The ball, hit solidly, went straight to the cover fielder, but something about the length of the batsmans front-foot stride seemed to please Sunil Gavaskar. Look at that, he said. Just look at that. Any young player watching this match, that is how you play the cover drive.
This was perhaps the 7349th time that Gavaskar had uttered those exact words in a commentary box. This time, he followed it up by observing that Sachin Tendulkar was looking really good this morning, or words to that effect.
Avlo than machi, said my flatmate. Thats it. Next ball out. The same words, in various languages, were no doubt being said at that very moment in living rooms all over India.
It was November 25, 2011, and India were playing the West Indies at the Wankhede. Tendulkar, resuming his innings on Day Four, had raced from 67 to 94 in 19 balls. He was within six runs of his 52nd Test century. He was within six runs of his 100th international hundred. This was his 16th innings since his 99th.
Of all the moments he could have chosen for putting the commentators curse on Tendulkar, Gavaskar had chosen this one.
My flatmate was wrong. Tendulkar survived the next ball.
But not the one after that.
A little less than a month later, spectators at Canberras Manuka Oval rose from their seats as the umpires walked out to begin the post-tea session. Next onto the field were the Cricket Australia Chairmans XI. Behind them came not Sachin Tendulkar, batting on 92, and VVS Laxman, batting on 57, but Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, both batting on 0. The crowd groaned.
It was a practice match, and eight more runs wouldnt have ended Tendulkars wait. But talk of a jinx floated uneasily around Manuka. He had been out in the nineties in two of his last six Test innings. A hundred, any hundred, would break that sequence.
It was irrational thinking. It was an irrational time.
Tendulkar was clearly in form. In the first Test at the MCG, he uppercut Peter Siddle for six first ball after tea, and proceeded to play an innings as attractive as any in his career. But he made only 73. And then, at the SCG, only 80.
Is it affecting him came the question, in every press conference. Is it affecting the team India werent doing well. India werent doing well at all.
The despondency of the tour consumed Tendulkars batting as well, and his scores tailed off. There was no way to tell, but with everyone talking about it, the thought of the hundredth hundred was probably worming its way into his consciousness. There was no way to tell, but here he was, back in Indias ODI team for the first time in nearly a year.
It was in coloured clothes, in Dhaka, snuck away in a scorecard recording a defeat to Bangladesh, that Tendulkar finally reached the milestone. It was March 16, 2012. Seven days earlier, Rahul Dravid had announced his international retirement. It wouldnt be long before VVS Laxman did the same.
The question of Tendulkars retirement had been debated before. But the words framing the question had changed. A year before, it was `what will Tendulkar do now He had helped India win a World Cup, and helped them reach the No. 1 ranking in Test cricket. Tours to England and Australia had beckoned.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda
Now, after humbling 4-0 defeats on both tours, the question was `what should Tendulkar do He hadnt scored a Test hundred in over a year, but he had performed no worse than the rest of his under-performing teammates. Since the World Cup, his average was a nondescript 37.04, but it was the second-best among Indias batsmen in that period.
Dravid and Laxman are gone. Tendulkar should retire. Dravid and Laxman are gone. Tendulkar should stay on. He should help this young team through this transition, get them ready for South Africa, provide some experience on that tour. Dale Steyn. Durban.
Another November, another Wankhede Test. A leg-stump ball, on a good length, from a left-arm spinner, on a turning wicket. Tendulkar took a small stride out, and looked to work it into the leg side. The ball beat Tendulkars bat and clipped the off bail.
A bounding Monty Panesar missed his teammates palms with his attempted high-fives .
It was the third time in four innings that Tendulkar had been out bowled while looking to play through the on-side. Against New Zealand in Bangalore, he had been out that way twice, to Doug Bracewell and Tim Southee.
Both times, he had played half-forward, with half a bat. Now hed done the same against Panesar.
This wasnt the Tendulkar of old. The Tendulkar of old wouldnt have played across the line to straight balls from the seamers. The Tendulkar of old wouldnt have played against the turn to left-arm spinners.
Or maybe he would have. The Tendulkar of old would have judged the length better, moved into better positions, played the same shots, and made them look safe.
Eye. Reflexes. Age. Dale Steyn Durban
Against Panesar in the next Test match, at the Eden Gardens, Tendulkar faced 83 deliveries and scored 20 runs. In January 2004, he had refused to play the cover drive at the SCG. Now, he refused to flick Panesar into the leg side. In Sydney, he had made an unbeaten 241. In Kolkata, he made 76.
Rage against dying of light
He wasnt scoring centuries, but he could still bat. Two months later, at the Chepauk, he came in with India 12 for two replying to Australias 380 and hit three of the first four balls he faced for four. His 81, vital as it was, was overshadowed by a century from Virat Kohli and a double from MS Dhoni in a big win for India. Over the next three Test matches India won all of them Tendulkar was barely needed. He came in at 387 for two in Hyderabad and at 292 for two in Mohali.
A new lineup was taking shape. Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara made over 400 runs each in the series. Shikhar Dhawan smashed 187 on debut. Against all that, Tendulkars scores of 81, 13*, 7, 37, 21, 32 and 1 looked, well, insignificant.
His post-World Cup average had now dropped to 31.80, in 21 Tests. Dravid (48.80) and Laxman (40.17) had averaged more than that in their last 21 matches. So had Gautam Gambhir (33.22), but he had been dropped, as had Virender Sehwag (30.00), who had averaged only marginally less.
It was at this point that Tendulkar announced that he would retire after the two Tests against the West Indies. A last November, a last Wankhede Test match. With the power of hindsight, Tendulkar should became Tendulkar should have.
Tendulkar should have retired after the World Cup, after England, after Australia. If he wasnt going to go to South Africa, why did he play on for so long He has tarnished his legacy. He should have retired like Gavaskar, like Lara, like Dravid, like ...
Tendulkar wouldnt have known, of course. The thought of retirement must have crossed his mind at different points, but he chose to play on. He was prepared to struggle, if need be, knowing only that it would be a very public struggle.