Tendulkar keeps it real
As a small boy I was something of a stats geek, poring over old record books in those pre-internet days and wondering how it was possible anyone could score 18 Test centuries - as my hero David Gower had - let alone the 34 Sunil Gavaskar had amassed. Then along came Sachin Tendulkar, whose figures would blow the minds of small boys - and old boys - to smithereens.
On the eve of his sixth World Cup, India's 'Little Master' has scored 14,692 runs in 177 Tests, with 51 hundreds and 59 fifties, while in one-day internationals he has 17,629 runs from 444 matches, with 46 hundreds and 93 fifties.
He holds the record for most runs and tons in both formats of the game, and if Tendulkar does manage to score the three more centuries he needs to become the first man to reach 100 in international cricket, it will likely be a mark that will stand alongside Don Bradman's impossibly lofty batting average until the end of time - or at least cricket as we know it. Which might not be long.
Tendulkar's feats are all the more remarkable because to achieve them it has been necessary to play at the top level for more than 20 years, in the most pressurised environment imaginable - as the signs at his home ground in Mumbai used to say: "If cricket is a religion, then Sachin is God."
"Anyone who starts playing international sport so young [Tendulkar made his international debut as a 16-year-old in 1989, in a Test against Pakistan], they normally burn themselves out very young, too," says former India all-rounder Kapil Dev, who led his country to World Cup glory in 1983.
Tendulkar is the highest scorer in World Cups with 1,796 runs and four centuries
"But this guy has something in him that allows him to carry on playing with the same spirit and the same passion. And what makes it even more extraordinary is that he's done it in a country where people expect him to perform at all times."
If cricket is indeed a religion to Indians, then Tendulkar has yet to prove his divinity, because for all his deeds he has yet to lead his country to World Cup glory. However, there is a school of thought that India has finally accepted his mortality.
"The dependence on Tendulkar was once enormous," says Sharda Ugra, a cricket writer for India Today. "But that has changed over the past decade. People are now saying they want India to win the World Cup for Tendulkar - I don't think anyone is saying he's the guy who will win it for us."
Having come to world-wide prominence with an unbroken 664-run partnership with Vinod Kambli in a schools game in 1988, Tendulkar was playing Test cricket barely a year later. He scored two fifties in the four-match series against Pakistan and showed he was more than a prodigious stroke-maker when he was hit in the face by a Waqar Younis bouncer in the final Test and continued batting in a blood-soaked shirt.
Tendulkar toured England the following year, scoring a maiden, match-saving hundred at Old Trafford - an innings Kapil, who was playing in the same side, says marked him for greatness.
"For anyone to score a hundred in those conditions is tough," says Kapil, "for a kid of 17 to do it, when he had barely played outside of India, was astonishing. He played each ball on its merits, was so cool and calm. He showed he had what it took to be a special cricketer with that hundred."
Former fast bowler Angus Fraser, who played for England in that Test, adds: "You can see the player now he was then. He was incredibly well-organised, knew what balls to leave or block and what balls to go after - and some of the strokes he played were beautiful.
"He's so still at the crease - you see pictures where the ball has left the bowler's hand and is almost halfway down the pitch and Tendulkar hasn't moved yet. That shows incredible judgement of line and length, that he's able to make his move that late.
"Like all great players he can score runs all round the wicket, there's not an area you can tie him up. Bowlers only have to be marginally out for him to find a stroke to get the ball away, as cleanly and as clinically as any batsman has ever done."
Success in the one-day game was more elusive and Tendulkar did not score his first ton until 1994, in his 79th match. But at the 1996 World Cup on home soil he found top gear, powering his side to the last four with knocks of 127 not out, 70, 90 and 137, before India came a cropper against Sri Lanka amid disgraceful scenes in Kolkata.
Ask any former players and they will tell you the foundation of Tendulkar's greatness is his consistency. But Fraser believes it was when things started to go wrong, if only for a relatively short period, that Tendulkar opened himself up to reveal the inner workings that make him such a formidable foe.
"In the 2006 Test series against England, England's bowlers really did get after him, he looked completely out of sorts, was getting hit quite regularly and you wondered if the reactions had gone," says Fraser.
"But what came through during that period was that not only did you have a man blessed with genius in the strokes he played, you also had someone with determination, fight and pride. You were used to see him play like a god, but in working hard for his runs and visibly struggling he showed there was a very, very strong character underneath."
Adds Ugra: "When he came along as a young cricketer in the late '80s, he was this teen prodigy and it was almost like he made his success inevitable. But now we realise that's not a common thing, a lot of prodigies fall by the wayside.
"He's stayed that way because he's very respectful of the game - more than a student he's a devotee of the game. It's as much a spiritual thing as the physical act of batting. Speak to anyone who has played with him and they will tell you he's got an astonishing memory of every innings he has played - it's like his whole brain is wired for cricket."
Having recovered from his blip, Tendulkar has been as prolific as ever these last few years, continuing to surprise, continuing to confound. In 2010 he played only two one-day internationals, and in one of them became the first man to score 200, against South Africa in Gwalior.
As a result, he remains the most marketable athlete in India, currently endorsing an estimated 15 blue chip companies, including Coca-Cola and Adidas. "Tendulkar is a very safe pair of hands," explains sports sponsorship and marketing expert Nigel Currie. "He has an impeccable reputation as a player and there's never really been any controversy.
"The Indian market is massively important for brands and his name is probably the biggest in India. MS Dhoni [India's captain] may be a more glamorous, more youthful alternative, but Tendulkar is an icon, an almost god-like figure, and his longevity will outlast Dhoni's."
However, Ugra is keen to stress Tendulkar is far more than a mere marketing tool to the Indian people, who suddenly find themselves assailed by human brands. "India was a fairly quiet and deferential country until the 1990s," she says, "but the economy has taken off and it's changed the way the country sees itself and its place in the world.
"But as India has changed, Tendulkar has stayed the same. He retains a lot of what are seen as old-fashioned, un-hip Indian values. A lot of other stars, in sport and cinema, have become brands. But Tendulkar is not a brand, he's himself - constant and real."
The Indian people may have embraced Tendulkar's realness, but to opposition bowlers at this year's World Cup it will feel like it has almost always felt - as if it is the Hindu goddess Mahakali waiting for them at the other end, replete with 10 arms and 10 heads.