For a generation, Sachin Tendulkar was the last link to childhood
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When I was three or four, and cricket was still only a nebulous concept, my neighbour asked me who my favourite cricketer was.
"Kapil Dev," I said. Was he really my favourite cricketer? I don't know. I hadn't really watched him play. Even as I said it, I felt a vague sense of unease. I didn't really like his moustache, and therefore — with that being the extent of my knowledge about him — I probably didn't like Kapil Dev that much. But Kapil Dev was the only cricketer's name I knew.
"No," said my neighbour. "Sachin Tendulkar."
I grew to disappoint my neighbour. Tendulkar never came to be my favourite cricketer. That place, over the years, came to be occupied by Ajay Jadeja, Shiv Sundar Das (yes, him) and VVS Laxman.
Gradually, the physical symptoms of hero-worship (that lurch of the stomach accompanying every play-and-miss during the hero's first ten minutes at the crease) disappeared, and the question of having a favourite cricketer ceased to matter. But all that while, as Jadeja and Das and Laxman came and went, Tendulkar endured. I watched him on TV, I watched him from the stands, I watched him from the press box. All that while, each time he played a straight drive, I reacted the same way I had when I first saw it.
When he announced that his 200th Test next month would be his last, Tendulkar said that he would find it hard "to imagine a life without playing cricket." All around India, cricket fans of a certain age will find it hard to imagine cricket without Tendulkar. It isn't something they have ever known.
They've prepared themselves for this moment, of course. Some of them feared for his career as far back as 1999, when a back injury gave them the first, nasty intimation of his sporting mortality. After the 2007 World Cup, some of them agreed with Ian Chappell when he urged Tendulkar to "look into that mirror."