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Tendulkar's affair with ODIs


Last night, I called a restaurant to order dinner. The man on the phone took mundane details like my order down and paused for a second before asking the really important question, "Do you think we'll win this one?” Now that hasn't happened in a while, not during an ODI, not with complete strangers and no TV/Radio bridging the platform. The buzz that 50-over cricket generated seemed to be back, not in entirety, but in flickers and promises. And there is a deep sense of poetic justice that Tendulkar played the chief catalyst in this story.

The marriage of Tendulkar and ODI cricket is a raging, romantic yet one of the most heavily under-discussed affairs of cricket. Tendulkar, not Rhodes, not Bevan, not Richards, is the flagship ODI cricketer, embodying everything about the 50-over format, right from its virtues, to its sins, to its evolutionary curve, to its commercial curve like no other cricketer. The natural, pre-ordained symmetry they share in their joys and sorrows is a fascinating little subplot in the thrilling story of cricket’s evolution.

The easy blend of literary elegance and pulp fiction in Sachin’s stroke making and his Himalayan commercial curve represent ODI cricket in an all-round way better than any other player ever did. ODI cricket is (has been?) a complicated blend of class and commerce, a curious combination of ‘packaged patience’ mixed with innings building skill mixed with mad aggression, a compound that just fits with Sachin. The evolutionary graph of ODI cricket – its rise to the peak of its popularity through to a stage that is almost certainly the last lap of its existence overlaps almost completely with that of Tendulkar’s career.

ODI cricket was always popular but it leapfrogged a few stages of growth and transcended unnatural heights in the 1990s. It saw a happy allegiance of commercial copiousness and tremendous volumes of buzz in the media and mainstream audiences across the world. At around the same time, Sachin Tendulkar reached territories previously unchartered by any cricketer, making many millions of dollars and blending it with superstardom across global markets.

These two events are not mutually exclusive, and the former has much to do with the late Mark Mascrenhas, the sports agent and entrepreneur who first took Sachin to the dizzying heights mentioned above, and then played a key role in doing the same to cricket in the subcontinent, with Sachin and One-dayers as the flagship. About the accumulated effect of this on the cricket economy, we know almost everything there is to know.

So, in a way, it seems appropriate that Sachin’s career heads for sundown and newer species (and definitions) of ‘the cricket superstar’ emerge at the same time that ODI cricket meanders towards quieter days in the backwaters of cricket, overshadowed by a burgeoning T20 economy.

It seems even more correct that it is Sachin who provides a potent shot in the arm to the format which has been threatening a mini-revival ever since the first match of the India-Australia series.

Tendulkar put up a fantastic, theatrical masterpiece last night, a pulsating montage that showcased, in the same breath, both, the heights of his heroism and the tragic truth of his vulnerability. It panned across the greatest bits of Sachin’s cricketing stories. It started with Sharjah of 1998, as he covered the embarrassing ruins of his team’s batting scorecard under the vast cloak of his genius. It looked like one of those nights, he looked in that zone. It then quickly, painfully, moved to Chennai 1999, as he let go of the reins just when a great victory was within his grasp, and the tail-enders bumbled around an achievable target and fell within a hair’s breadth of it. It was great cinema that arrested everyone’s imagination again. It was almost as if he had choreographed this show as his big contribution in saving his beloved format.

The 1990s feeling to the night continues as the roller coaster ride leaves in its aftermath glimpses of a fervour in the air for ODI cricket that was most recognizable in that decade. As the futures of both, 50-over cricket and Sachin Tendulkar, approach the final lap, it is charming to see that the discovery of unquestionable life left in ODIs works so much in tandem with the evidence that there is much left in Tendulkar's tank.

There are many questions and paradoxes left in both entities, though. It is one of cricket’s great tragedies that we will never be able to offer unconditional applause to Tendulkar’s genius. Following a pattern that has spread across 20 years, he is still unable to apply the all-important finishing touches to a great portrait. You have to qualify every memorable innings with a ‘he didn’t finish the job’. He remains the ONLY legend in the history of the game of whom equally persuasive arguments can be raised about how he is the hero and how he is the villain within the same innings, on several occasions in his career. The displays of his individual genius grow more breathtaking and spellbinding with every knock, but they still leave you with no concrete defense against the accusation, “But he didn’t win you the game.”

The symmetry continues as the painful question that accompanies Sachin’s grand displays – “Yes, but to what end? What came of it?” – applies also to these great shows of ODI cricket. A thrilling match, a great series that has overshadowed most of the T20 tournaments in the year, but does it save ODI cricket? Is it enough to stop the great evolutionary force with which T20, and indeed Tests, are taking over the limited space that cricket has, geographically and calendar-wise?

The thing to do, I suppose, is to just accept both as they are. Live with the shortcomings, keep the flaws in mind when according them their place in history, but also savour the half-full side of the wine-bottle. Here’s hoping then, that this quixotic pair of Sachin and 50-over cricket gives us a few more memorable stories before riding into the sunset.

(Click here to know more about Sreeram)

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