Ricky Ponting, Sachin Tendulkar and the fire escape
Now that Ricky Ponting has called time on an unprecedented career - 108 Test wins and three World Cup triumphs are at the front of an immense catalogue of achievement - the debates will intensify over Sachin Tendulkar's future.
"It was the most difficult thing in the world, when I went to tell the chairman," said Bill Shankly of his decision to retire as Liverpool's manager. "It was like walking to the electric chair. That's the way it felt." As with most things he said, there was a generous dollop of exaggeration. Then again, it's impossible to overstate just what sportsmen feel when they walk away from the only kind of life that they've known.
Now that Ricky Ponting has called time on an unprecedented career - 108 Test wins and three World Cup triumphs are at the front of an immense catalogue of achievement - the debates will intensify over Sachin Tendulkar's future. One can only hope that the level of discourse goes up several notches from where it has been this week.
On Wednesday morning, I read a column that compared Tendulkar to a leech. It also spoke of Bradman comparisons being ridiculous - despite the fact that it was Sir Don himself who first made them. Really, how low can you go?
Whether you're Javier Bardem in front of a camera, Leonard Cohen behind a microphone or Tendulkar with bat in hand, no one is, or should be, immune to criticism. Columnists are paid for their opinions, and have every right to express them. But there's a thin line between criticism and slander, and that's been crossed often in the past week.
I've interviewed Tendulkar half a dozen times. He was always an engaging subject, albeit one deeply reluctant to scratch beneath the surface. What I enjoyed most about those chats were the things left unsaid, what you could read between the lines, what he would hint at without saying it openly.
I spoke to Ponting only once, a year before he took over the Test reins from Steve Waugh. With him, everything was out there. Whether it was discussing his problems with spin in India, or his struggles with alcohol in the early days of his career, the words were as forthright as his batsmanship.
I often think back to that chat when asked about the nature of cricketing greatness. What makes someone a legend? Nature? Nurture? Grit? Hunger? For me, it comes down to one word: Responsibility. The true greats don't make excuses. They find a way to get the job done.
Contrast Ponting with someone like Vinod Kambli. I spoke to Kambli a few years ago, and the many paths we went down all led to the same destination - it was never his fault. Always the victim. Short of blaming the man on the moon, he attributed his woes to a variety of characters and incidents. There was no sign that he had taken a long hard look at the mirror.
Ponting fielded questions about his youthful indiscretions with the straightest of bats. 'I messed up' was the gist of it. He gathered himself together and went on to a purple patch that lasted more than half a decade.
It took as much courage to stay in charge of a team that was in decline, to accept that the days of taking victory almost for granted were gone. Some will remember him for presiding over three Ashes losses. Others will recall how ferociously he fought to arrest the decline. His match-saving century at Old Trafford in 2005 will go down in the annals and, personally, I'll never forget the century in Bangalore in 2008, a stroke-filled riposte to suggestions that he wasn't the same batsman in Asia.
What drove him on when there were few peaks left to conquer, and what made him give it away when he did? The best answer comes perhaps from another sporting titan who retired when just 33. "When you do not reach your objectives, you ask yourself questions," said Zinedine Zidane. "I know I cannot play better than I have up until now."
Ponting won Test matches by the handful in every country, and was part of a one-day side whose excellence and dominance will never be matched. He had no boxes left to tick. With Ed Cowan establishing himself and Shane Watson making his way back, staying in the top order without recent runs behind him was never an option.
I believe it's the absence of a tick that has caused Tendulkar's current slump. The personal records, some of which will never be surpassed, mean little. He kept going because there were worlds left to conquer. He wanted to be part of a successful Test side, one that climbed to the top of the rankings. Check. And though he rarely spoke of it for fear of jinxing it, he desperately wanted to emulate the heroes of his childhood and win a World Cup. That was achieved just before his 38th birthday.
What remained was Australia, a land where he had played some of his finest innings. India nearly won a series there in 2003-04. Nearly, but not quite. The team that left these shores a year ago felt they had a great chance of toppling a side that had lost a home Test to New Zealand.
Tendulkar batted with some of his old majesty in Melbourne and Sydney but India lost both games heavily. It isn't a coincidence that he's barely scored a run since those dreams of winning in Australia were shattered. Like the 136 in Chennai that still causes him to wince when he recalls it, the lack of a series win in Australia is a wound that won't heal anytime soon.
More than the interviews, though, what I recall most clearly from my interactions with Tendulkar is a chat on a fire escape in Port Elizabeth. The Mumbai Indians had failed to qualify for the semifinals of the IPL (2009), and after the post-match briefing was over, he beckoned me outside. The 15-minute chat that followed was off the record and cannot be reproduced here.
But I will say this: He ranted. He swore. He railed about matches that had slipped away, about players who hadn't taken responsibility. It was astonishing, and the only real glimpse I've had of the man behind the mask.
It made me think of what Mark Mascarenhas had once told me - "Even if it's a game of pool at 3 am, Sachin wants to win. Heck, even if it's tiddlywinks."
I don't know Tendulkar well. I doubt I ever will. But unlike many that have slated him in the media this week, I have interacted with him enough to at least have some idea of what motivates him. That those who don't have a clue should pass judgment is just infuriating.
Tendulkar won't play on till his son gets an Indian cap. He won't play on till he does a Jack Hobbs. Few know the value of an India cap better than he does, and I can't see him ever taking it for granted. Criticise him all you like, backed by facts and figures. But show him some respect. Like Ponting, he's earned it.