God knows it can't be easy to step into the blurry space beyond 23 years of crystal international cricket. It must be even harder when you naturally wanted to leave with your bat raised in triumph rather than swishing away the vultures circling tentatively but in ever greater numbers around your head. You still might if you can rouse yourself into one last wave of special in the upcoming Tests against Australia, but don't fret too much on that. The hero's farewell only matters for the moment it happens. It rarely comes to be remembered for how it was prolonged or foreshortened, it just becomes the point to start remembering. Even as his greatest fan, I doubt even you recall the night in 1992 when your own teen idol hung up his tennis racket without fanfare after a humdrum defeat in Germany. You just recall John McEnroe's genius, from his improbable deftness to the headbands you were so desperate for your parents to buy so you could wear them in pugnacious tribute.
Your photo ruined creativity in Indian advertising for many years, but a thousand bowlers preferred to see you staring down from a billboard instead of staring back at them whilst your peerless on drive whizzed past their hapless ankles and they wondered what hellish nonsense cricket had become. The early Old Trafford salvage and the Perth salivation prodded those abroad in the ribs as they woke up on the couch to find your genius had sneaked into bed with their girlfriends. The Shoaib upper cut and the Caddick pull made everyone laugh and shake their heads at the comic futility of containment. Warne was once called a balloon who should deflate himself and in Chennai you stuck pins in his psyche until even that infinite self-belief had gone pop. You owned Sharjah and the 2003 World Cup until McGrath proved just too fated, and, though you again stumbled in the 2011 final, your team mates still picked you up and carried you on their shoulders, knowing that you had played Atlas to them and so many of their predecessors for so long.
I still don't quite understand who you are, though you were candid, beaming and impish in interviews, with hair that got better with age and never the credit it deserved. You laughed and twinkled, yet somehow intrusion never quite got through your gate the way balls bowled ten years ago never would have but do now. When you scored your fiftieth Test ton you said it was only a number and, though I became one of the vultures who wanted you to go sooner, who among us should doubt it wasn't the numbers which kept you staggering on towards the hundredth overall, but rather the desire to carry on the magnificent routine of providing meaning for yourself and your billion dependents for just a few months more. Even now you've outmanoeuvred us all again with a semi-exit, another cute piece of footwork to go with all the rest.
We'll await what those Tests in February and March bring, whether more of your recent angst and misjudgments or a final deity surge to top it all off. I'll desperately be hoping it's the latter but the expectancy has gone, as it has for large amounts of your public and, perhaps now, even yourself. When you were young, you fought like a cat with other kids to the extent your father checked you for bruises while you slept. It's no surprise, then, you wanted to fight a little longer to play the game you had pinned in its corner for so long. But you can stop fighting now, Sachin Tendulkar. Take off the headband and put down your racket. You've won, Sir. My, how you've won.
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