23 years of that trademark straight drive, that flowing cover drive, the deft paddle sweep, the cheeky lift over third-man, the hook and when the back gave way the pull, the swift running between the wickets, even for his partners runs at the end of a long day, the efficient fielding, the boyish grin, the pure passion, the smart bowling, the evil leg-breaks, the assuring humility and just the pure uplifting presence. 23 years of that.
Almost 23 years of the stadiums going "Sachhhinnn, Saaaachiinnn" at the drop of a hat. The pure unadulterated joy at the second Indian wicket going down in a Test inning. Because that heralded the arrival of the man everyone was there to see and to shower with adulation and adoration. Because he was The Player.
23 years of dancing down the pitch to hit Shane Warne on his way to those brilliant Sharjah knocks, 23 years of denying himself a off side stroke while compiling a 241* at Sydney, Lifting the fast South Africans over third man, the first double in ODIs, the utter crushing of Olonga - oh how many of those have we had. 23 years of full fledged joy.
I was there at Wankhede when India played England. And lost. I was there when Sachin seemed totally out of sorts, got out cheaply and yet the crowd gave him the obligatory standing ovation. And I remember grimacing as i stood to applaud, not that particular inning, but the body of his work and the 23 years of pure joy.
But in that grimace, was my realisation that the era had ended. Maybe all that was left was a few good shots as the credits rolled and the curtain fell. Maybe the curtain would not fall completely, maybe there would be that surprise act just before they fell - but the inevitability was clearer than ever before
And in many ways, I likened the current Tendulkar to a patient with Alzheimers. There isn't a morsel of doubt of his greatness and we remember him such -but with age catching up, the moments of Alzheimers are increasing and there are those many more moments where he looks a shadow of a great player - somebody who has forgotten what used to be and seems out of place. There are still those moments of lucidity -where everything is clear, when it seems nothing has changed and the shots flow - the 81 in the first inning at Chennai v/s Australia being a case in point. Or suddenly right out of no where, the blade comes down blazing, meeting a venomous ball right in the middle and dispatches it right to the boundary with consummate ease.
It was not a moment of loss when he quit ODIs - arguably the format where he owned the top perch - because possibly the allure of seeing him battle in Tests was still alive. The IPL keeps giving a few snapshots of greatness but the Whites was where he was still to do battle. And that kept me from letting the retirement sink in.
But now with no Tests till the end of the year and all signs of cricketing Alzheimers coming in their entirety, a 40th birthday being celebrated, the sense of end is near. And i know that when that day comes, the reality of 23 years shall come crashing down and it shall hit hard. And that day - i shall cry, for i have known not the era of cricket that has no assurance of a Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar striding out to the middle at no.4.