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Is the time running out for Sachin Tendulkar?

Monday, 3 December 2012 - 11:23am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
If England win or draw in Kolkata and Tendulkar does not make runs, India, with national pride at stake, would surely think long and hard about playing him in the final Test.

It is the growing problem that dare not speak its name, at least not among Sachin Tendulkar's legions of supporters. Cricket is a numbers game and after 23 years as India's most revered sportsman, the Little Master's scores have dwindled as the murmurs of his vulnerability have grown.

Granted they are only murmurs. Most people here are in denial along with Tendulkar, but then an all-time great of the game rarely admits defeat for that is what led to their greatness in the first place. Yet, cussed as the great ones are, no one wants to drop back into the following pack, which is why Ricky Ponting called time on his glittering career last week.

The best generally know when to retire, but a simple yardstick is when their wicket is no longer the one prized most by opponents. Teams playing Australia now want Michael Clarke's wicket more than Ponting's while England's bowlers in this tour would probably rather have Cheteshwar Pujara's than the 39-year-old Tendulkar's.

One of cricket's mantras down the ages has been that no player is bigger than the game but Tendulkar is the exception to that rule. As such, he is immune from being dropped, which is probably why him saying "It is up to the selectors to drop me" made the front pages of the Hindustan Times last week. They did not drop him, but his dare was a bit like writing a pounds 1million cheque knowing it will never be cashed.

The consensus in India seems to be that he will decide when it is time to go and most former players feel he has earned that right. Anyone who has given their best years to playing 192 Tests and 463 one-day internationals, making 100 centuries across both formats, probably deserves to choose his own exit strategy.

"There must have been instances where he has been the sole reason for India's wins but he has never been the sole reason for India's losses," said Anil Kumble, India's leading wicket taker in Tests and a former team-mate.

"Let's give the man the respect he deserves. He just needs people to back off and allow him to work out how to return to run-scoring ways which I'm confident he'll do," Kumble added.

Not everyone is so supportive, though dissenting voices are in the minority. At a comedy evening in Mumbai last week, a local stand-up lampooned Tendulkar's current situation, playing on the batsman's reedy, high-pitched voice.

People marvel at his motivation, but for Tendulkar cricket is probably not just about runs, rupees and results, bountifully though that side of the game has served him. When you see Tendulkar in India, arguably the most revered man there has ever been, much more than the Beatles and Elvis and more than any Bollywood star, you can begin to understand why he wants to play on, it is an escape.

Sure, millions of people watch his every move on a cricket pitch, but when he bats his mind is focused on something other than how to avoid the next excitable throng of people asking for photographs, autographs, blessings, or simply to kiss his feet.

Being brilliant at cricket brought him that world but by playing it enables him to be free of its cloying embrace. When he dons his whites and pulls on his big floppy sunhat and trots off down to fine leg he is hiding in plain sight.

Brian Lara and Ponting have decorated cricket with as much class as Tendulkar these past 20 years but neither has had to live with such mass adulation.

Back home in Trinidad, Lara is never swamped for his autograph because he grew up as part of the community and while they are pleased for his successes they are not in thrall to them. Tendulkar is a Mumbaikar through and through, but when he wants to do things most of us take for granted, like take the train to go shopping, he has to go to the UK where he has property, though even there he dons a baseball cap and dark glasses.

It is impossible to see anyone beating his combined records. The anti-social nature of international cricket with its lengthy excursions away from family and friends would not only require someone to play for at least 20 years, but they would need to be at the pinnacle of the game as well. It is essentially long public service.

India captain MS Dhoni's insistence that the matches be played on "rank turners" has not helped Tendulkar's cause in this series, and he struggled like a novice against Monty Panesar in Mumbai, though he did get two pearlers there.

Kolkata is set to be 10C degrees cooler than Mumbai and it is unlikely that the pitch, also used 20 days ago for a four-day match, will spin as much as that one.

He needs a score though, and soon, if he is to justify his place and maintain his dignity. With a top score of 27 in his last 10 Test innings and no hundred for 29 innings, the longest gap between centuries in his career, the numbers are not on his side.

Runs or not, Tendulkar will probably want to play in the next series, which is against Australia in India in February. Having been awarded the Order of Australia medal by Julia Gillard recently, only the third non-Australian to receive the award, it seems obvious he would like to renew that challenge.

Yet, by performing so brilliantly against him and India in the second Test to level the series, Alastair Cook's side have placed that in jeopardy. Carrying a player when your team is winning easily, as India did in Ahmedabad, is fine but it becomes a luxury when the opposition show they have teeth.

If England win or draw in Kolkata and Tendulkar does not make runs, India, with national pride at stake, would surely think long and hard about playing him in the final Test.


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