Tendulkar's true gifts lie in his mind, but it is his body which is the instrument of his genius, writes Rohit Brijnath
Six months before Kuala Lumpur, before he advertised he could run 50 overs even at 33, before an innings against the West Indies that was like some national reassurance, before a century impressive for its unhesitancy, for a moment, even he was visited by doubt.
In late March, as surgeons poked around his shoulder in search of a cyst, mid-procedure, as he lay there semi-awake, they told Sachin Tendulkar that his bicep tendon, well, that had ruptured, too.
Toe. Finger. Back. Elbow. Shoulder. Now bicep. Sachin Tendulkar's true gifts lie in his mind, but it is his body which is the instrument of his genius. And it was failing him. Still, stoic, he told the doctors, "do what you have to do''.
Later, the pain was so pure, so cruel after even the slightest movement, that he thought "what is happening, it was like someone still cutting through your arm''. It was the only time when, understandably, he admits, "you always wonder if it's going to get better''.
For much of his career Tendulkar has batted with such assurance that he spins the illusion he is unfamiliar with struggle. But he knows struggle. Well. He knows it because pressure arrives every morning, and just because he manages it with serenity hardly means he doesn't feel it.
He knows struggle because his form has dipped in recent times and the criticism hasn't always been pretty, but he keeps working; he knows struggle because he's missed 77 one-day matches because of various ailments since 1998-99, and as the years accumulate on his joints every comeback must be more testing.
Rehabilitation is slow, steady; great athletes are anything but. They are conditioned to push. Tell them recovery takes six months, and they think four. Sometimes it works, sometimes it makes for moments so deflating they'd rather be erased from the memory.
Tendulkar's moment, the worst one, came he says ''when I was trying hard to go to the West Indies. I was told by the doctors it was tough to make it. At one stage, I was the only one who said I was going there. Others said after this sort of surgery (shoulder and bicep) there was no way to recover in four months.''
''(But) I was pushing myself. And there was a setback. I felt a twitch in my bicep, it started hanging like a hammock. I got scared." So there he was, Tendulkar, mind flown to the Windies, but body on the couch in front of the TV in India.
Did he weep? "No," he laughs. "But I felt bad, I felt frustrated, I felt extremely low." He also felt desperately driven to come back. So he struggled on, leaning on wife Anjali, saying, "I spoke a lot to her, she's a huge supporting factor. She has a balanced mind, (offering both) a wife's opinion and a doctor's opinion."
But through this battle, gradually restoring his shoulder, muscle after muscle, stroke at a time, one thing he didn't doubt. His form.
Surely he was anxious; surely after another injury, another year older, he frets. But no, if Tendulkar didn't believe in himself, he couldn't play. "I wasn't worried," he says, "I don't need to convince myself. I know it (that I could reclaim my form).''
Addiction to attention
Were we surprised that he scored a century in his first full match back? Should we have been surprised? He says he wasn't, insisting he had laboured long to be ready, but maybe it's more than that. Champions, like him, seem to suffer from what might be light-heartedly termed an addiction to attention, finding the limelight irresistible, constant stealers of headlines.
Only the special can do this. Can score 93 off 96 balls as he did last year against Sri Lanka after returning from six months out because of elbow issues. Can return after making a duck in Multan on February 16 and score not just 141, but stay unbeaten, and last 50 overs. If he was making a statement, we heard it.
If it's been hard for Tendulkar, and annoying, because from 16 he's been a man of action and now he's condemned to these periods of idleness, he continues because cricket still infects his being. When he turned to heaven after the West Indies century, he may have thought of his late father, but he was also "thanking God'' that he was simply able to play, "to do what I enjoy doing''.
"I dont mind pushing myself. Every time you push yourself it's a torture only if you're not enjoying it, but I am (enjoying it). I look forward to even the practice sessions.'' At 33, Tendulkar's iron will is carrying a patched-up body forward.
His form, he admits, these past two years "has been good in patches". The injuries, all pertinently to his upper body, have stolen momentum from him, but time, too, has robbed his batting of some luminosity. No man is the greatest forever; but some men, like him, just remain great for longer.
I ask him, forget the scores, how does he know when he's batting well. He says: "When I see the ball early enough and move the way I want to move. To commentators and experts, they may feel I'm not moving, but the batter (knows best). If I want to do something and am able to do that, then there's nothing to worry about."
He's not worried. Ok, then, neither are we.