On a rainy afternoon in London, with wintry gloom creeping across the city, it does not take long for Sachin Tendulkar to light up a drab hotel room. Tendulkar is shy and quietly-spoken but he soon turns a routine encounter into an illuminating experience. His balance and patience at the crease are again evident as he offers insight into the attributes which make him not only the world’s best batsman but, after an epic year, arguably the greatest in cricket history.
Tendulkar steps away from these sweeping generalisations and deals, instead, in the specifics of his voracious mentality at 37. Amid widespread belief that he is the only batsman who could transcend Don Bradman in any dreamy comparison of cricket across the centuries, Tendulkar makes a remarkable statement: “I’m really focusing now on how I can get to the next level as a batsman. How can I get even more competitive? How can I get even more consistent? How can I get better?”
He could be an earnest young cricketer aspiring to improve himself - rather than the little master who, after 21 years of Tests, has completed another monumental achievement.
Less than three weeks ago, against Australia in Bangalore, he cracked a ball from Nathan Hauritz through the covers. It would have been an ordinary boundary but for the fact it meant Tendulkar became the first man to score 14,000 Test runs.
“It was a big moment,” Tendulkar says, “but I was most aware of the match situation.” He had arrived at the wicket with India 38 for two in answer to Australia’s first innings of 478. He and Murali Vijay added 64: “And then it flashed on the big screen that I needed eight runs to reach 14,000. Every run I scored was cheered. But when I needed two I hit a boundary. I was happy but I thought, ‘right, now we can get back to focusing on cricket’, because everyone had become too worried about those eight runs. It had taken away my focus.”
That same restraint shaped his low-key acknowledgment of the milestone. As bedlam broke out, Tendulkar finally looked skywards and thought of his late father and his Test debut in November 1989 against a Pakistan attack led by Imran Khan and Wasim Akram. He pauses when asked if he felt more emotional than he had done in 2008, when becoming the highest run-scorer in Test cricket. “Yes. Obviously, going past Brian Lara was something special. But I’m even happier now and hopefully it continues.”
‘Chase your dreams’
That steadiness of ambition was obvious in Bangalore as Tendulkar compiled an unforgettable double hundred. He followed his 214 with an unbeaten 53 in the second innings to complete India’s 2-0 victory. Tendulkar scored 403 runs in the two-match series, at an average of 134.5. Now, stressing his desire to become more “consistent” and “competitive”, should that be possible, Tendulkar sounds briefly poetic. “Life would be flat without dreams.
It’s really important to dream - and then to chase those dreams. I really believe it’s this dreaming that makes me work so hard. I want to continue doing that because I’ve worked very hard the last couple of years on my batting. Gary Kirsten [the former South Africa batsman who now coaches India] has been instrumental in this.
He’s given me the freedom to express myself, and to pace my innings as I see fit. Gary is more a friend than a coach.”
He laughs when it is pointed out that Kirsten’s empathy is different to India’s former abrasive coach, Greg Chappell, whose brother, Ian, suggested a few years ago that Tendulkar was ready only for retirement. “There was a little dip for me, around 2005 and 2006. I had a lot of injuries - finger and elbow injuries and then a back injury. All these upper-body injuries may have altered my back-swing a little. But that is behind me now and I’ve been able to put in the hours of practice I need.”
Lara might have been a more sublime batsman, and Viv Richards more majestic, but Tendulkar surpasses them both. It now seems appropriate to celebrate him alongside Bradman. In February he scored successive Test centuries against South Africa before, against the same opponents, becoming the first man to reach 200 in a one-day international. He then hit a double-hundred against Sri Lanka, and two half-centuries, before his performance against Australia confirmed his return to the top of the world batting ratings for the first time since 2002.
Tendulkar won the ICC’s Player of the Year, and earlier this week he was feted at London’s inaugural Asian Awards. In front of a mix of celebrities defined by a surreal trio of Didier Drogba, Christian Louboutin and Nick Clegg, Tendulkar received awards for Outstanding Sporting Achievement and as the Lebara People’s Choice.
“It’s been the sweetest year. If you look at the one-day double-hundred, being the highest run-getter in the IPL and the series against Sri Lanka and Australia, it’s been very good.
We now play New Zealand [the first Test starts on Thursday] and I’m looking forward to the series in South Africa in December.”
OZ losing steam
He argues that beating South Africa, away, is India’s toughest assignment; as a clash between the two top teams in the world should produce better cricket than the eagerly-anticipated Ashes. England, after all, are ranked fourth while Australia are a lowly fifth.
Are Australia in serious decline? “Yes. To not have [Matthew] Hayden, [Justin] Langer, [Adam] Gilchrist, [Glenn] McGrath, [Shane] Warne - it’s a big loss. They still have some world-class players but their batting revolves around Ponting. When you want to create a vacuum in their batting you need to get Ponting.”
Tendulkar expects a more balanced England to edge the Ashes. “I think England have a better chance. I favour them slightly. I would say [Eoin] Morgan could be the key performer in the Ashes. Morgan and [Graeme] Swann.” Suggesting that Kevin Pietersen’s poor form lies in his head, Tendulkar pinpoints Morgan as England’s best batsman. “He’s a very solid player who can control the pace of his innings. He can become a really good batsman though he has only played a few Tests so far.”
Australia, especially at home, remain cussed opponents. Surely they inspired Tendulkar to his greatest feats? “No, I think it’s just a coincidence that many of my milestones happened against them.” Yet Merv Hughes typified Australia’s blunt admiration when he said to Allan Border, after Tendulkar had spoilt Shane Warne’s debut in 1992: “This little pr**k’s going to end up with more runs than you, AB.”
All in the family
Tendulkar attributes his poise to his father, Ramesh, a poet and novelist rather than a cricket fan: “I grew up looking at my father as to how to behave. In watching him I grasped so many things. His own temperament was of a calm person. He was very composed and I never saw anger in him. To me, that was fascinating.”
His brother, Ajit, now influences him most. “If there is any problem in my batting I always speak to him. Ajit is absolutely the person I trust most when it comes to batting.
Our understanding at home was always that we focus on the next game - let everyone else talk about the last game. I scored a triple hundred when I was 14 in the semi-final of a tournament. But there was a school match at the same time and my team only played with 10 fielders because I was batting in this other game. I still batted for my school and scored 178 not out. I then went to the final of the tournament and hit 346 not out. I have this same mentality now.”
World Cup beckons
Tendulkar first played for India at 16. In the intervening 21 years he has become an idol in a country of over a billion people. There has been little peace for an essentially private man and a rare crack emerges in Tendulkar’s grateful persona when he mentions the need to sometimes drive around Mumbai on his own at five in the morning: “I do that sometimes because I need the privacy. I drive around at 30 mph and I listen to music or the sound of the engine. I don’t think about cricket. I am just myself.”
India will co-host the 2011 World Cup - with the final to be played on April 2 in Mumbai.
The pressure on Tendulkar will be immense. “It’s going to be massive. Everyone in India is looking forward to a mega tournament and although people haven’t started talking yet about 1983 [the last time India won the World Cup] it will happen soon. But, given our form, people have a right to be excited and have extremely high hopes.”
Mac and me
Already, as his eyes glitter with anticipation, Tendulkar is moving forward. But he is most engaging when looking back. “As a kid I loved John McEnroe. They called me Mac because, while everyone else liked [Bjorn] Borg, I was crazy about McEnroe. I tried wearing headbands and sweatbands, and whooping at people. It didn’t quite work.”
Asked to name the bowler who tested him most, Tendulkar smiles at a bizarre selection: “Hansie Cronje. Honestly. I got out to Hansie more than anyone. When we played South Africa he always got me out more than Allan Donald or Shaun Pollock. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pick him - it’s just that the ball seemed to go straight to a fielder. I never knew what to do with him.”
Tendulkar shrugs in amusement before naming McGrath as the best fast bowler he faced. Warne has admitted to nightmares about bowling to Tendulkar - a feeling that was never reciprocated. “I did OK against him. But, among the spinners, Warne at his best was still something special.”
Finally, to lighten his Bradman-esque aura, Tendulkar tells a lovely story about him and Warne visiting the old master.
“We went to see him on his 90th birthday. It was very special. We were talking about averages and I said, ‘Sir Don, if you were playing today, what would you have averaged?’ And he said, ‘70 - probably.’ I asked, ‘Why 70 and not your actual average of 99?’ Bradman said, ‘Come on, an average of 70 is not bad for a 90-year-old man.’”
Tendulkar rocks back in his chair and laughs. In this humorous moment, as one cricketing giant thinks of another, it’s easy to admire the same qualities in Tendulkar.
“This is what I tell my son. Whether you’re an 11-year-old boy or Don Bradman we should never forget it’s just a game we can all enjoy.”