It is ridiculous to recall that I actually played Test cricket with Sachin Tendulkar.I retired what feels like a long time ago – it was a long time ago – and yet throughout the intervening period, at least up to late 2013 when he finally bowed out amid great fanfare in his home city of Mumbai, the little master continued to play the game at the highest level and, for the most part, to an amazingly high standard.
When I faced him in England in 1990, he was a mere 17 years old but even then was astonishingly good. He had first played for India the previous year and had shown resolve on a tour of Pakistan, but we were privileged to see an early glimpse of just how good he was when he saved the Old Trafford Test with an unbeaten hundred. He also took an astonishing one-handed running catch to
dismiss Allan Lamb at Lord’s when I was at the non-striker’s end. He still says it was the best catch he ever took.
Two years later he was scoring hundreds against Australia in Sydney and Perth, the latter a ground where visiting batsmen traditionally struggle with the pace and bounce. If anyone can be described as a cricketing prodigy, it must be him. During their school days, some reckoned that Vinod Kambli was actually the better player, which only goes to show that the key to greatness is not just raw
talent but having the right mindset. There is no doubt that Tendulkar had that. In fact, it was precisely that mental strength and determination, that relentless appetite for the game, that saw him keep going for so long, pushing past one milestone after another, so that by the time he retired his record stood as not only unmatched but probably uncatchable: 200 Test matches, 15,921 Test runs, 51
Test hundreds; 463 one-day internationals, 18,426 one-day runs, and 49 one-day hundreds. All are records and all evidence of sustained excellence in all conditions.
Like Sunil Gavaskar, another in a long line of prolific run-scorers to come out of Mumbai, he was very small at 5ft 5in and very nimble. He was rarely caught out of position for any shot. He had an unusually low grip on the bat, and a surprisingly heavy bat, which helped him generate power, but his overall technique was immaculate. He was a master technician and an absolute genius.
The World Cup final of 2011, when India beat Sri Lanka in Mumbai, was not his night in terms of what he contributed to the game but everyone in the India team that night instinctively said, ‘We’ve done this for Sachin’. It was his sixth World Cup and the first he had won and it seemed only fitting that he should be a victor at least once. He was such a humble, modest, quietly spoken man. He
had none of the swaggers of a Viv Richards, or the flamboyance of a Brian Lara, although you wouldn’t say he lacked confidence. He was always very contained and very controlled, and you can only be that controlled if you have huge confidence and huge ability. He exuded an air that said, ‘You are never going to get me out, and that in itself must have been intimidating.
Had things been slightly different he might have retired straight after that World Cup triumph on home soil but his legion of fans would never have allowed him to quit with 99 international hundreds to his name, which is what he had at that point. Rather bizarrely, it took him almost a year to add that one extra but all-important hundred to his list, as for once even he felt the pressure of
expectation. His game suffered during that period and in truth, his form was pretty ordinary during the last couple of years of his career, but that was probably the only time that could be said of him. He had suffered dips before but there was usually an explanation, such as a serious tennis elbow problem that hampered him around 2005–06. Just when people started to wonder whether he
was on the wane he had an astonishing year in 2010, when he turned 37, scoring seven Test hundreds and becoming the first in history to score a double century in a one-day international.
It is worth noting too that among that century of international centuries 20 were scored against Australia, who for much of the time that he was playing was the best team in the world and possessed two all-time great bowlers in Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Warne said no one played him better.
With a billion Indians hanging on his every move, he played under ridiculous pressure of a kind that none of us can understand. The expectations were unrealistic yet he somehow managed to leave his audience satisfied. There was a real dignity to everything that he did and considering how long he played it was extraordinary how rarely he put a foot wrong or caused offense with something
he said. He probably experienced his most difficult times during two relatively short stints as India captain, which did not work out well for him. Generally speaking though, with one exception when he was cited in a ball-tampering row in South Africa, which in turn led to the most ridiculous political posturing from the Indian management, his was a career free of controversy, and how many can
One accusation was that he did not always win as many matches for India as he should have done; that there were of course lots of runs and plenty of meaningful contributions from him, but not many match-defining efforts for a performer of his stature. There was probably some truth in this claim, although only some. He won countless one-day internationals for India, especially in the 1990s when he was in his pomp as an attacking opening batsman in the 50-overs format and he would have walked into anybody’s one-day World XI. There was more of a case to answer in Test cricket, although he was hindered for a long time by India’s lack of strength in bowling which meant they found it hard to drive home winning positions. Even so, it is surprising to learn that he was a man
of the match only five times in Tests that India won.
This, of course, was what added extra spice to the wonderful century he scored on a worn pitch to win the Chennai Test against England in 2008 when India as a nation was recovering from the terrorist attacks in Tendulkar’s native Mumbai. England had held the upper hand for much of the game and when they set India 387 to win must have been confident that they could pull off what
would have been a famous victory, given that winning in India is something that they have never found easy to do. Tendulkar’s innings that day put the smiles back on the faces of a nation and proved that he could see his side home even in the most difficult circumstances. Ironically, that was not one of the games in which he was named man of the match – Virender Sehwag took the award for a whirlwind 83 that launched the run-chase. But it is a game that everyone now remembers as ‘Tendulkar’s match’.
Apart from all those extraordinary statistics, I think that his sheer love of the game and appetite for playing it are what mark him above his potential rivals for the accolade of the finest batsman of the modern era. To maintain such stratospheric standards for so long is simply remarkable. His status as a demigod in Indian cricket circles is assured for all time.