Delhi : Getting access to Sachin Tendulkar is tortuous. It takes
conversations with three intermediaries and involves two delays and
one threat of a postponement. Initially the meeting is to take place
at the county ground in Chelmsford, where India are playing their
final warm-up match before the Test, but in the end is relocated,
predictably enough, to the safety of Sachin's hotel room.
The room appears to have been hurriedly tidied. He has just woken from
a nap after a training session and the bed has been remade, after a
fashion. Shirts are bundled over a chair. A suitcase is closed. Behind
an armchair is a pair of expensive-looking slippers with shiny
buckles, a comforting touch of home from home. Does he sometimes wear
these while practising his magical footwork in front of the mirror?
Why, after all this time, at the age of 34, is he still doing this? He
is the richest cricketer the sport has seen, so he hardly needs the
money. His answer is touching, naive almost. "I still play," he says
in his sing-song, still-boyish voice, "Because I still love the game.
"I would like to clarify this," he says. "It's not about records. It's
about loving the game and enjoying being out there in the middle. That
is extremely special to me and far bigger than breaking records or
creating new ones. Creating records happens after you've gone on the
cricket field, but you've got to find a reason to go on the cricket
field. And for me, the reason is very clear.
"From the age of three I've loved this sport and I've never thought
about scoring the most number of centuries or runs in international
cricket. Everyone enjoys breaking records, I'm enjoying it too, but
that is not the reason for playing cricket.
"When I started playing, I always wanted to be regarded as one of the
best and the idea was that when I stopped playing, people would
remember my name. Being regarded as one of the best players is always
a good feeling, and that drives you, it refuels you completely. You
want to be on top of your game all the time and push yourself harder
and harder. There's a huge responsibility and it is a great challenge.
I love that."
The key to Tendulkar's appeal is twofold. First, he was so good so
young. He made his debut for India at 16 and scored his first Test
century, against England at Old Trafford, at 17. Second, he has
remained forever youthful and innocent of character and demeanour. The
whiff of corruption has tainted many in Indian public life, but not
Tendulkar. His was one of the few reputations untarnished by the
match-fixing scandal that engulfed Indian cricket seven years ago.
Crucially, he retains the lustrous image that TV producers and
advertisers crave. Even now, the mood of a vast nation can be altered
by a Tendulkar duck or double-century. "So many people are watching
you, so many people backing you all the time," he adds. "The mood in
the evening after a game (among the Indian public) depends on what you
do. If you don't perform well, people are upset and feel low. If you
do well, along with other players, the whole nation is on a high and
that is a great feeling. When you've done well, the team has won, it's
a special feeling."
Isn't that intimidating? "To be honest, I don't think about all these
things when I'm going in to bat, because when you go in you've just
got to be watching the ball. You must think about the game, not
anything else. I try to work on that."
When there is a break in his schedule he likes to take his wife,
Anjali (a doctor and childhood friend), and their two children away to
places where they will not be so readily recognised. "We've got a few
spots nobody knows about and that is quite nice. Before this tour,
too, I came to London on a short holiday with my family and it was a
wonderful break. I like to do things like go to parks, cinemas and
restaurants and walk back along the streets.
"I can't do that at home. Therefore that's what I like, a stroll in
the park. Spending time with my family helps me to recharge the
batteries. There is so much cricket that it is not only physically but
mentally demanding and you need to refresh yourself. But I couldn't
not live in India. That is where the heart is. All my friends are