74 is a number no Indian cricket fan will forget for a long time. On first glance, it seems insignificant- not the kind of small number you’d associate with the statistical orgy assembled by Sachin Tendulkar over the years. A little more than a half century, well short of a century- the story of his final few years in cricket.
But there was more to his final test innings.
Perhaps it is a number that will give visions of a happy ending to every one of his fans. Months ago, they feared he would limp out on a duck, forget reaching 50 or 74, or even looking convincing doing that. It was like they were humoring him, looking for a diamond of a straight drive amidst the rough scratchy shots and mistakes.
Then, on a Thursday at the Wankhede, well into his final test match against a clueless team, he woke up.
He made 38 before stumps, dazzling the world with his strokeplay that reminded one and all of the 90s when he used to be fearless and destructive. He played an on drive, a straight drive, a square cut and a cover drive- the four shots that have defined his legacy. He didn’t make mistakes, he didn’t look nervous. Most of all, he played like he enjoyed the game again, not like a 100 million wanted him to score another century.
It had been 34 months since he had scored his last test century. Any other legend would have been dropped by now. But he managed a few cameos in between, none as solid as his 74- his last test innings. He started the next day with square cuts and then the shot of the match- a backfoot punch, his signature shot that told us he was batting well again. Should he retire? Isn’t he good enough still? But even Ganguly made a century in his final test, that didn’t mean he was good enough to continue.
A solitary mistake, and he was gone. He edged Deonarine to first slip and walked back like it was any other day. Just a simple raise of the bat, and that was it. Never mind the adoring emotional thousands that had packed the stadium to watch him bat one last time.
It was maybe because Sachin was the only one in the country convinced that he was mortal. No fuss, just another innings. A cameo cut short. His downfall had started against NZ in 3 home tests 2 years ago, and he had come a full circle by driving the likes of Best with consistent ease.
But something was missing. This had all the drama and emotion of a Subhash Ghai 80s potboiler, but lacked the raw respect of a Steve Waugh farewell. The inevitability hung like a sword for a month, but when it came down to the final moment, with thousands screaming madly without caring about the match situation or the opponents or teammates, he was bigger than the game. He was no servant, and this- in short- has been the biggest bane of his career as a legend.
Even his best innings in a year was shrouded under a cloud of melancholy and disrespect for the game. The #thankyousachin campaign wasn’t what he would have liked.
It was pure idol-worship for the most part, but for a few hours this week, Sachin Tendulkar reminded his fans and critics that he was, first and foremost, a very good batsman. And age is no bar for good players.
And this could be his greatest contribution over his last years- his ability to shut the nation up and make them admire his skills, reminding them why they became a bubbling soppy mass of blind followers.