NO other Indian gives the nation such pleasure as Sachin Tendulkar. On the popularity chart, he should rank at the top, what with his matchwinning ways bringing glory to himself and the team. The joy that Tendulkar gives his fans is to be experienced. Barring Kapil Dev, no other Indian cricketer would have inspired the young generation to believe in themselves as Tendulkar has. Of late, he has made every Indian proud with his sensational batting exploits with even the tough-talking Australians conceding that they were laid low by a master.
There is talk that Tendulkar is the best batsman the game has seen after Sir Don Bradman. Comparisons can never do justice to anyone's talent but Tendulkar himself does not like such a debate. Neither did Sunil Gavaskar when critics compared him with Bradman.
There is a similarity between Tendulkar and Gavaskar when both point out that Bradman's awesome record is very, very difficult to match. There is much truth in what they say because the conditions differed in the times these three played and the fact remains that Bradman's career average (99.96) is simply amazing. It really said it all.
It is Tendulkar's humility too that he does not run down the opposition. It is his camaraderie that he does not appreciate being given the sole credit for the recent success the team has achieved at home and in Sharjah.
He will not like to talk about himself. ``Cricket is a team game'' he reminds you softly. Last calendar year, he was the only Indian to score 1000 runs each in Tests and one-day internationals. His critics, however, were not satisfied. That was when he was said to be struggling for runs even as some others in the team, who were in form, paled in comparison.
One remembers a very disconsolate Tendulkar when the Indian team left the Sharjah cricket stadium last December. He made no attempt to hide his anger at the team's performance and neither could he conceal the pain on his face. It was quite evident that the defeats in all the three matches had hurt him a lot.
To add to Tendulkar's misery, the poor behaviour of the crowd hardly helped the cause of the team. The jeers and the abuses left Tendulkar a shattered man and when he returned home, he was stripped of the captaincy. It was a very difficult period for him.
When he arrived in Sharjah in April, it was clear that Tendulkar was a very fiercely determined man. He shut himself away from the crowd and just concentrated on playing to the best of his potential. ``I just wanted the team to win,'' he had confided midway through the Coca Cola Cup. It did not really matter if he earned personal glory or not. The most important thing for Tendulkar was a title-win for India.
The class in Tendulkar came out in the open as he battled alone against the Australians. The same crowd, which had jeered him the last time, rooted for him as Tendulkar carved out two artistic innings for the sake of Indian cricket. The first one was an unparalleled gem and the second the icing on the cake on his 25th birthday.
Tendulkar scored two centuries but not once did he acknowledge the cheers from the crowd. He raised the bat just to his mates in the pavilion. He had not forgotten the treatment meted out four months back when abuses were heaped on the Indian team.
In cracking those centuries, Tendulkar probably gave a message to the crowd in Sharjah and others in general that the defeats were not due to lack of effort. It was just that the team was not clicking. It did this time and the smile returned to Tendulkar's face.
``One of my career's greatest days'', he remarked as he remembered that glorious night when he drove the Opel on the turf he had conquered singlehanded. In times to come, there is the danger of Tendulkar becoming a victim of the high standards that he has set for himself. He must score big centuries and fashion victories from hopeless situations. He is aware of the expectations he will have to meet everytime he walks out to bat. It will, however, be in the interest of the side if he is not put under undue pressure to score everytime. Let him enjoy his batting and let us enjoy watching Tendulkar.
In this interview, Tendulkar talks about his batting at Sharjah and other aspects of his cricket.
Question: How was the Sharjah experience of 1998?
Answer: Obviously I was very happy. I had been looking forward to something like that. I was happy because we had at last played to our potential. It wasn't easy as you would have seen it but there was joy in all the pain that one experienced in our victory march.
Q: How was it in Sharjah in December 1997?
A: It was unpleasant last time. We were unable to perform for various reasons. But what hurt was that people didn't support us at all. The same people, who applauded us this time, had jeered and abused us then. This time, as we won, they had no option. I hope they understand our feelings. Nobody likes to lose. Everybody strives to win and make them happy. We always try our level best but can't succeed always.
Q: What was the essential difference on the field?
A: The contrast in form in December and April was striking. The determination was as fierce this time as the last time we played in Sharjah but importantly we won on this occasion. People, I know, like their team to win always but then it is not possible always.
Q: Your memories of the hundred which enabled India qualify for the final ...
A: I know people have been fascinated by that innings, but I would have been happier if we had won that night. It was a crucial knock because it saved from elimination at the league stage itself. How humiliating that might have been. I felt happy that night because the innings kept us in the tournament. It was different from the other innings for this simple reason.
Q: Where would you rank this century?
A: Obviously very high. I think it should rank together at the top with my innings of 44 against the West Indies at Trinidad (on India's last tour). The pitch was very difficult and the ball was seaming a lot. I thought batting was very difficult on that pitch. At Sharjah, I enjoyed batting because I could carry the team to the final. It was a valuable innings in those terms.
Q: Do you agree that you were more focussed on taking the opposition single-handed in this innings?
A: Well, I was definitely very focussed. You can say I was completely focussed at finishing the match myself. We had to win even though the scoring rate until then had not been up to the mark.
Q: What were your thoughts when you reached the century and when India had secured a place in the final?
A: I have always believed that team is more important than the individual. The team had to win and there was no point in just I doing well and the team losing.
Q: One noticed a similar commitment in the final too.
A: I told myself that India should take the Cup. Obviously we all wanted to win. I had said this on the eve of the final. I had said it openly that we should remember how Australia had performed in India, losing the league matches and winning the final. And we won.
Q: Did you plan the innings in the final?
A: To some extent. It was a calculated effort. The flow (in batting) had to come at some time and I am happy it came at the time the team and I needed most. I had decided to stay till the end and win the match for the team.
Q: What was your reaction after having laid the opposition low single-handedly?
A: I felt pleased about the two innings I played and the fact that we had won the Cup. I was thrilled. The century that I hit to enable the team qualify was something special. We could qualify because of that innings and that added to the flavour really.
Q: Did you get to see yourself bat?
A: When I came back (to Mumbai) I saw the innings (the two centuries) and thought it was easy. Why can't I bat like that everytime I step out. Why can't I repeat it. I should be able to do it every innings. Not possible everytime I know but I must try.
Q: Was there a change in your batting attitude?
A: Not much really. I aimed at playing more deliveries. Play every shot that I can and try and stay till the target was achieved. I kept telling myself not to give up under any circumstances and see that I am around when the winning runs are scored.
Q: Was winning the only thing on your mind everytime you took guard in Sharjah?
A: Yes, it was on my mind. I was totally determined. I said to myself that I will win it for India.
Q: Your memories of the entire tournament....
A: Well, I was very, very determined this time. I wanted India to desperately win a title in Sharjah because of the disappointing experience in December. I had aimed at making handsome contributions to make things easy for the team. It didn't matter if I failed after making an effort but that effort had to come. I am happy it was so well-timed.
Q: Has losing the captaincy been a sort of boon?
A: Not really. Maybe it (not being the captain) gives me more time to think about my batting. More time to analyse my game. I don't have to worry about the bowling changes and field placements.
Q: You had a wonderful time against the Australians. How do you view it?
A: There was a fire within me. And also aggression I thought. Australia is a highly rated team and I badly wanted to do well against it. I wanted some of my best performances to come against a strong team like Australia. Whatever happened, I was ready for it. The runs came and the wins too. I am generally happy that I did well against Australia.
Q: What about your battle with Shane Warne?
A: I know you all have been talking about me hitting Warne. See, we both are aggressive. Both like to attack. So one of us had to take charge at the first opportunity. I thought I batted well against him.
Q: Did you do any homework before playing Warne in the series at home?
A: I did some study if you could call it. I watched the Australia-South Africa series and observed Warne. It gave me an idea of how to tackle him. I played the leg-spinners, L. Sivaramakrishnan and Sairaj Bahutule, by asking them to pitch in the 'rough'. I played Nilesh Kulkarni and Rajesh Pawar a lot in the 'nets'. They helped me a lot in my preparation against Warne.
Q: How much of a psychological advantage was the innings for Mumbai when you hit a double century. Do you feel losing to Mumbai was a blow to the Australians?
A: It was a psychological battle really. Playing that match gave me an idea about Warne's bowling. Mumbai played very well in winning the match. I believe Mumbai was only the second state team, after Karnataka, to have beaten a visiting side. It was a great feeling really. Every member of the team played his part. The bowlers and the batsmen all excelled.
Q: How does it feel carrying a nation's hopes everytime you walk out to bat?
A: I know my responsibilities and enjoy them. I also know the expectations of the nation but I don't allow that thought to affect me on the field. I know they all will be watching. So why get bogged down. I concentrate a lot and nothing disturbs me on the field really. I don't feel any pressure thinking about the number of people who would be watching me.
Q: Have you set any standards for yourself?
A: I may have set standards for myself because I know I can do better. I am striving to achieve greater batting standards and I think I am performing better. I have to maintain it (the form).
Q: Would you call this your best batting phase?
A: Maybe my best thus far. There have been some good series and tournaments in the past but this one was special. Whatever I did worked.
Q: Are you enjoying your bowling?
A: Yes, I am very much enjoying my bowling. I like to experiment a little. That is basically to avoid being predictable. I am not a regular bowler who can land at one spot like others. I have to try and be different.
Q: How do you react to this comparison being made with Sir Don Bradman?
A: In my opinion, comparison with Sir Don is not fair. Nobody should be compared with Sir Don. It is being unfair to the great Don. He was truly a great batsman. Just look at his record.
Q: Does it not make you happy being compared with Sir Don Bradman?
A: I am happy people think good about me. The compliment from Sir Don was moving when he said I reminded him of his batting style. I shall cherish it for all times to come. I appreciate people praising but comparing with Sir Don. No. I feel it is very, very difficult to achieve what Sir Don did.
Q: What about praises from others?
A: The cricketing world praising is a nice feeling. The best feeling was when my teammates felt happy with my performance. The team feeling for me was the most satisfying thing, really.
Q: What about this comment from Bishan Singh Bedi that you are the greatest living Indian?
A: I shall cherish this comment all my life. I regard Bishan paaji a lot and enjoy a special relationship with him. He is a fantastic person and has always helped and encouraged me. That comment from him (Tendulkar is the greatest living Indian) was very touching.
Q: What about your family?
A: Support has come from my family in a big way. My wife (Anjali) has played a big role in my success. She has stood by me in the ups and downs. She has been right behind me. The manner in which my family reacts to everything is very encouraging. My family has always given me nice feeling. Whenever I have faltered, they have reminded me of my capabilities. They have supported me most. This support from my family really has been the foundation of what I have achieved in cricket and life. They have enjoyed my cricket and guarded me from getting carried away by all the praise.