There have been a few players who have played 20 or close to 20 years of international cricket: men like Graham Gooch, for instance. Or, Mohinder Amarnath.
These were great men, for sure, and there were greater men like Richards, Gavaskar and Kapil who along with Imran stayed on top for 16-17 years.
But they played in a different time, in a different world. The life of an international cricketer was tough then, in its own way. It's tougher today, again, in its own way.
Forget cricket for a moment. How many sportsmen in the modern era have stayed on top of their game for 20 years?
Sure, like Navratilova has, there are players who have made comebacks to the competitive arena, but the top spot has been as far from them as the moon and stars are from us on earth.
Flintoff breaks down after various parts of his body face the scalpel, and opts for the shorter version of the game to prolong his career, and create a bank account that will keep him in style post-retirement.
Second retirement, to be more precise. Darryl Tuffy is joining him soon, Shahid Afridi may do the same, Younis Khan like Anil Kumble and Laxman may only play test matches while a 36-year old with 20 years of cricket in all three forms continues to play.
He breaks all records in sight, wins matches for his team, and is visibly heart-broken when he brings his side to the brink of victory and is denied that glory. He runs his singles with zeal and his partners' with equal fervour.
Doesn't celebrate when he crosses the 30,000-run mark in international cricket but is delighted to save a match for his team even as she scores another hundred.
What do you say of a man who puts his younger colleagues across the world in the shade? As you see him, you tend to believe, even more than ever before, that sport is more about mental toughness than physical fitness.
And you also realize that this mental fibre hasn't sagged even a bit over the years. The Sharjah tournament in 1998 saw him crack two back-to-back hundreds against Aussies and win the trophy for his team when it was looking at a sure exit. Till he fired, and again.
It was the same fibre that took him to 175 in Hyderabad a fortnight ago while everything around him was crumbling.
All you can do is to recount words from an Ajay Jadeja interview of late 90's: Sachin is a cricket Buddhist, calm and composed, focused only on scoring runs to create victories.
The shorter version of the game will perhaps see shorter careers. A 20-year career may never happen again, at least not very soon.
Men will come close, but it will be a rare guy who will scale the peak. And if he does play in 2011 World Cup, which most Indians like me want him to, it will be a 22-year career. Phew!
He has scored runs, created victories, but there is an even greater victory of this little man that calls upon all of us to stand up and salute him.
He has never courted controversy, has rarely been seen losing his cool, has never fallen foul of administrators or the press.
Not because he is weak or has surrendered meekly; its the steel in him, and the rare ability to stay dignified in an atmosphere that can test the strongest nerves and win.
I have added my own tribute to a man who was born great. A man who has elicited effusive praise from stiff-lipped Brits and sometimes less than generous Aussies. A man who commands respect of greats from all walks of life.
To this, I add a suggestion: Can Sachin be in the Indian dressing room even after he retires? His presence alone may inspire the men that will want to lay claim to his legacy in the future cricket elevens from India.
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