There are some stories that catch newsrooms across the country completely off guard. Like 26/11 or the SEAL team six's raid on Osama Bin Laden. The kind of stories that blindside you on some idle Tuesday. Then, there are the stories that news desks have had months, sometimes years, to plan for. You know they're inevitable. So you do the best you can to prepare for them. You have intermittent meetings to discuss how the event will be covered. How the logistics and resources will be best utilised. What the packages, the highlights, the pictures and the reactions will be.
Yet, when that moment arrives, no matter how much and how often you have deliberated over it, it still takes you completely by surprise. And so it was with Sachin Tendulkar's retirement from one-day cricket. Everybody knew it was going to happen. But when the BCCI's innocuously titled email "Media Release" appeared in the in-boxes of cricket reporters across the world at 11.20 am IST on Sunday morning, it sent many newsrooms across the country into a flap.
Packages were made, tributes written, career highlights picked out, defining innings culled, the best quotes gleaned. Ready four years ago and frequently updated since. But when the moment was upon us, nobody was ready to say goodbye.
There was every indication that Tendulkar's future, especially in one-dayers, was uncertain. There was some speculation too about how the selectors were seriously considering dropping him for the upcoming series against Pakistan. But nobody expected it to unfold in this anti-climactic fashion, via a press release. And then, the realisation that without knowing it at the time, we had watched Tendulkar's last one-day innings nine months ago, when he made that ravaging 52 off 48 against Pakistan in the Asia Cup. Right after his hundredth hundred. How could we possibly know? He didn't know himself.
Tendulkar didn't get the fairy-tale end he wished for. That all of us wished for. For him and ourselves. Maybe, he was hoping to play one last one-day series against Pakistan at home before bidding the one-day format goodbye. Maybe, he was left with no choice because the selectors made it clear he would be dropped. Maybe, it was his conversation with Sandeep Patil, the selection committee chairman, and N Srinivasan, the BCCI president, that led to the hastily drafted media release before another press release on the T20 and ODI teams for the Pakistan series followed. Maybe, his best chance at a dream one-day farewell was April 2, 2011 but he was too in love to let it go.
That he didn't get the fairy-tale ending to his one-day story just makes Tendulkar more real. Maybe, he is just as human as we are, after all. Even though we have spent the better part of a quarter of a century believing he is God.
The recent clamour and chorus among fans and experts asking "When?" and saying "About time" notwithstanding, the sentiment that followed his announcement was hardly one of relief. Or detachment.
After all, how do you say goodbye to someone you have shared such a deep emotional connection with for over 20 years? Most friendships and many marriages don't last that long. How do you come to grips with losing something you can't replace? He is everything we want to be: dedicated, hardworking, successful, famous, humble, revered. For 23 years, everything he did was a measure of our self-worth. If he failed, we failed. If he succeeded, we were ok. He was ours to knock down, blame, curse, applaud, gasp at, look up to, cherish, be frustrated with, admire. Tendulkar will remain the only cricketer that made a billion switch off their television sets once he was out. Never before. Never again.
Each one of us, even those who may never have met him, has a collection of very personal Sachin memories connected to more than just the desert storm, the 200, the 175 or the World Cups. Mine date back to the time I made a scrapbook on him as an 11-year-old with newspaper clippings and magazine photos. A few years later, I plastered posters of him on the walls of my bedroom. And when the time came to go away to university at 20, I took those posters with me and put them up in my dorm room in Toronto. I needed Sachin to make me feel at home, 8,000 miles away from home.
From cricket fan to cricket reporter to cricket writer, it's been quite a journey. Reporting was tough because you try to be as objective as possible. You want to detach yourself from Tendulkar's failures and milestones. And recalibrating this equation was not easy. I had to now acquaint myself with him as a professional. But he never disappointed here either. The more I interacted with him, the more my admiration grew for his work ethic, his focus, his humility and most of all his sense of commitment, all of which I witnessed first-hand on several occasions.
During the 2007-08 tour of Australia, my first overseas tour as a television reporter, I gingerly approached Tendulkar after a net session in Adelaide to ask if he would consider doing an interview. He said he would think about my request after the series. When India won the CB series in Brisbane, I ran up to a champagne-soaked Tendulkar to remind him of our conversation. All he said was, "Tomorrow in Melbourne." I had to cancel my bookings and re-route my flight. I had no time or venue for the interview. And I had no guarantee. But I had to take the chance. When I reached the executive lounge at the Tullamarine Airport, he kept his word. As he always has.
The email in my inbox on Sunday felt like a cruel joke. In one fell swoop, a vital chunk of my youth just disappeared. Tendulkar's goodbye is a grim reminder to us of our own mortality. A reminder that there is very little time left to make the most of him. And ourselves. Are we ever prepared for the end? The end of all our elaborate plans. Of everything that stands.
The end that has just begun.