been for the Number 3 bat to be greeted with applause on getting out (as Rahul Dravid has admitted with grace and a wry shrug of the shoulders), but today the crowd was rooting for Indian wickets to fall from the time the openers came to bat. Yet somehow, it didn’t feel unpatriotic. It was just India making her priorities clear.
Sachin came to bat as Murali Vijay departed, to a West Indian guard of honor. As he walked towards the pitch, Wankhede embraced him with the loudest cheer it had to offer – a thrilled throaty and teary thank you. For even his welcome to the crease had the inevitable overtones of a sendoff. This was not about being greedy for more; this was about savouring what remained. Sachin joined Pujara in the middle, with the trademark poke at the pitch, the rolling of the shoulders, that unmistakable half squat and adjustment of the crotch guard and the customary surveying of the ground. There was also something new. For the first time, he bent down and touched the soil, seeking its blessing. And when he took strike, the crowd stood on its feet like one man and the chant, delirious and deafening, swirled like dust in a bullring. Every forward-defense was met with a loud roar, as if it were a six hoisted into the stands. Every bouncer was faced with loud boos, the crowd indignant at the bowler for daring to bowl a perfectly legal delivery. The mob – for that’s what we were – also grew inventive. The regular Saachin Sachin gave way Saaaaaachin Saaaaachin, a slow hypnotic drone designed to conserve energy and get the wind back into the lungs. And in the middle of it all, Sachin, unmoving as god in a temple, was not only unaffected by the chaos but inspired by it. As the cover drives started booming, the straight drive stepped out and the paintbrush flicks dabbed the outfield, the crowd, incredibly, found a higher decibel. Wankhede started out as a carnival, turned into a riot and then became theater as Sachin found his timing and pushed the clock back. But when Pujara got strike, the crowd sat down in one synced step and rested their bodies. It was so silent that you could have made a conference call and lied to your boss about being out for the match. If you were Pujara, you could have lied to yourself about being at the match – such was the contrast between the ends.
Sachin ended the day at 38 not out, and the crowd left, delighted at what they’d seen, thrilled about what was to come in the morning.
Daddu and I had found a new hotel as we’d checked out of the Grand Hotel thinking we’d stay with friends to save money. But as I had to work for that almost-employment-ending pitch, we figured a quiet room might be better. The Regent Hotel seemed like a good choice; it was close to Wankhede and closer to Leopold. And so after a burpy-lunch, we trooped in to check for rooms.
The hotel was unique, to say the least. It was almost like we’d walked into a wormhole and into Riyadh. The ‘no smoking’ signs were in Arabic. In the lobby were sprawled 4-5 Arabs in their traditional dress, in the midst of what appeared to our conditioned minds as the Jihad Conclave 2014. The rooms were nicer than those at the Grand, but the TV feed was entirely Arabic (till Daddu discovered the Indian channels on pressing the video mode). And for two happy vegetarians, there was not even Dal on the menu, but the poetically potent Mutton Nasif.
Daddu crashed, and I sat down to work. Some 6 straight hours later, I thought I had cracked something nice, and we stepped out – out into India – for dinner.
Day 2 of the match then. I reviewed the work sent by my juniors and we still managed to reach the stadium gate at 7.30 a.m. After a hasty but hearty breakfast at the Khau Galli close by, we entered Wankhede. By 8.45, the stadium was largely packed, and heaving with collective anticipation. The teams took to the field, and Sachin took guard once again.
And once again, he was the Sachin of old. The Sachin not only of yesterday but of many yesterdays. That still head, the decisive footwork, the preternatural sense of what the bowler was thinking, and the resultant extra time to choose the shot. And just like that, inside the hour, he had raced to his 68th Test half century. There were also a few misses, like the upper cut he tried off Tino Best. But it was the missing-of-old, when Sachin missed while trying an aggressive shot. During the change of overs, he patted Tino Best and the big man smiled, delighted like he had picked up a five-wicket-haul.
That was the loveliest part of it. Sachin played not like a grafter, an accumulator or a senior statesman, but like the boy we had fallen in love with so many years ago. He got out for 74, abruptly, unexpectedly and anti-climactically – to a boyish, intent-laden cheeky cut that didn’t come off. And as a funereal hush descended on Wankhede, it was like the curtain falling on our childhood.
Sachin began the walk back to the dressing room, alone with his thoughts, perhaps not realizing that a second innings was unlikely. In the meantime, the crowd – acutely achingly aware – was at its loudest, as if hoping the clamor might stop him from leaving the field. Just as he was about to cross over the rope, he stopped, turned and raised his arms in acknowledgment. And then he was a small figure walking up a long flight of stairs, and then he was gone.
The giant screen kept showing Sachin’s last trudge back, and the match on the field stopped as the crowd applauded once again. Pujara made a well-deserved hundred and Rohit Sharma a fluent one, but the crowd was baying for Dhoni to declare. We left immediately after Sachin got out; the India-West Indies series had started.
We went to Pizza by the Bay, for umm…pizzas. The tables were filled with fans like us, and every 5 minutes, an impromptu scream of Saachin Sachin would break out. We saw the same as we walked past other restaurants – a pure, unadulterated, un-orchestrated outpouring of love. And loss.
Day 3 began on a solemn note, the realization of not seeing Sachin walk out to bat had long settled in. But he was still there on the field, and for now, that was enough. If anything, the crowd was louder, fresh after a good night’s rest and determined to make the most of every Sachinstant. Dhoni threw him the ball again, and for two overs, the stadium sounded like Sachin were batting.
But soon it was all over, and it was over too soon. The West Indian wickets fell in a tumble, almost like their batsmen had laced their shoes together. The Indian players exulted, Sachin grabbed a wicket as a souvenir, and the moment started to dawn on all of us. I daresay it dawned on everyone in the middle too. Dhoni issued a terse order and the team formed a rolling, mobile guard-of-honor as the players left the field.
I think there was a presentation, a ceremony where someone picked up some award and something was said. Everyone had eyes and ears only for Sachin. The politicians tried to look puffed and important as they handed out mementos, and were booed as their names were taken. And then Ravi Shastri, that crisp commentator of clichés, said his best words ever: “Sachin, over to you.”
How does one describe what has been seen by all? Sachin, surrounded by his wife and children, walked up holding a sheet of paper. He tried to speak but we would not let him. We too had so much to say. And so we chanted his name like we had never said it before, we clapped like these weren’t our hands, all in hope that we could tell him how much he meant to us.
And then he spoke. For a shy, intensely private person, for a man of few words, a 20-minute extempore speech was a masterful effort. With a choked voice and wet eyes, Sachin thanked all those who had played a role in his cricketing career. There were no big words, but there were beautiful ones. Like referring to wife Anjali as “the best partnership of my life” and telling us that “Saaachin Sachin would reverberate in my ears till my breathing stops”. It was a Sachin Special; he had saved his best for retirement day.
But Wankhede wanted more, and got more. Sachin did a lap of the field – hoisted on the shoulders of Dhoni, the Indian Captain and Virat Kohli, the legatee – waving the tricolor to a bedlam of chants, claps and cries. It was indeed a champion’s farewell.
But it couldn’t be over with just a public goodbye. Sachin’s last act on the cricket pitch was to walk back alone to the 22-yards that had given him everything, and say thank you. More student than master, like he had always been.
We advanced our tickets and flew back home, to our wives, kids, EMIs and jobs (yup, I managed to hold on to mine). We felt empty but not as empty as we’d thought we would. Being there at Wankhede and the three days of sustained high emotion had been catharsis, and more importantly, closure. We felt like Dr. Seuss when he said: “Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened”.
To those who throw around big phrases like Impact Index, we have this to say. The true impact of a player on sport is beyond stats and winning percentages. It is about how you affected the game itself. About how you inspired a generation to pick up the bat and taught another how to forget their burdens. It is about how brightly you shone in the dressing room even as a fading light; while at your peak you were the sun itself. It’s about how you commandeered not just grudging respect but gushing praise from the very best you dueled with. It is about how you got an entire nation to start, stop and work its life around yours. It is about how much happiness you gave, by the mere act of being there.
So thank you, Sachin, thank you for more than just the cricket. In a world of fickle fans and fleeting heroes, your poster on our walls shall stay. As will the 10 tattooed on our wrists.
Ram Cobain & Gaurav Dudeja
16th November 2013