On a winter day about 21 years ago, I was passing a lazy afternoon with a book in my maternal uncle's house while my uncle was watching a cricket match on TV. I was a child who didn't follow cricket, so I wasn't even aware who was playing. Suddenly, as I looked up from my book for an instant, something caught my eye. One of the fielders wore a thick wad of bandage on his nose. "Who is he and what's wrong with him?" I asked my uncle. "He is a new kid in the Indian team - he is called Sachin Tendulkar. He got hit on the nose by a delivery," he replied.
In the subsequent years I started following cricket, and that kid became the most valuable player in the Indian team. He was always the subject of hot debate among my elders of course - regarding whether he was better than Sunil Gavaskar or not, and usually Gavaskar won hands down. He was compared to many of his contemporaries - Inzamam-ul Haq, Brian Lara, Graeme Hick, and Sanjay Manjrekar and in later years, Mark Waugh, Michael Bevan, Ricky Ponting, Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. At times he was judged inferior to some of them. He himself never got involved in any of these silly contests, of course. He always did his job and let his bat do the talking.
Year after year Tendulkar single-handedly bore the burden of a billion dreams. I watched India lose match after match as soon as a frustrated and impatient Sachin threw away his wicket. The critics never stopped talking - Tendulkar was no good. He wasn't a match winner. He never did well in second innings of test matches. He never performed well in county cricket. He didn't have the temperament of Lara, the killer instinct of Jayasurya, the leadership qualities of Steve Waugh. Sachin was never perturbed by these comparisons. The best bowlers in the world thought they had discovered his weaknesses, and were suitably punished for the audacity of thinking so. Nobody knows this better than the Australian bowlers of the Sharjah Series of 1998: some of their careers were prematurely ended by this little man. Then Shane Warne confessed having nightmares of Sachin and Don Bradman told his wife that this guy reminds him of his younger years, and suddenly the world started taking note.
Still, that was 12 years ago. Tendulkar was 24 then. If someone had said Tendulkar would still be the best batsman in the world some 12 years later, even his greatest fans would probably have laughed in his face.
In the past decade as the "new kid" became one of the oldest members of the team, he attained many milestones. Highest run scorer in ODIs, highest run scorer in tests, maximum number of centuries in both forms of the game. He dragged the Indian team to the World Cup finals in 2003 - a feat which won him the man of the series award, but could not remove the stamp of non-match-winner. What good was he, if he could not win the world cup for India? Why didn't he have a triple century in tests? Why no double centuries in ODIs? The expectations seemed to be rising. Many people wanted him to retire. He had back problems, hand problems, he was out of form, and if Ganguly and Dravid could be forced to quit, why not him?
I, in the meantime, had stopped following cricket. The primary reason was, of course, that I had joined my job and moved to Hyderabad and I had not bought a TV because I did not have the time to watch it. Also, the dirty politics of Greg Chappel, the humiliating expulsion Saurav Ganguly and India's dismal performance in subsequent matches, including the 2007 World Cup did not help. The explosion in the number of matches and the coming of T-20 was the last nail - I lost all interest in cricket after that.
During the last one and a half years in the US, I have only followed cricket through online news reports. Although I wasn't very regular in updating myself on the latest developments, one thing was becoming clear: there was nobody else like Sachin. Neither in India, and nor in any other team. There had been nobody like Sachin in many, many years and there would probably be nobody like him afterwards. He was in a league of his own - all those contemporary players who had been compared with him and occasionally been deemed superior had long retired. Tendulkar, on the other hand, was not only playing better than anyone else in the world, but he was playing better than he himself ever did before. His fitness level was better than many of the younger players, and opposition bowlers still spent hours watching his batting videos to find his weaknesses, only to discover their own on the field. Modifying a statement that Rahul Dravid used for Saurav Ganguly, it could be said, "First there is God, and then there is Sachin Tendulkar." The word “God” here obviously refers to a certain Australian with a batting average of 99.94.
So, yesterday's double century doesn't prove anything new about the Master Blaster. He didn't need to score the first 200 in an ODI innings to prove that he is the best ODI batsman ever. He did not need it to prove that he had better temperament than Lara, more killer instinct than Saeed Anwar. He did not need the record of 25 fours in an innings to prove that he is a better batsman than Inzamam or Jayasurya. This 200 will not silence the critics either. They will still ask for the 2011 world Cup, a 300 in tests, or perhaps a 400. This celebrated innings hardly changes anything for Sachin.
Only, after almost five long years, I am starting to feel that I am missing something by not watching cricket. Many years from now, if I wish to hold a younger generation audience in awe telling them that I was ancient enough to have actually seen Sachin Tendulkar bat, I would be unable to narrate a lot of stories about how history was rewritten during the best years of his career.