It is hard to assess a fellow's character in an interview lasting 40 minutes, which is the amount of time I have been allotted with Sachin Tendulkar – and properly privileged I feel to get it, too. But I am afforded a useful insight before the interview even starts. We are in the Opus store near Covent Garden, where Tendulkar has been the subject of an interminable photo shoot as part of the launch of his latest website. On the pavement outside there is an ever-burgeoning group of Indians pressing their noses to the glass, astounded to find that their country's supreme sporting mega-star is inside. As soon as the shoot is over, Tendulkar is ushered over to meet me. But with a shy smile he apologises and instead steps out of the shop door to meet the people who would lie in the middle of a motorway for him. Only once he has chatted to them all does he return to my waiting tape-recorder. He is famously diddy, only 5ft 5in tall. But a giant of a man, nonetheless.
Also, he happens to have scored more Test centuries against Australia than anyone, so with the Ashes series imminent it seems relevant to ask him the secret of mastering the Aussie attack, but first things first. He is 36 now, and has been playing first-class cricket for more than 20 years. Is he beginning to contemplate life after cricket?
"To be honest I haven't thought about that at all," he says. "I'm still enjoying it, my body is holding up nicely, and I have no plans to stop playing. When I do, I will do something connected with cricket. That's what I'm good at." Good at! It is like saying that Helen of Troy was a bit of a looker. Tendulkar has scored more Test runs than anyone in the history of the game, 12,773 of them at an average of 54.58. He also has a record number of one-day international runs, 16,684 at 44.37. Nobody has scored more Test centuries (42). He has even claimed almost 200 Test and one-day wickets. Moreover, when Sir Donald Bradman was persuaded in 1998 to pick his all-time XI, the Little Master from Mumbai was the only modern inclusion. But what will he do with all that talent when the curtain finally falls on one of the epic cricket careers? Will he coach? "I don't know," he says flatly. "This is not the right time to think about it."
Perhaps, I venture provocatively, coaching won't come naturally. He wouldn't be the first sporting colossus to struggle to refine in others what to himself has always come instinctively. How easy, for example, does he find it to instruct his young son in the batting arts?
He smiles. "He is only nine and he just wants to smash the ball. I encourage him to do that, because above all he should love the sport. If he loves it, the rest will follow. I have not forced him into it. We hardly discussed cricket for the first four or five years of his life, but it seems to be in his heart. It is hard to judge how good he will be. Cricket is not just about physical ability, it is also about mental ability, adapting to different conditions and situations. It is hard to judge the mentality of a boy of nine."
Indeed, yet Tendulkar was only five years older, a 14-year-old schoolboy, when Dilip Vengsarkar, then the Indian captain, judged him ready to play first-class cricket. Of his subsequent 208 centuries in all forms of the game, can he single out one that has given him more satisfaction than any other?
"I think the one against England in Chennai last year," he says, without hesitation. "After what happened in Mumbai [the terrorist attacks], the mood of the entire nation was low. Something was needed to put smiles on people's faces. I am by no means suggesting that the people who lost near and dear ones could forget their terrible loss, but if we as a team were able to make them smile for just a couple of seconds, that was an achievement. And thanks to the England cricket team who came back very graciously and played against us. You know, cricket in India brings the entire nation together, from the poorest child to a billionaire. We are in a position to make everyone happy, which is very special for me and the whole cricketing fraternity."
The excited throng of people still outside the shop rather proves his point, and this is Covent Garden, not Mumbai. What must it be like to be Sachin Tendulkar in India? I ask the only man who knows. "It is difficult to move out and about, to do normal things, like going for a walk in the park. I sometimes take my car (of his extensive collection, his current favourite is a Lamborghini) out at five o'clock in the morning, and drive 25 miles. It is nice to be alone. But I also enjoy the attention. There are pros and cons, it's a package deal. My life has been fantastic and I have always had huge support from my family. My father was not a huge follower of cricket, but he was 100 per cent behind me every step of the way."
The late Professor Ramesh Tendulkar, a novelist and poet, must nevertheless have been rather mystified by his boy's prodigious cricketing talent, which flowered extraordinarily early. "You asked about important innings," Tendulkar continues, "and I would say that there were a couple in my schooldays that changed my life. In the semi-final of an Under-17s tournament I scored 326 not out, which is when everyone in Mumbai took notice of me. I then scored 346 not out in the final, with Dilip Vengsarkar and Sunil Gavaskar watching. I was only 14 at the time, but Vengsarkar wanted me to join the Mumbai first-class team, which contained nine Test players. He had to be sure I was ready. So he invited me to play in the India nets. The Indian team had a camp in Mumbai, and he made Kapil Dev and all these guys bowl at me in the nets. After that session he gave a green signal to the selectors. He said 'I think he's ready, you can pick him'. And in my first season I scored the highest number of runs for the team. There are three trophies in India, and in all three I scored a century on my debut, so my performances were very good, but also the timing was perfect."
Two decades on, there are those who insist that Tendulkar is diminished as a batsman compared with his glorious youth. I cite one of them, the former Australian captain Ian Chappell. "If he says that then he's not watched enough cricket," says Tendulkar, evenly. "There is no player who does not change over 20 years, and that depends on your changing role in the team. When I was 17 there were others to take the kind of responsibility I'm taking now, and at 25 I was playing differently again. One has to be wise and mature enough to understand this changing role. I am quite happy with where I am now, and I think my performances in the last couple of years have proven the so-called experts wrong. I think my reflexes are the same as ever. But I am a feel player. If I feel good I do not practise much. Before the 2003 World Cup (when he was player of the tournament) I had only one net session. But before the last New Zealand tour I hit thousands and thousands of balls in the nets, to give me confidence."
That confidence has rarely flagged against Australia down the years, despite or more likely because of the Aussie status, for most of his career, as the pre-eminent cricketing power. On India's 1991-92 tour of Australia he marred Shane Warne's Test debut with an unbeaten 148 in Sydney, and hammered another century in Perth, causing the vulgar but undoubtedly prescient comment from Merv Hughes to Allan Border that "this little prick's going to end up with more runs than you, AB."
It delights him, he says, to have been such a thorn in Aussie sides. "There are times when I have been very attacking against them, times when I have been defensive." And the $64,000 question: who does he fancy for the Ashes? His smile gives nothing away. After all, he's a multi-millionaire, he doesn't need $64,000. "It's a tough call. I'm really looking forward to it. Pietersen is obviously a very important player for England but I think Flintoff is just as important. As a bowler he's a very handy customer."
A handy customer who has given him much trouble? He purses his lips. "There have been many such bowlers, so many guys from Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Allan Donald, Walsh and Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Shane Warne, Muralitharan ... but the ones who got me most were not the strike bowlers but the irregular bowlers. Hansie Cronje got me out more than Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock."
So much for the bowlers. Who have been the batsmen who most inspired the master of the art? "Viv Richards and Sunil Gavaskar were my heroes growing up. I liked Gavaskar for the way he applied himself, and Richards for his aggression. He was just super, and his body balance was special. I always wanted to be a mixture of both of those guys. And I also think that Brian Lara is a class apart."
Not, though, a class apart from himself, indeed even Lara once opined that he was only mortal, whereas Tendulkar was a genius. Sir Donald Bradman didn't quite go that far, but he did say, and Lady Bradman reportedly agreed, that the little man from Mumbai reminded him more than anyone of himself. To have made the Don's all-time XI must have been a notable thrill?
"Oh, it was. And me and Shane Warne got to meet him on his 90th birthday, just the two of us. We sat with him for 45 minutes or so, and he said he thought the standard of cricket, the field settings and planning, are much better today. We asked him what he would have averaged today, and he said 70. Naturally I asked why 70, why not 99? And he said '70 is not bad for a 90-year-old man'. Tendulkar chuckles. "So he had great humour."
And is it coincidence that both he and Bradman, perhaps the two greatest batsmen in history, shared a diminutive stature? "I don't know. Perhaps. The centre of gravity is lower and that increases the balance. Batting is about balance."
In more ways than one it is hard to imagine a more balanced man than Sachin Tendulkar
Numbers game: Sachin's statistics
Born on 24 April in Bombay. His father was a novelist and named him after his favourite musical director Sachin Dev Burman.
In a schoolboy match in 1988 he shared this unbroken partnership with team-mate Vinod Kambli who also later played for India. This remained a world-record partnership in any form of cricket until 2006, when it was broken by two Under-13 batsmen, also in India.
Tendulkar's height, hence his nickname, 'the Little Master'.
Tendulkar's age when he made his Test debut, against Pakistan in 1989. He made 15 runs in the first innings, did not bat in the second, and the match was drawn.
His Test average after 159 matches.
Aggregate Test runs scored – the world's best, ahead of Brian Lara (11,953), Allan Border (11,174) and Ricky Ponting (10,960).
Test centuries, the world's best – ahead of Ponting (37), Sunil Gavaskar and Brian Lara (both 34). Plus 53 half-centuries. His highest score is 248 not out against Bangladesh in 2004.
One-day International runs scored, including 43 centuries – again, both are world bests.
3 for 10
Best Test bowling figures (against South Africa in 2000), but his average is 51.63.