12 December 2014
Historic cricket occasions have various forms of recall. I remember our school arranging for us a grainy, black-and-white film of the famous 1960 Tied Test between Australia and West Indies in Brisbane and for days afterwards, we pitching ourselves as Gary Sobers and Alan Davidson on the sports field. And while I heard the commentary of Kapil Dev’s momentous innings of 175 against Zimbabwe in the World Cup of 1983, neither I nor anyone not present at Tunbridge Wells that day ever got to see the match because it was never filmed. Then we come to Sachin Tendulkar’s last-ever Test match in Mumbai. We saw it live in high-definition on television and as repeats on national networks, and now YouTube has scraps of the event however you like it — highlights of his innings, the walk to the pitch, the tears, the farewell speech. And for sure, every April 24 for years to come, we will see birthday telecasts showing Tendulkar scoring his centuries and speaking in his squeaky voice. Then amid all this, we also have an anachronistic offering from a journalist-writer who dabbles not with sports but with politics and society. Dilip D’Souza’s Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar is an account of the batsman’s final Test at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium.
A book on a Test match in the era of video? It actually had its birth in an article for a magazine that D’Souza was asked to write. He says this was just the sort of a cricket assignment he would have craved, writing about “not the game, but the event”. Intentionally, therefore, the book becomes an erudite writer’s assessment of a mad moment in cricket’s history, written with the help of copious notes taken in a frenzied stadium. And just in case, you think this is one more in the nauseatingly unending paeans to cricket’s God, let me quote a passage early in the book that distinctly sighs with gentle hopelessness: “Has any team sport seen a farewell to a star quite like this? … I mean, it’s hard to imagine that Michael Jordan would suggest to the National Basketball Association that he’d like to play the last game of his career at home, much less that the league would not just agree but actually arrange an out-of-turn game for him against an outclassed team and then consider it a normal NBA game.”
The book draws you into the Test, so much so that you are impatient when D’Souza writes, as he has to, about the West Indies batting and the Indian batsmen preceding Tendulkar. You want to skip the pages and get to the maestro’s innings but you halt, for between the overs, so to say, the writer brings thoughts and insight, sometimes profound, sometimes frivolous about the culture of cricket in India. He bemusedly wonders, for instance, why when the Wankhede tiers are named for great cricketers, the press box bears the name of Bal Thackeray, the man who thwarted a number of Test matches in the city. These digressions are, of course, triggered by happenings on the field. And he imparts an impish humour to it all. Having earlier talked about the distasteful repercussions on world cricket of India’s money muscle, we come to these three lines describing a moment when the West Indies lose a wicket: “It was 162/5 a few minutes ago, it is now 162/8. The crowd that has been chanting Tendulkar’s name almost all the day switches now to ‘India-a-a, India!’ The big screen says just this: ‘Emami Fair and Handsome’.”
D’Souza sits in the stadium and observes everything, on field and off it. He even watches an Ambani scion ferrying his mother from the stadium in an Aston Martin (the car became part of Pedder Road’s history a month later), and a blue Volkswagen Jetta stopping to pick up an elderly lady in a shawl and then disgorge its passenger at her home an hour later: Tendulkar’s mother. He writes, often in a tone of slight disapproval, of the frenzy around an individual at the cost of the team, of how when Murali Vijay is given out, there is such whole-hearted acclamation that the batsman thinks the umpire has noticed a no-ball only to find Tendulkar coming in. Indeed, so Tendulkar-centric is the action that D’Souza quotes another journalist as writing that Cheteshwar Pujara (batting with Tendulkar) “could have streaked but no one would have noticed”.
After Tendulkar is dismissed, you have the urge to close the book. But the story refuses to let you go. Pujara and Rohit Sharma score centuries when the whole of India wants India to collapse so He (denoted with a capital H by the author with characteristic wit) can bat a second time. But you also read on not because of the cricket, but because D’Souza keeps ambling into topics like the scoring rate (the Brisbane Test would not have been tied if the West Indies hadn’t batted as fast as they did in the first innings), on what the stars eat at lunch, on the differences between baseball and cricket...
Amid all this, how Tendulkar scored 74 in his last ever innings is almost a sideshow. Which is as it should be, for it wouldn’t do to dwell too much on the cricket when the book is about the event, would it?