Rarely does a walk around Lord's Cricket Ground result in you not bumping into a high profile or influential figure in the game, and last Monday was no exception. My arrival at the practice area was greeted by the unmistakable sight of Sachin Tendulkar in the nets.
Jock, the MCC Young Cricketers' assistant coach, and Nayan Doshi, the former Surrey left-arm spinner, were throwing to and bowling at Tendulkar. I asked a sweaty-looking Jock how long he'd been throwing balls at Tendulkar. "An hour," he wearily said. "How long does he normally bat for?" I inquired. "Oh, another hour or so," said Jock, "I'm only loosening up."
The encounter told you everything you needed to know about Tendulkar, and why he remains cricket's greatest modern player. Here, after 22 years of international cricket, 730 international appearances, 32,803 international runs and 99 international hundreds was a man still working harder and more diligently at his game than most, if not all, of the young pretenders posturing to take his throne. This was not a man resting on his laurels. This was a man who knows that getting to and remaining at the top is only achieved through hard work and by paying attention to detail.
Tendulkar scored the first of his 99 international hundreds against England at Old Trafford in 1990. I played in the Test. In fact I was the bowler he nonchalantly eased through mid-off to reach three figures. It may seem something of a major oversight now, but I do not remember Tendulkar occupying a huge amount of our time at team meetings during that series. Yes, we were aware that we were playing against a highly rated 17-year-old who looked pretty tasty. But at the time it was the genius of Mohammad Azharuddin who was occupying the focus of England's bowlers.
During a 15- to 20-year career, the technique of a player changes. The alterations are subtle – evolution rather than revolution – but they take place and the result is that by the end of a career a player is often unrecognisable at the crease to when he first picked up a bat. With Tendulkar this is not the case. At the start of his career he was slighter in build and in his stance his legs were a bit straighter. But the range of strokes played by the Little Master back in 1990 was similar to now.
When looking at footage of his first Test hundred on YouTube, you see the same effortless clips through the leg side and the beautiful wristy back-foot square drives where he rose on to the tips of his toes to get over the ball. And against spin he still seems to have telescopic arms, extensions that allow him to reach out to get to the pitch of a ball when driving. At the time, as an angry opposing bowler, I didn't fully appreciate the quality of shots that were being played against me and my colleagues. I do now.
Tendulkar's brilliance runs far deeper than the gift of batting. No cricketer has ever had to cope with the attention and pressure he has. The fact that he has dealt with such intrusion, adoration and expectation and still managed to remain humble and human is as great a feat as compiling the runs he has. It is hard to imagine how a cricket-crazy Indian public will cope with his retirement. Tendulkar is treated as a deity in India because of the masterful and relentless way in which he accumulates runs, but for me there have been two instances that have said as much about him as the many centuries he has amassed.
The first came on India's 2007 tour of England when Tendulkar struggled for form. He was as out of touch as I've seen and many pundits were planning his cricket obituary. How wrong we were.
During the series, England's fast bowlers seized on his uncertainty and went after him. Their plan was ruthless, centred on bowling fast, straight and at his body. Watching one of the greatest players the game has seen being struck about the body and bullied was not a pretty sight.
During the series, Tendulkar revealed a side many of us had not witnessed before. The characteristics he displayed were guts and bravery. What we witnessed was how highly he valued his wicket. Lesser men would have thought: "At this stage of my career, I don't really need this," and then played a rash shot to get out. Not Tendulkar, he fought and fought and fought. In its own way it was brilliant to watch.
The other occasion arose during last winter's Test series between India and Australia. In the third Test in Bangalore, India required 207 to win and Tendulkar scored the winning runs when he swept Nathan Hauritz for two. Tendulkar was playing his 171st Test and you would have thought he would have seen it all before. Many cricketers, sadly, develop levels of cynicism as their careers advance, but there has never been such a reaction from Tendulkar. The ecstatic roar and look of complete joy after he had hit the winning runs showed just how much enjoyment he still gets from winning games of cricket.
In the Lord's Test of 1990, I managed to get Tendulkar out, caught by Graham Gooch at second slip, and on the Nursery Ground on Monday I told him I would have happily bowled at him for an hour had I known he was practising. Tendulkar modestly said: "No, you caused me enough problems in 1990." As I walked back to my office I felt 10 feet tall.
Six of cricket's modern greats – Brian Lara, Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Muttiah Muralitharan and Tendulkar – have never scored a hundred or taken a five-wicket haul at the home of cricket, performances that would place them on the famous honours boards that adorn the walls of the visitors' dressing room in the Pavilion.
I hope Tendulkar achieves that landmark at Lord's tomorrow or on Friday and that I am there to see it. I would imagine the feat would mean more to Tendulkar than almost any other and the sight of him raising his bat to acknowledge the landmark would be greeted as warmly as any at the home of cricket.Reuse content