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)