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After such an illustrious surfing career, what's next? Photo: Ray Collins

After such an illustrious surfing career, what’s next? Photo: Ray Collins


The Inertia

The greatest batsman in cricket history announced plans for his retirement on Thursday, October 10th. Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar will purportedly play his 200th and final Test match next month against the West Indies on home soil. He will retire at 40 years of age.

Jump to the surfing sphere and the ongoing world title drama at the Rip Curl Peniche Pro where the 41-year-old Kelly Slater is right in the mix for another, and potentially final, ASP WCT Championship and Tendulkar’s retirement becomes strangely relevant to surf fans who, outside of the broad reach of the UK, are largely detached from the “Gentleman’s Game.”

In spite of numerous attempts by Australian friends, Kiwi coworkers, and Indian university students to fully educate me on the intricacies of cricket, I confess little more than a working knowledge of the sport (I blame this on the fact that us Yanks shed Britain’s colonial reins a good century before the rest of the Anglo postcolonial world garnered any level of autonomy. The picnic sport of the ages is called “baseball” around these parts). But when I encounter accounts of Sachin Tendulkar’s sporting prowess, it becomes clear that the 5’5” Indian batsman’s greatest American sporting analogy isn’t Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or any combination thereof. It’s surfing’s own Kelly Slater.

Tendulkar picked up the game at age 11 and competed for India’s “Men in Blue” in his first Test at age 16 back in 1989, a grudge match against neighboring Pakistan. In a somewhat less-contentious Florida vs. California rivalry devoid of regional nuclear politics, Slater won his first pro event at the 1990 Body Glove Surfbout at Trestles.

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Both stars never looked back: India’s “Master Blaster” swiftly became the most prolific batsman in international cricket history tallying 15,837 runs in 198 Tests and 18,426 runs in 463 one-day internationals over his 24-year career. Tendulkar currently claims the record for most centuries in Tests (51) and ODIs (49). As surf fans already know, Slater trumps three generations of international competitors with his 11 world titles, 53 WCT wins (and 33 pro wins at Trestles), and two perfect-20 heats in his 23 active years (Parko coincides on this third stat, but the Bali perfect heat remains debatable).

Praising Tendulkar’s wholesome public image, Indian Parliament member Shashi Tharoor comments, “[Tendulkar]’s somehow managed to be uncontaminated by scandal, by controversy, in a sport that’s been laden with examples of both.” No small feat given that Tendulkar is a national icon, his model conduct garnering dozens of political accolades (including nomination to the upper house of India’s parliament), military recognition (first non-aviator appointed honorary Group Captain in the Indian Air Force), and intellectual honors (a pair of honorary doctorates).

Outside of his Baywatch years, the intensely private Slater has also evaded scandal in a waveriding paradigm historically predicated upon smoking pot, disregarding societal rules, and embracing intensely territorial behavior. To his credit, the consummately professional Slater has four Laureus World Sports Awards (tying Roger Federer), has sat on the Florida Governor’s Council for Physical Fitness, claims countless recognitions by the City of Cocoa Beach and State of Florida, and was honored in 2010 for his career achievements by the U.S. House of Representatives (currently shut down…) in House Resolution 792.

In spite of the similarities between the two world-beaters, there are a few notable differences, resulting from the disparity in scale between the two sports. Tendulkar’s net worth is something to the tune of $115 million, earning an impressive $22 million this year alone and occupying the 51st spot on the Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Kelly Slater’s net worth is purported to be $22 million, roughly Tendulkar’s 2013 annual earnings. Professional cricket, you see, built the multi-billion dollar international sporting model that the ASP/Zosea (and to a lesser extent, the ISA) are trying to engender in professional surfing, and cricket’s superstars have profited mightily. But we must keep in mind that professional cricket aged and ripened around 20th century narratives of postcolonial struggle and ludic challenges to Western political hegemony, an easy sell to formerly colonized fans who relished the chance to take down their former imperial denizens on the pitch. Whereas India tops the list of former European colonies that have used cricket to demonstrate cultural legitimacy to the West (and, in doing so, attracted a billion followers to the sport in India), professional surfing seems reticent to renew potentially contentious narrative lines rooted in the history of the West and the island nations that constitute our favorite surf holiday destinations.

But a shift in the narrative focus of pro surfing is less imminent than the prospect of Slater’s retirement. While each WCT off-season the peanut gallery suggests Slater’s retirement is near, fresh WCT title or not, I’m curious what Tendulkar’s retirement might predict for Slater’s post-WCT future. Given the political charge associated with cricket, Tendulkar’s accolades outside of “the Gentleman’s Game” have enabled post-retirement prospects in politics, diplomacy, and international business, and his election to national office is almost imminent since Thursday’s announcement.

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While Slater is certainly more focused on his upcoming round two heat in Peniche than contemplating his retirement, it’s not too early to wonder: what will the Champ do after he hangs up his jersey? Public office? Odds are he could win a congressional election anywhere in Florida and potentially somewhere in Southern California. International business? The ASP/Zosea brand is in need of a face and a voice that people unequivocally respect and embrace, and Mr. Slater, whose hand possibly signs more autographs-per-contest than the rest of the WCT combined, is an obvious candidate. Diplomacy? Will Kelly team up with Fernando Aguirre and crew at the ISA to take surfing further into the Olympic realm, wavepools and all? Family? I would wager that the most important question for Ms. Kalani Miller and the yet-unborn grom-nation remains: will Slater ever decide to settle down, get married, and raise a kid to complement each world title?

I make no pretensions to an answer. The King will decide when he decides, certainly in his characteristically succinct and elusive style. Politics and business aside, maybe Slater will simply keep surfing on his own terms after hanging up the jersey just like countless recreational surfers who have subjugated professional aspirations and personal relationships in favor of the lifelong, daily pursuit of waves. And if he did, we plebeian surfers would likely respect his decision just as much as if he was elected to Congress.

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