The thing about cricket, or one of the things about it, is that the game makes few allowances for ability. The strong are persecuted just as surely as the weak are found out. There is, literally, no hiding place. Indeed, the strongest players may suffer more than the weakest. For with ability comes increased expectation and responsibility. The weak or average player can fail; the strong cannot if his team is to prosper.
So not the least of the many wonders of Sachin Tendulkar is that he has withstood the all-but-intolerable burdens that come with being a hero to a billion people. Consider this: instead of the silence you might expect when India lose their second wicket there is cheering. Because that's the cue for the Little Master to stroll to the wicket. In other words, Tendulkar comes out to bat knowing that the crowd are pleased that India's position has deteriorated but that's ok because the spectators, at the ground and wherever there are Indians, expect him to repair the damage they have, only semi-secretly, been wishing upon their own team. Anything to see Sachin bat. Now that's pressure.
He's been coping with it for a long time. Today marks the twentieth anniversary of his test debut, aged just 16. Waqar Younis bowled him for just 15 that day and it wasn't until the next summer that he made his first test century, aged 17 and 112 days. That innings, against England at Old Trafford, was, like many others that would follow, a match-saving one and what one remembers of it, all these years later, was the composure with which Tendulkar batted. There was an astonishing maturity about his cricket even then and it was impossible to take seriously the idea that this tiny teenage batsman could play with such measured assurance. Impossible, but necessary.
That assurance has never left him. Yet given his superstar status, one of the most remarkable aspects of Tendulkar's batting is its absence of ego. The game and the match situation dictate his approach, never his own needs or his own sense of his own form and capabilities. This is rare indeed. Part of his genius is this ability to bat for his team and, yes, country. And so, despite nearly 13,000 test runs and more than 40 centuries, there's a becoming modesty to Tendulkar's genius. This too is rare.
Mark Waugh once said playing against Tendulkar "you almost want him to get a few runs, just to see him" and that's about right. It's the old "Please god, let England win and Trumper score a century" sensation. The purity of Tendulkar's technique and the classical way in which he constructs an innings, moderating his shot selection and modulating his tempo as conditions, of ground and match, demand is greater than, I think, any other batsman I've seen. In that sense, more than any other, he's a batsman for all seasons.
And there's something else too. As Rahul Bhattacharya writes:
"The wonder is that in the years between [his debut and now] he has done nothing to sully his innocence, nothing to deaden the impish joy, nothing to disrupt the infinite patience or damage the immaculate equilibrium through the riot of his life and career."
Bhattacharya suggests that, unusually even uniquely, Tendulkar has been granted "perma-childhood" and I think there's something to that: one feels curiously protective of Sachin and the disappointment of seeing him dismissed is much greater, for me anyway, than anything one felt when either of the other geniuses of our time, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting, are sent back to the pavilion. It's as though, in some strange way, we've been cheated and denied the pleasure of seeing Sachin bat some more. One's attitude to Tendulkar is oddly protective.
Comparisons between the three are in some sense as inevitable as they must be unsatisfactory. Each brings or has brought so much to the game. Tendulkar's excellence is crafted; his highest moments may not have touched the heights Lara reached and Ponting may have produced more passages of sustained form, but there's a serenity to Tendulkar's brilliance that is almost other-worldly. It's not just the runs but the manner in which they're scored that counts.
Only the South Africans have been able to find any real answer to the problems posed by Tendulkar. Tellingly, his average against Australia, the greatest team of his era, is actually better than his overall career figures. Unusually, his record is as good away from home as it is on home turf. (Ponting and Lara, by contrast, each average 10 points more at home than they do away). Of all the great batsman of recent decades, Tendulkar is the one you think would find it easiest to adjust to life on uncovered pitches.
Consider this story, related by Virender Sehwag, and think on the discipline and self-mastery, as well as cricket knowledge, it demonstrates:
In Sydney in 2004, in the first innings he didn't play a single cover drive, and remained undefeated on 241. He decided to play the straight drive and flicks, so he made the bowlers pitch to his strengths. It is not easy. In the Test before that, in Melbourne, he had got out trying to flick. After that when we had a chat he said he was getting out playing the cover drive and the next game he would avoid the cover drive. I thought he was joking because nobody cannot not play the cover drive - doesn't matter if you are connecting or not. I realised he was serious in Sydney when he was on about 180-odd and he had missed plenty of opportunities to play a cover drive. I was stunned.
And this, of course, only considers his test record. No other batsman has mastered the 50 over game so completely.
But in style and temperament, Tendulkar is really a classicist and a batsman we're all privileged to have been able to watch. As the years have worn on he has, on occasion, modified his approach; as India have grown stronger he has left the flashy centuries to Sehwag and the others, offering his own batting as a kind of comprehensive insurance policy in the even of disaster striking the Indian innings. But always, always, for the team first.
The good news is that the Little Master says he's far from finished: "I am enjoying my game and there is a lot of cricket left in me...Whenever I am on a cricket field I enjoy it. There is still a 16-year-old hidden inside who wants to go out and express himself."
So, congratulations Sachin. It's been a great twenty years and may there still be several more to come.