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With time you can take skill for granted, maybe even ignore the factors that allowed your skill to dazzle. Inevitably you will know what to do when the next challenge surfaces but that confluence of factors may have disappeared; the mind may be willing but the lungs may be weaker, the fingers shaky, the eyes not quite what they were. But the mind of a champion refuses to see those as indicators of a weakness and so fight on because that is what they are best at.
Players become champions because their response to adversity is always to fight, to seek to vanquish, to look it in the eye and say “You think I can’t?” You and I may not always understand that because at some point we might have accepted limitations, might have bowed to the situation. But these people don’t. They are not only gifted but they are aware of their gifts, it is a fundamental difference, and they use those as weapons to win battles. To overcome, to vanquish, these are intoxicants, champions live with them. There is a limitlessness to their ability, an audacity to their thinking.
Limitlessness of ability
That is what allowed Sachin Tendulkar to even contemplate not driving a single ball through the off-side at Sydney in 2004. It was the audacity of the thought and the belief in his ability that allowed him to carve out a double century. It is the limitlessness of ability that sees a gap over a fielder where others would hope to hit between two men. It was his faith in himself that saw him rebound from 2007-8 to have the two best years of his cricketing career in his late thirties. Why, in the final of IPL-3, when he shouldn’t have been holding a bat, he conjured up a fifty.
And so my thesis is that the very mindset that drives champions to heights that others feel are unattainable prevents them from accepting that the time has come. Even the mightiest, the peerless Lata Mangeshkar continued to sing when her voice had begun disobeying her. She had the belief but not the tools to convert that belief into another great melody. So too with Ricky Ponting, with Ian Botham, with Kapil Dev.
And that is where Sachin Tendulkar is. Possessed of an extraordinary mind, sublime skill and a very rare humility towards his sport Tendulkar has inhabited planets that we hadn’t imagined, let alone seen from a distance. 34 test hundreds we thought would not be attained again, he’s crossed that by 50%! He has almost twice the number of centuries that the next best has and the thirty four thousand runs he has made in international cricket alone is the equivalent of scientists in the fifties thinking you could land on Mars. This audacity, this refusal to accept what everyone else thought were limits to accomplishment is what made him the player of his generation.
He is still possessed of this audacity, of this refusal to accept limits. It is what defines him, it is in the blood that flows in his veins. To say “I cannot anymore” would be an acceptance, a defeat almost, a self-rebuttal. In him there will be a voice and a spirit that says “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”. And that is why people who say that the decision to retire must be his and his alone, that he will know when the time comes are wrong. If Monty Panesar spins one past him, that cannot be the last moment of the contest, it must end with a cracking cover-drive.
There is one other reason why so many sportspersons get the timing of their exit wrong. The faculties that make them unique start waning at 35, in some sports much earlier. All their lives they have worked on that one skill, very very few of them are any good at anything else. But their peers, who were struggling with rejection and uncertainty at a time when the sportspersons were at the height of their powers are just entering the best phase of their life. A lawyer, a corporate executive, a surgeon, an architect, they are all looking ahead at 35, at 40; that is our peak, our brightest phase. Can we even understand giving up what we have at 35? Accepting that everything else in life will now be second best, maybe not even good at all?
The phase that Tendulkar is in is a difficult phase and often, one of denial. That is why someone else has to take that decision for him; not an autocratic one but one borne out of consultation. And Tendulkar needs the people closest to him not to get intimidated by him, not to keep quiet out of respect or fear but to use the strength of that friendship to talk to him. Now, more than ever, Tendulkar cannot be lonely.
The moment when the selectors should talk to him is here. There may be another peak but it cannot be as large or as significant as those he has tamed. He cannot stumble on the path that lesser people are sprinting on. His place in the cricket world, till such time as there is a world, is unchallenged.
But can a champion let go?