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Toreador of the Test match

Sachin Tendulkar, India’s “Little Master”, carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders each time

After his last tour to England, Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest batsman of the modern game, bought himself a house near Lord's cricket ground in London. Ever since he purchased that property, one date has no doubt been etched on his mind: 21 July 2011. That is when the "greatest ever Test match" (as it is already known on the subcontinent) will begin.

It will be the 100th meeting between England and India. It will be the 2,000th Test in the history of the game. And it will be the occasion, if the fates and the prayers of half a billion cricket fans are doing their job, on which Tendulkar, the Little Master, becomes the first man to score 100 centuries in international cricket.

Tendulkar, who has broken more records than he might care to remember, claims not to obsess over such statistics. But you can be certain he has dwelt on this one. He rested himself for India's tour of the West Indies this spring, stuck on 99 centuries - 51 in Test matches, 48 in one-day internationals - ostensibly because he was exhausted. An equally plausible explanation is that he wanted to give himself the opportunity of reaching his historic milestone at the headquarters of cricket on a day when all the world will be watching. An honorary life member of the MCC, Tendulkar has always said of his batting that "the match starts much, much earlier than the actual match". Preparation and readiness are everything.

While most of his opponents and team-mates have been engaged in the non-stop global grind of modern cricket, Tendulkar has been in St John's Wood with his family for the past month, getting his head ready for what may be the most auspicious match of his 22-year career. He has been seen frequently at Lord's in those weeks, coaching his 11-year-old son, Arjun, in the nets. The man himself has not been seen to pick up a bat.
Tendulkar's secret has always lain in his ability to treat each ball as a discrete event. Walking out to bat, for him, seems to carry the connotations of a spiritual journey: out in the middle, he is always perfectly centred. He learned this quality early in his childhood. Tendulkar was the third son of a Marathi poet and academic; he grew up in a literary community in Mumbai. He was never a bookish child, however; he reserved his lyricism for his batting. His early years make a powerful argument in favour of Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling thesis that genius is born through 10,000 hours of practice in a given discipline at an early age. Tendulkar made himself an "outlier", in Gladwell's terms - a statistical anomaly - by devoting every possible minute of his childhood to the pursuit of batting perfection.

By the time he was 12, Tendulkar was attached to a dozen different teams in his local area. Every Sunday he played in several matches in Shivaji Park, Mumbai. When caught in the deep in one game, he would scoot off to a neighbouring match and get ready to take guard there. Contemporaries suggest that he would practise for 11 hours a day: a net from seven to nine in the morning, then maybe a match from 9.30am to 4.30pm, and back to work on his technique from 5.30pm to 7.30pm.

When Tendulkar was a schoolboy, his coach devised a way of motivating him that would have appealed to Geoffrey Boycott. He would place a rupee on top of the stumps and promise the team: "Anyone who gets him out will take this coin. If no one gets him out, Sachin is going to take it." Tendulkar reportedly still has all the coins he claimed.

“I lost a couple of times," he has recalled, "but I still have 13 coins that I won."

The great Indian batsman of his childhood, the equally diminutive Sunil Gavaskar, concentrated on technique and application, and was a master of defence and studied attack. Tendul­kar matched all of that technique but added to it a sense of overwhelming instinctive aggression. His hero as a young boy was John McEnroe; he watched those mesmerising Wimbledon finals against Björn Borg with a sense of wonder. He subsequently affected a headband and a scowl in imitation.

Tendulkar's fascination with the rival summer sport has persisted. He was a guest in the royal box at the All England Club this year. Seated behind him was Martina Navratilova, who, no stranger to dedication, once spoke in awed terms of the cricketer after watching him play in a Test match in Sydney: "Sachin was so focused. He never looked like getting out. He was batting with single-minded devotion. It was truly remarkable." At Wimbledon, Tendulkar spent an hour on the players' balcony swapping stories with Roger Federer, one of the few men on earth who might be considered his match for hand-eye genius.

If he started out like McEnroe, intent on transforming the way his sport was played, Tendulkar has become much more Federer-like as his career has developed, maintaining his number-one status for two decades, impossible to perturb. Within a team sport, he retains the ability to take on anyone on his own terms. His greatest Tests came against the all-conquering Australian teams of the Steve Waugh era in the 1990s. He almost single-handedly dismantled that Australian side in the 1998 series. Shane Warne, who confessed to seeing Tendulkar in his dreams, once described the pecking order of modern batsmen in the following terms: "Sachin Tendulkar is, in my time, the best player without doubt - daylight second, Brian Lara third."

Cricket history has an epic flavour, and in most Test match Mahabharatas Tendulkar sits at the right hand of the Australian Don Bradman, the only player who could challenge his statistical dominance. The first time he saw Tendulkar play on television, Bradman called his wife in from the kitchen to watch: the Indian was the closest thing to himself that he had ever seen, he said. At Bradman's 90th birthday, a split video screen played images of the pair in all their brilliance. Tendulkar, a guest of honour, seemed to shadow the older batsman's every stroke.

Like Bradman, Tendulkar has an almost preternatural clarity of mind under pressure. Hemingway would have relished that toreador tranquillity. If you were making the argument in Tendulkar's favour, you might point to one thing: to achieve that concentration, to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, has lately become an even more singular battle. Tendulkar came of age with the advent of satellite transmission of cricket; he remains the brightest star in Rupert Murdoch's cricket-led colonisation of Asian broadcasting. It was once estimated that he featured in one in four television adverts on the subcontinent.

At 38, he remains the poster boy of the Indian Premier League and is unable to leave his home in Mumbai except in heavy disguise. He channels more than the excitement of his nation, though; at the height of his powers he could seem a kind of saviour. Once, in a birthday tribute, the Times of India observed: "Every time he walks in to bat he carries . . . a billion people who look to him as the sole provider of hope in a nation surrounded by gloom, despair and corruption."

Or, as the cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle noted: "If Sachin plays well, India sleeps well." Most Indians will no doubt be wide awake when Tendulkar walks out to bat at Lord's. Money will be riding on him to get not only his century in the match, but also - whisper it - the 308 runs he needs to reach 15,000 in his Test career.

The noise around him - of expectation and possibility - may be the loudest it has ever been. Yet Tendulkar will be calm. And he will be ready. l

Tim Adams is the author of "On Being John McEnroe" (Yellow Jersey Press, £6.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, New Issue