Throughout the long journey from prodigy to legend, Sachin Tendulkar honoured his gift

Sachin Tendulkar has announced that he will retire from cricket, after a career in which he scored 100 international centuries. I often imagined what it would be like to be that good - but looking at the challenges he faced, I'm not sure I'd want to.

All sportsmen wish they could be just a bit better. If only the ratio of good days to bad could be rebalanced slightly in your favour. If only the voice of self-doubt were quieter and more easily quelled. If only the threat of being dropped or demoted was not so ever-present. If only you spent less time preoccupied with if onlys.

Personally, not being greedy, I sometimes imagined how nice it would be to be about as good as Sachin Tendulkar, who announced on 10 October that he will retire from cricket this autumn, having scored 100 international centuries.

I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of my outlandish dreams. It is hard to be as good as Tendulkar. Professionally, in order to bat at number three for Kent, then briefly at number five for England, I had to compete with players who had roughly the same ability as me. So did Tendulkar: he faced constant comparisons with Brian Lara about who was the best batsman in the world. As if that wasn’t hard enough, he was also chasing the shadow of Bradman, the game’s colossus. Who got dealt the more difficult hand? It’s not easy being a cabinet minister who lives with the fear of being bundled out of a job in the next reshuffle; but it’s a lot easier than being prime minister.

There are three components of pressure: the personal ambition that comes from within, the professional demands of the game and, finally, the social context in which every career is played out. In each category, Tendulkar faced a stifling degree of pressure. Bradman also carried the expectations of his nation but, as nations go, the Australia of the 1930s wasn’t the greatest burden to bear. Not so modern India, with its 1.2 billion people, most of them cricket fans.

In 2005 I was taking part in a training camp in Mumbai when Graham Gooch arranged for a small group – which included Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara and me – to chat about batting with Tendulkar. The security operation was as memorable as the conversation. The cricket ground was shut down; guards manned every door; Tendulkar was bundled into a private room by way of a back staircase. Was every routine visit to a cricket ground like this?

The following year, I watched him bat against England in Mumbai, shotless and subdued. Surely he should just free up and let his talent take over? Or so I wondered at the time. Now I marvel that he had survived 17 years before finally showing visible signs of relentless pressure.

In making Tendulkar an icon, India, in effect, took possession of its hero. He accepted the deal but it came at a price. In 24 years, he has never said anything memorable, done anything reprehensible or allowed the public to glimpse the contours of his personality. When a public persona becomes so allconsuming, it becomes a kind of lifelong method acting. In accepting the role of India’s cricketing saint, he relinquished many aspects of his humanity.

No sportsman is exactly the same man off the field as he is on it – but the on-field persona inevitably bleeds into the private person. Lara’s joyous flamboyance matched his hedonistic instincts. Rahul Dravid’s relentless self-improvement fitted his high-minded and academic sense of propriety. Tendulkar is extremely self-denying, as though he sees batting for India as a religious vocation. Having signed up as a child, the course was set. Perhaps that is why he has always remained close to a boyish group of friends he has known for decades, a light-hearted counterpoint to his earnest professional life.

As a teenager already moving in a man’s world, Tendulkar seemed to make an accommodation with the burdens that surely lay ahead. When he scored his first Test century as a 17-year-old, he did not leap in the air or pump his fist. Instead, he looked briefly up to the heavens, then modestly down at the ground, where his eyes stayed fixed. “I was given a great gift, a great talent,” his body language implied. “Much is expected, much to be given, duties to be honoured.” It looked as if a promise was being made, or even a vow.

The batting crease became his sanctuary from fame, somewhere he could escape the soap opera of his life. Some believe that he has stayed in the game too long. If so, who can blame him? It is on the pitch that he could rely on being left alone. Returning to civilian life after 24 years feels like departing a safely cloistered world. Cricket had its strictures but it was home.

For what now awaits? The media? It is too late, having avoided making public judgements for so long, to make a living out of them now. Politics? Not his style. Business? Why bother? Hardest of all, the past will always offer itself for easy pickings – an endorsement here, an appearance there. Yet there is a huge difference between the roar of a live crowd and the reverence of a charity dinner or a staged television-studio audience. Great fame is bad enough. But only when celebrity is divorced from performance does it become properly deadly.

The counterargument that he is rich and comfortable counts for very little. He once owned a Ferrari but where could he drive it? Pleasures without purpose wane quickly.

Underlying it all is another melancholy fact. Though it is certainly a blessing to find the perfect medium to express your talent, as Tendulkar did with batting, it is equally cruel that fate takes it away so early in life. He is just 40. The artist, the virtuoso, the writer, even the singer: they all outlast the athlete.

The life of a sportsman, like a mathematician’s, is horribly top-loaded. The great work happens early. In the context of a life, every sportsman must be a prodigy. In his sustained excellence, Tendulkar, the ultimate prodigy, has postponed the moment that always had to come: the beginning of the rest of his life, the greatest challenge of all.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune “(Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Sachin Tendulkar, who recently announced his coming retirement from cricket. Photograph: Indranil Mukherjee/Getty Images.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge