2013, Bombay, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Pablo Neruda’s Swan, Sachin Tendulkar’s Song


Mumbai, Nov 15: In his redolent memoir of a life fully lived, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda recounted a childhood fragment of hunting swans — big unwieldy birds, clumsy of flight, easy to strike down. As a boy, Neruda once tended a battered swan as big as himself for several weeks, until one day its neck twisted and the swan keeled. “It was then that I learned,” Neruda wrote, as only he could, “that swans don’t sing when they die.”

Should some quirk of magic-realism have brought the laureate to the Wankhede for Sachin’s swansong this morning, he may have considered revising his evocation of how swans die.







This one danced all the way to sudden death, laying back, stepping down, swinging, twisting, flicking, flickering on like a flame nobody save eleven West Indians on the park wanted put out. He brought the spectators tiers to sing and swing along. He was on a waltz that held the swell and ebb of a million pumping hearts, temporarily the sole conductor of diastoles and systoles.

Wife Anjali and daughter Sarah sat stiff in their box seats, white with tension, raw of nerve. Son Arjun squatted on the fence with a ball-boy tag round his neck, a little more apprenticed in the whimsies of the game, and therefore, a little more stoic of visage. The lead of Team Lagaan, cricket’s filmic fable — director Ashutosh Gowarikar and protagonist Aamir Khan — leant low on the balcony rails, willing a celluloid denouement on the unfolding tryst. Fantastical though Sachin’s journey has been, it was never a thing of fancy or fiction, not subject to mortal corrections on destiny’s writ. Gowarikar and Khan would have done better to have known there would be no re-takes.

Sachin perished to his first and only blemish. His last step was a hop on the backfoot, arms outstretched in unison, patting down a ball that had rebelled off the wicket. It sneaked past that choreography and snorted on to take Darren Sammy down in an ugly heap at slips; the swan of the cricket crease had been snapped mid-posture. And then the singing ceased in the stands, the heartbeat died on its high. Silence. It only recovered to even beat in the echo of Sachin’s footsteps back up the pavilion.

He’s departed his stage the same day he arrived on it 24 years ago, on the ides of November. In that time, he went from prodigious teen to pronounced master and etched an empire that spared no continent and prostrated every lover of the game. Sachin Tendulkar, global landlord of the 22 yards, leaves behind a realm that will defy conquest till seasons turn.

One last time, was the chant ringing all day at the Wankhede today, bring him on, just one last time. But it is unlikely tomorrow will bring yesterday once more. The rules of Test cricket allow for a second coming, but there is also something called the state of play.

The West Indies are three down and 270 adrift. It’s a hopscotch pitch and Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin have the ball in hand. They are looping in leather; it’s bursting off the turf like crackers. If the Windies get there — and make India bat again — perhaps the Titanic will bob up its Atlantic grave and sail them home to the Caribbean as valiant heroes.

Likelier that Sachin’s valedictory field outing will be sans his helmet and wooden scimitar. Likelier he will mind the Wankhede fences and exult boy-like seven more times until his sendoff series is taken 2-0. There is nothing, he has very often said, that has pleased him more than playing for India and winning. Likelier tomorrow will be another such day.

His part in it, Sachin played out in the course of a symphonic cameo that made the morning hum with plain joy. He cut and clipped and punched and paddled and turned the air luminous with his artistry on the square. He brought up his fifty with a caress that imparted the ball a belligerent velocity. Tino Best had been teasing him with chinny-chin bouncers. This one Sachin desposited on the long off fence before Best was done with his follow through — under fire, a counterblast of grace.

He scored two fewer today than he had accumulated last evening, but in such fashion that his 74 became a fitting epilogue to the epic he had already scripted and set aside.  The vintage class and ease of the innings brought Sourav Ganguly to say on commentary that he hadn’t seen Sachin play with such carefree sovereignty in a long time.

Also on commentary came to drop a nugget that could turn post-script to the Tendulkar saga or lend it a new twist. The oppressively inimitable Navjot Sidhu slid into the box late afternoon and plunged the discourse into the vortex of anecdotal humour. Asked if he counted Sourav Ganguly’s bare-torso celebration the Lord’s balcony among the iconic moments of India’s cricketing annals, he said: “Never trust a naked man offering his shirt.”

Ravi Shastri nearly fell off his commentary chair, then recovered in time to recount what he thought to be a bigger joke. He’d come across the young Arjun Tendulkar on the fence during the day and asked him if he was preparing to pad up for India now that his father was signing off. “But I’m only fourteen,” Arjun replied, almost protesting it was not a question but a pressure tactic. Shastri, being the hard-boiled Ravi Shastri, pressed on and reminded Arjun his father had donned the national colours at 16. “But there was no competition at that time,” Arjun shot back. That threw Shastri; he couldn’t tell whether the young Tendulkar was being cheeky on his father’s achievement or merely callow. He picked the latter, and decided to laugh it off.

It requires a belly in a boy to venture among men. Sachin Tendulkar came knocking at 16, and kept knocking about a quarter of a century. He has hung a “situation vacant” board where he left, a void along the centre of gravity of Indian cricket’s scoresheet. But there are able hands reaching out to pluck it — Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma. The latter two struck tons today, the former raced to an embellished fifty that foretold the promise of higher stations.

There’s work to do for boys like Arjun to craft a breach among men. His best tutor he’ll find at home, freshly superannuated. The lovely and pitiful irony is, he still looks like a boy, a retired swan that could yet sing.









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