As the sun began to set over the Azad Maidan in a hazy mid-November dusk, Prithvi Shaw tucked his bat under his arm and walked off unbeaten on 257. Over a billion Indians had given their final farewell to Sachin Tendulkar a few days earlier and with this 14 year old the burden of carrying their hopes seemed to find a new recipient.
It was on these same dusty orange pitches in 1988 that Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli put on 664 runs in a Harris Shield game, a partnership that still resonates around the world. Down the same threadbare pitches as Shaw they danced, silencing the boorish drone of the late afternoon Mumbai traffic.
Tendulkar was many things – master batsman; role model extraordinaire; advertising gold dust – but most of all he was a modest man who chose dignified silence and weight of runs to speak for him. He spent his entire career allowing the big players of Indian cricket to burn brightly and fleetingly: first it was the same school friend, Kambli, who allowed himself to believe his own legend, and eventually was consumed by celebrity. Then Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag came and went in a blaze of glory and controversy all whilst Tendulkar shied away from the limelight. As his career progressed from teenage starlet to wizened and fabled hero he saw it all, absorbing the adulation and expectation.
Yet his last years were not golden ones. He failed to score a Test century in the last 24 months of his career and the vultures were circling overhead long before he announced his decision to retire as the world watched the great man scrape and forage uncomfortably, willing him to find a final innings to savour. The last two fruitless years were not pretty, nor were they deserving for a man who had meant so much to so many people.
What about his highlights, then? For there were moments which brought India, and the cricketing world, to a standstill. His three shot salvo that went ‘six-four-four’ against an electric Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup. The year of 1998 against Australia, the world’s best team, in which he averaged 97 runs per innings across 12 visits to the crease. Then 10 years later and the fourth-innings 103* versus England in Chennai, as he led India’s colossal chase of 387 to win the match.
And all this achieved whilst he had the pressure of being the latest in the line of prodigious Indian batting talents. From Ranjitsinhji, the British Indian who revolutionised batting, through to Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohammad Azharuddin, India has a rich history of strokemakers. Tendulkar found himself tasked with the responsibility of continuing this legacy with the dust of the Maidan still on his whites when, at the age of 15, he scored a century on his Ranji Trophy debut.
Whilst he was at the crease the nation would stop working and there would be hope for India’s innings. Whilst his supporters felt that his achievements meant more than life, the little man in the middle did not. He was still the boy at the Maidan, scoring centuries with his friends against the din of his beloved hometown, which was diminished beyond the sound of his bat on ball. Cricket was just cricket, no more, no less. And as the sun set on his career, Indians were lost as they sought a new idol.
Back at the Maidan, and the day after he had begun his innings, Prithvi Shaw was finished with 546 runs after batting for a day and a half. The extraordinarily talented young man appeared to herald in a new time – a new sun – for Indian cricket.