I remember a young Tendulkar. Oddly enough, I cannot imagine him as old. Back then there were no words to describe him, and so we sought out numbers to quantify him. The magnitude of his promise was boggling. Could there have been a man after Bradman with whom numbers were so intertwined? Lara came later, as did Warne and Muralitharan.
We did not, or could not, speak of saying goodbye to him. To have bid him farewell would mean breaking away with a decade of ourselves, and in remembering his mortality we were struck by our own. But ageless faces deceive. Bones creak, skin tears, muscles become less taut.
When the tennis elbow was diagnosed, there was alarm. Injuries happened to people, but not Tendulkar. Of course they had happened before: the bending over after the six over midwicket against Kenya in 1996, the back pain against Pakistan at Chennai in 1999. But this was different. Suspicions arose that this one would linger.
When he played again, there were flashes of 1994, of 1998, of a free man who cherished his freedom but accepted nothing less than complete submission from others. Who could not delight in authority like this? But there were other hours when he could have been anybody but him. This new man was patient and cautious, he nurdled and nudged. Risk was banished. Given his time in the game, it was understandable, but sad all the same.
Each time a man much younger touches his edge, or clatters into his stumps, I feel a dull blow, and hope he returns vengeful, and puts the bowler in his place. How often does it happen these days? Does it happen at all?
The memory of him as young and energetic is fading. Discussions with friends whose thoughts on cricket are more emotional than learned and rational, all involve hopes of seeing him scorch grounds one last time, and leaving us with an image of domination and control – in our minds it is where he belongs. But it is a hope born of despair, like a death too soon. Why were we not told of this change in the programme? Why could we not cherish that last free-spirited innings?
What will happen to India after he is gone? It is a fear I have, irrational as it is. But I sometimes suspect that the bigger fear lies under the surface - that India will not matter after Tendulkar. For my short career as a cricket writer, that is how it has been. I could never be as emotional about India as I have been about Tendulkar. Dravid is more reliable, Kumble has won more games, but they cannot capture the imagination as he can.
In November 2004, I was at the Wankhede when he made fifty-odd runs against Australia on a cracked pitch. The innings would have once been construed as a failure. Here it was a success, and everyone within the ground’s confines knew it. There was a glimmer of the past in his batting, and it took me, personally, to an early morning in Dubai, when I watched him open for the first time in New Zealand. That was when I latched on the game properly. Now that I think about it, when he goes, the game won't hold me the same way again.