Sachin Tendulkar was the reason I played cricket. I saw him for the first time (sometime in 1998) at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. It was a match — organised to launch DD Sports — between Azharuddin XI and Kumble XI.
Next was my ODI debut at Mohali (in 1999) followed by my comeback (against Australia in the ODI at Bangalore in 2001). I made a fifty and won the Man-of-the-match award. I had a decent interaction with him there.
It was a great experience talking to him, very inspiring actually. He had kind words to say about me and autographed that MoM replica cheque and wrote “You are a very good player. Enjoy your cricket.”
My first Test (against South Africa at Bloemfontein in 2001) was baptism by fire, but his presence ensured I was not too anxious. The score was 68 for four when I walked in. He met me half way and just kept pushing me, saying encouraging words.
I was so relieved. The nervousness vanished because of him. I had butterflies in my stomach but felt normal after facing the first few deliveries. We had a 220-run partnership and he made me feel absolutely comfortable. That was the kind of influence he had on his partners. It was as if he had a divine quality to absorb your anxiety.
Batting in his company is a great cricket education. He bats so clean and makes the bowling look ordinary. Believe me, in his presence, the partner can never feel any pressure because he takes it upon himself.
He makes batting look so easy because he has so much time to play the ball. The fact that he absorbs the pressure makes it comfortable for you. It is a feature that has helped many batsmen to grow. Of course, it is not possible to match his technique and temperament but he is always a glowing role model at the other end.
What I admire most about his batting is his head position. I have never seen his head fall to a side, never. It stays still and the body follows. It is a rare quality and he has mastered it over the years. He is flawless. Even at practice, he never relaxes.
I am lucky to have had some grand partnerships with Sachin. I am also privileged that he has given me the liberty to crack jokes when we bat. He leaves his grand aura behind when he bats with you. He makes you feel important and stays normal himself. It is an amazing quality, to stay normal.
For his teammates, he is just another player and a simple human being who will care for you without any motive.
I have learnt a lot watching him, how to conduct oneself on and off the field. He does not insist you pick up every point he shares. It is for you to learn. But he always insists that one has to respect his colleague, opponent and the game.
I would love to have his humility and his hunger for runs. He is an example of knowing the difference between a good player and a great player. You may emulate his punch off the back foot or his straight drive but I would want his humility and honesty.
If I have to pick one innings I would go for the double century (241 not out) against Australia at Sydney (in 2004). It was a remarkable display of discipline. He was not getting runs and decided not to play the cover drive at all. If only I could play such an innings.
I can’t believe he will be retiring soon. At some point everyone has to quit, but I am glad it is his decision. I will remember and revere him for helping me without making it obvious, like speaking to the selectors and the captain when I was to be dropped from the team. I am grateful he considered me a friend but I could never call him Sachin. He was always Paaji. I will always remember him as a great role model.
(As told to Vijay Lokapally)