The 100th century was nothing but a number for him. He never chased it but some of his critics did, using it as a platform to question his credibility and commitment, forgetting the longevity factor that marks his cricket journey. Quite characteristically, Sachin Tendulkar allowed critics to have their say and let his bat, which had been mute for some time, do the talking.
True, it took him 24 innings, after the majestic 111 against South Africa at Nagpur in the last World Cup, to reach that coveted mark, but then he had come close on a few occasions.
The 85 at Mohali against Pakistan in the World Cup and the 94 against the West Indies in the Test at Mumbai almost carried him to that summit. But he was destined to achieve it in Bangladesh.
A little nudge and a controlled reaction, a poignant look at the sky said it all. He was ready for the moment and did not allow it to weigh him down with emotions. His Test best (248 not out) is also against the same team but Friday's knock was only his first ODI century against Bangladesh.
Sachin will be 39 in a little over a month from now, but it will be hard to find a cricket mind as young as this genius. Virat Kohli, his partner at Mirpur during the maestro's march to the grand peak, was a year and 10 days old when Sachin made his debut at Karachi in 1989, and Suresh Raina merely three. The hostile conditions of that contest in Pakistan contributed towards making him one of the most resilient and consistent performers the game has ever seen.
Respects his fans
His popularity stems from his desire to show respect to his fans, especially the younger lot. On one occasion, at The Taj Palace in Delhi, the local manager, a former Delhi first-class cricketer, brought some 30 kids unannounced to Sachin's room. We were in the middle of a dinner when the kids rang the bell. Sachin, though caught unawares, kept his annoyance to himself. He coolly placed a chair in the middle of his room and invited the children in, requesting them to do so in a disciplined manner.
A queue was formed in a flash. A cute little boy, who was hardly six, caught his attention. Sachin then took his time, wrote the boy's name, drew a smiley and patted him.
The session lasted a good 20 minutes and the children were very thrilled. “I could have said no to the manager, but the kids would have got a poor impression of a cricketer,” Sachin explained later.
Sachin is worshipped by some of his fans, but the player himself does not like this kind of adulation. “I am not God,” he has said repeatedly. “I am a cricketer.”
In fact, he is so measured in his responses that he does not often come across as a great subject for an interview. He is circumspect simply because he does not want to hurt anyone. Even in the Greg Chappell episode, he had told this correspondent, “If he has said that (criticism) then I am hurt.” The emphasis was on the “if” and Sachin insisted it was not to be missed.
Watching Sachin in full flow is a great experience. He has an amazing ability to read the bowler's mind. Above all, he remains humble.
He would keep his sorrows to himself and weep in solitude after a shattering loss, as he believes that personal suffering and pain should not be passed on to his colleagues. However, when celebrating a victory, he wants every member of the team to join in the merriment. Sachin treats grief and joy differently. Tears for himself; joy for the rest!
That glum night in 1997 at a resort in Barbados is still vivid. India had lost to the West Indies and Sachin was grieving in his room. He was in tears and his wife (Anjali) sat speechless.
Sachin's anguish needed no further proof. He didn't speak for a long time. He found it hard to believe that India had lost. Many thoughts crossed his mind — Was he not a good captain? Was his team really inferior?
Sachin just couldn't comprehend the reasons for the devastating defeat. However, he had the grace to invite this correspondent for dinner, but I didn't have the heart for it.
A few days later, India again lost a one-day match at St. Vincent from a winning position. This time Sachin was livid, and it was a sight to see the team disappear from the dining area as the Little Master emerged from his room on the first floor. He did not speak to any of his colleagues for two days.
Sachin did not blame anyone for the defeats — he never has. He may have lost his cool a few times on the field but not to the extent of hurting someone or inviting censure. He once lashed out at V.V.S. Laxman in Sharjah for responding slowly to a call. Laxman laughs heartily even to this day whenever he recalls the occasion. “That was the only time I heard him use cuss words,” said Laxman of the incident.
Makes no excuses
Sachin doesn't believe in making excuses. Instead he strives to correct his mistakes, and that is the secret of his success. His philosophy has always been: “Why should I gift my wicket? The bowler must earn it.”
However, he once gifted his wicket to Saqlain Mushtaq, in Chennai in 1999, and India lost the Test. This after Sunil Gavaskar had warned him not to play the lofted shot against the wily Pakistan spinner. That dismissal still haunts Sachin.
A private person, he is at his best in the company of cricketers. He will never miss a youngster reaching a milestone, taking his place in the balcony of the dressing room, applauding from his heart. He can joke, sing and indulge in pranks, just as any other member of the team.
He can cook for the team, sometimes winning the heart of the chef, like once in Bulawayo when he treated the team to steaks. At heart, he remains a cricketer.
Importance of Test ton
He knows the importance of a Test century. He also knows how it is different from an ODI hundred. A Test century is crafted but in ODIs it happens due to many factors.
He would not trade his best one-day century with his worst in Tests. It is, as he once confided, best left to the critics. For Sachin, a winning effort on the field counts. Statistics form a part of the game but do not always reflect the best and the worst.
Most cricket followers would tell you: “It's difficult to imagine Indian cricket without Sachin.”
True, Indian cricket will not be the same once he decides to hang up his boots. But until then, let us bask in the glory of Sachin, the rightful master of 100 international centuries — 51 in Tests and 49 in one-dayers.