'When I score a century I am happy, but not satisfied'
He might be the greatest batsman of modern times, feted as a 'god' who carries the hopes of over a billion people in India on his shoulders every time he plays, but when you meet him in person, Sachin Tendulkar is strangely bereft of any ego or even the smallest hint of arrogance. Unerringly polite and humble, he speaks quietly and thoughtfully.
Tendulkar is looking forward to touring England, not only because he has always loved playing here, or the fact that he owns property close to Lord's, but also because it allows him the chance to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. "I do wish I could escape the attention," he says. "It is important to have private time."
He might get the occasional glance on the streets of England, but he is never mobbed or in need of the same team of bodyguards that accompany him at home. In India, he admits to having to wear disguises of hats, wigs and comedy beards on the rare occasions he ventures out of the house. He even drives his car in the middle of the night to gain a rare feeling of solitude.
Even when he retires there will be no respite, but there is no suggestion he'll be retiring just yet. "Life without cricket is unthinkable," he says. Since making his Test debut at 16, cricket is all he has known. For now, he won't consider bowing out, especially when he has never played better and there are more runs to be scored this summer.
When the defining moment of his career finally arrived, Tendulkar wasn't in the middle of the field wielding his bat, nor was he even on the balcony watching his teammates. Instead, he was on his own in the dressing room, his hands clasped together, his eyes closed as he prayed in silence. He only knew India had won the World Cup when he heard that cathartic roar reverberate around the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai as his captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, hit the winning runs against Sri Lanka.
Tendulkar made his way to the balcony, where he was immediately lost in the embrace of his teammates. He was the focus of the national outpouring of joy. The players had won the tournament for him, and his face was wet with tears as each member of the side hugged him.
Tendulkar described the experience as "a different kind of feeling, a high, like living on a different planet. It felt as though I was flying."
He had waited 22 years for this moment. For all his personal records - and he boasts the most Test runs and Test centuries, and the most One-Day runs and One-Day centuries - he wanted something tangible, a trophy to lift, a medal to wear, and to win something as part of an Indian team.
Tendulkar had played in the previous five World Cups, but had fallen short each time. He had gotten close once, reaching the final in 2003, but four years later, India were humiliatingly bundled out of the tournament at the group stage. The experience left him feeling "shattered beyond words."
Eighteen months before India's World Cup triumph in April, Tendulkar told me he couldn't bear the thought of retiring from international cricket without having finally won the tournament.
But though he has now done it, he isn't interested in finishing his career with that fairytale ending, and so this summer he will return to England once again for what promises to be a fascinating series against Andrew Strauss' side.
"When you win something or score a century you say you are happy, but not satisfied," he says. "Satisfaction is like engaging the handbrake and hoping a car moves forward. I am not satisfied yet with my career and what I have done, not at all. I feel the moment you start to feel... satisfied, then it is only natural that you begin to cool down and lose it."
The Comeback King
Just four years ago, it appeared as though Tendulkar was beginning to lose it. He was struggling for runs, battling a nagging elbow injury, and even admitted to suffering sleepless nights consumed with self-doubt.
Tendulkar knew he was becoming increasingly peripheral to India. After being demoted from opening batsman to number four in the One-Day side, he would go a total of 36 games without scoring a century as India began to instead depend on their new posters boys, MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag. In 2007, India also won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup without him.
Tendulkar didn't score a Test century for 18 months, including the whole of 2006, prompting an Indian newspaper to publish an article entitled 'ENDULKAR?'. He also suffered the ignominy of being booed on his way to the wicket in a Test at home in Mumbai.
At this time, Tendulkar simply wasn't playing his natural game and wasn't seeking to dominate bowlers. He was thinking too much about his batting and was seemingly happy to just get by. By the end of 2007, he had scored just one century in his last nine series against the leading Test nations.
At 34, his status as the greatest batsmen of modern times might have already been assured, but he wasn't ready to bow out just yet. He knew if he could regain his fitness, he could also rediscover his form. It would prove to be a wise decision.
Since 2008, Tendulkar has staged a remarkable and unprecedented comeback, scoring a flurry of runs and breaking more records. Today, he is as dominant and potent as ever.
In the Test arena during this period, Tendulkar has scored over 3,000 more runs to overtake and then accelerate far away from the likes of Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara as the leading run scorer of all time.
He has scored 14 centuries at an average of 65.21, a significant improvement on his overall career average of 56.94, which has helped India become the number one Test side for the first time. Of course, he also became the first batsman to reach 50 Test centuries, though he shrugged it off as "just another number."
In One-Day cricket, he has been just as dominant, scoring over 2,000 runs, including seven centuries, as well as becoming the first batsman to score a One-Day double century with his unbeaten 200 against South Africa last year.
Once again his average of 52.41 over the last three years is better than his career average of 45.16.
Just last year, Tendulkar outscored every other batsman in Test cricket, with a total of 1,562 runs, to be anointed as both the ICC Cricketer of the Year and Wisden's Leading Cricketer in the World.
"It has been fascinating watching the changes in his approach," says his great friend and teammate Rahul Dravid. "From being a master blaster, he is now a mistake-proof batsman."
Tendulkar attributes his longevity and recent success to a stricter fitness regime, not playing Twenty20 Internationals and bowling only sparingly.
But overall, it's his overwhelming love for cricket and his desire to keep on improving and fine-tuning his game that have been the key.
"I still love cricket as much as ever. It is my job, but it is also my passion. Cricket remains in my heart, I don't need anything else to motivate me. I dreamed of playing for my country when I was young, and it is still my dream, it is still fun for me.
"I am still learning about the game, I figure something out about my batting all the time, you have to keep your mind open. I learn all the time, those small adjustments, with your footwork or bat swing, can improve your game, I love doing that. You never know everything. Mentally that makes you feel so good. That is the best form of preparation."
The 'Impenetrable Mask'
While he can't control his body ageing, Tendulkar has increasingly sought to exert more control over his mind, believing this is where the game is played most. He trains his mind to stay clear and not wander. "You have to be still in your mind, and keep it blank. It is also important to avoid any needless anger," he says. "Growing up, I picked up a lot from my father, who never lost his temper, and I tried to follow that, so I don't lose my cool."
This impenetrable mask doesn't slip away from the cameras. "I have never seen him lose his temper in the dressing room, he has never thrown his bat around even when given out wrongly," says the Indian bowler Zaheer Khan. "Maybe he will have an extra bowl of ice cream, and that is when you realise he is pretty upset."
Tendulkar remains astonishingly self-sufficient, everything he needs is already there in his mind. "He needs no outsider to motivate him, he finds inspiration, critical assessment, challenge, goal-setting, coaching and psychological boosts in himself," says Dravid. "Most of it comes naturally, and I know no player who has Sachin's ability to analyse his game, he is a skilled analyst."
"Sachin's talent is so ingrained he doesn't need much feedback [from others], he always seemed to have this idea in his head of what a perfect shot should be," says the former Indian bowler Venkatesh Prasad. "He is all about preparing himself through practice, visualisation, drills and rehearsals, mental and physical, and then executing it out in the middle."
As he has got older Tendulkar has increasingly shown an incredible ability, you could even call it a Jedi-like talent, to get inside a bowler's mind and get them to put the ball exactly where he wants it.
"He is an arch-manipulator, he really gets you to do what he wants," says the former Australian bowler Jason Gillespie. "I can recall one Test in which he would not touch the ball outside his off-stump, he didn't even play a cover drive, so we had to bowl a bit straighter, and that played exactly into his hands. He went on to make over 300 runs over two innings without getting out. It was amazing."
Better than Bradman?
Ever since the late '90s, Tendulkar has been almost universally accepted as the second greatest batsman of all time behind Sir Donald Bradman.
But these last three years, something strange has happened, and it is increasingly being argued that Tendulkar has clambered onto Bradman's plinth, and is as good as, if not better, than him.
Of course, Tendulkar is nowhere near Bradman's iconic Test average of 99.94, and comparing batsmen from two different eras is fraught with difficulties, but Tendulkar has managed to excel in Test cricket while also playing over 450 One-Day games, and he is set to create his own iconic figure by becoming the first batsman to reach 100 Test and One-Day centuries. He is currently on 99, with Ricky Ponting in second place with 69. His great rival Muttiah Muralitharan says Tendulkar's haul might not be surpassed for 100 years.
In the aftermath of his One-Day double century last year, the former England captain and Sky Sports analyst Nasser Hussain became one of the figures in the game to utter the once unthinkable: Sachin Tendulkar is better than The Don and the greatest batsman of all time.
"Sachin was the most complete batsman I played against," says Hussain. "As captain, I could make plans for any of the opposition batsmen. Even Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara had their weaknesses. But Sachin gave you virtually nothing. Barely a sniff."
Sam Pilger is Executive Editor of The Official Sachin Tendulkar Opus.