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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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