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Sachin Tendulkar is not the first of India's sporting heroes: there were several before him, and even some after 1989, the year he made his international debut. That he became a nonpareil sporting icon is not only due to his feats on the cricket field, which were without doubt many, but also because of the times he lived in. Tendulkar's rise as an unprecedented nationwide hero-phenomenon coincided with India's growth into a major economy, a period when the country's rapidly growing middle class followed the game on television and drew in advertisers and sponsors. The master-blaster gave ordinary Indians a chance to think of themselves as world-beaters, even if not in a truly global sport. For them, Tendulkar filled a void larger than the hole in the Indian team's middle-order. For a generation starved of heroes, and short on confidence, he served as a source of inspiration and motivation. Even when Indian cricket got mired in charges of fixing and bribery, Tendulkar was left untouched. And in the eyes of his fans, he could do no wrong, whether on or off the field. The extraordinary outpouring of emotions at his farewell match on his home ground in Mumbai was thus not unexpected. Indian cricket is now on a high, and he might not leave as big a hole as the one he filled 24 years ago, but for India's cricket fans the game would not be the same anymore.

Given his popularity and iconic status, the Central government obviously did not want to lose even a day in honouring him with the Bharat Ratna. For some years now, the cricketer's fans in high places have been quite vocal in demanding a Bharat Ratna for him. Indeed, the rules governing eligibility for the highest civilian award were modified two years ago apparently to keep the doors open for Tendulkar to receive the honour on his retirement. As per the revised criteria, it can be awarded for exceptional performance in any field of human endeavour. After having nominated him to Parliament last year, there was little doubt that the Congress-led government would take the first opportunity to honour him. And that opportunity came the day the Mumbai Test, Tendulkar's 200th, ended. To be conferred the award is one thing; to force a change in the eligibility criteria for the award is quite another. It was almost as if the award would lose some of its sheen if Tendulkar were not among the recipients. At 40, the cricket icon is the youngest ever to receive the award. Unlike many others who have received the honour in the last six decades, he did not have to wait for the award; the award waited for him. The honour was India's, as much as Tendulkar's. In pure cricketing terms, Sachin was genius but never my favourite batsman at the time. As a regular at Eden Gardens, my idol was Mohammad Azharuddin. I can picture many a delightful flick of Azhar's wrist that mesmerised me. Growing up, we stood by Azhar through thick and thin — when he went berserk during South Africa's tour of India playing without a care in the world, and of course when he was indicted for match-fixing and subsequently banned by the BCCI.

And then there was Dada. He was our pride, our joy, the messiah who rose, despite the establishment's best efforts to put him down, to world domination. At a time when Calcutta was losing its intellectual fervour and some of its sheen, the city and its people living off shreds of nostalgia, increasingly de-hyphenated from Delhi and Bombay, Ganguly gave us a new lease of life. Azhar and Dada were Maidan heroes — aesthetically pleasing, immensely talented, but above all, flawed human beings whom we related to. Sachin, in comparison, was too perfect. His stroke play was a thing of beauty; his commitment to the game, unquestioned. His love for the country was second-to-none, and his status as India's finest ambassador on the world stage unparalleled. You loved him the way you loved a favourite stuffed toy — you knew it would be there whenever you looked to it.

Over time, however, Sachin, variously described as god, or an epithet analogously godlike, became increasingly human. I cried for him when he failed as captain, clearly unable to rally the troops, expecting levels of performance that only he had the talent to fulfil. I felt proud to be an Indian, when in the first of two blistering performances in Sharjah, having guided India into the final and severely cramping, Sachin got out and walked back to the pavilion with only two words on his lips to incoming batsman Hrishikesh Kanitkar, “match jita”; I cried for him again during the 1999 World Cup when he looked to the heavens after scoring a century against Kenya, days after his father had passed away; and when a hitherto obscure Zimbabwean left-arm spinner, Raymond Price, tormented him like no other bowler in recent memory, I no longer needed further proof of his mortality. Sachin was no longer a god whom I worshipped, a stuffed toy I loved. He was a mortal whom I raucously supported and sometimes cursed, who delivered and on occasion, disappointed, who was undoubtedly a genius, peerless but not perfect. And I loved him for that in a way I hadn't loved him before.

And it was not just his mortality that hit home, it was the kind of mortality he exemplified. Sachin was the leading light of a team and a generation that defined India. Along with Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Kumble, Srinath and Prasad, he exemplified all the values that defined one as an Indian on the world stage — hardened competitors but never abrasive; primed to win, but not at any cost; civil, despite the heat of battle; understated as a principle but capable of self-assertion when necessary — an India that was aware of its strengths and equally importantly cognizant of its weaknesses, that knew its limitations and constantly strived for self-improvement. The cricket team was the perfect advertisement of a newly globalising India, coming into its own in the world, but on its own terms, happy to do it in its own time. Which is why for me the most memorable time in Indian cricket in the last two decades was neither the victory at the 2011 World Cup nor the Inaugural T20 World Cup win in 2007 — though both of these were stellar achievements. For me, it was the 2001-2004 period when India defeated Australia at home, reached the final of the 2003 World Cup, won away at Pakistan, England and Australia. It was a beautiful time for India, and its cricket team led the way, allowing its talents and, on an exceptional occasion, some half-naked shirt-waving on a Lords' balcony to do the talking.

Unfortunately, over time the jingoistic shirt-waving is no longer the exception but the rule; it has come to define India and its cricket. When Sachin exited the Wankhede Stadium after his knock of 74 for the last time as a batsman and Virat Kohli, walked in, the symbolism was obvious. Kohli, the new youth icon, like Sachin was in my growing up years, is supremely talented. But unlike Sachin, he lets the world know that. He abuses, irrespective of whether he is happy or sad, shows little respect for the opposition, wears his Indianness on his sleeve in a manner that suggests a woeful lack of understanding of what it means to be Indian. Or perhaps, a reflection of an understanding of what it means to be Indian today — the India that in its quest to be accepted as a superpower seems to have lost its own identity, that is assertive on the world stage but quick to play victim, where nationalism means scoring brownie points against external enemies, crassly announcing one's presence on the world stage and expecting recognition at best, genuflection at worst. This is the India we live in, where the most popular leader advocates a muscle-flexing nationalism that is anathema to our Constitution and our ethos.

In an otherwise celebratory atmosphere, my views on India today feel much like Sachin's presence in the current Indian team: anomalous. Sachin wasn't ruthless, loud and assertive; on the contrary, he was subtle and understated, much like that beautiful straight drive, head over the ball, low backlift, minimal follow through and the sweet sound of ball striking the middle of his three-pound-heavy bat. There will surely be other straight drivers and other fine ambassadors of what it means to be Indian in the future. I'm just lucky that I was around when Sachin Tendulkar was, old enough to remember his debut, and now having experienced life enough to reflect on his retirement.
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