The past few months have been difficult for Sachin Tendulkar, and not in a way that he or we are used to. All his cricketing life, Sachin has been under the scanner. He has had to shoulder the nation's expectations every time he goes out to bat. And more often than not, he has lived up to those expectations.
I have seen from close quarters the physical pain he has had to endure, the sacrifices he has had to make. Now, the least we can do is to show empathy and cheer him on, rather than pulling down one of our greatest heroes.
I clearly recall my first meeting with Sachin—it feels like it was only yesterday that I first saw him ‘live'—during a 1995 Wills Trophy game in Rajkot. He initially struggled with the lack of pace in our Hyderabad bowling, but by the 12th over, he had reached his century! Some of his strokes defied definition. It was clear that he was God-gifted.
I was playing junior cricket when Sachin made his international debut in 1989. Like to many kids of my generation, Sachin was a major inspiration. After the Rajkot game, when I introduced myself to Sachin, he asked about my Under-19 experiences against England and Australia, and discussed my Ranji performances. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement.
I made my Test debut under Sachin. He welcomed me with open arms. That has always been one of his strengths—he is invariably the first person in a team to approach a rookie, have a conversation and put someone in awe of him in a relaxed frame of mind. He never hesitates to take the first step.
Early in 1997, on my first overseas tour, I sustained an injury in the final Test in Johannesburg. A Lance Klusener delivery left me with a fractured hand and ended my tour (I had been picked for the tri-series to follow as well). I sat in the dressing-room and cried my heart out.
All my teammates tried to cheer me up, but Sachin did not, until the rest left. He told me it was a great sign that a beginner was crying over missing a tough tour, playing the South African quickies. He said I had a bright future. Those words remain engraved in my psyche.
Over time, we developed a strong bond. We discussed cricket and life, in general. It was amazing to hear stories on the way his parents brought him up. When I see the way he handles the adulation, nonstop scrutiny and massive expectations, it just reiterates the kind of upbringing he has had.
Sachin is a perfect team man. He is always the first to contribute in team meetings. On the field, he is full of ideas and isn't shy of going up to the captain with them. Whether in the middle or in the dressing-room, his mere presence gives the team a lot of confidence and the sense that all is well.
To get 100 international hundreds is an exceptional feat, and it shows how much he has done for the country. Having shared the dressing-room with him for so long, I can vouch for the number of times he soldiered on despite a multitude of injuries.
The century against Pakistan in the 1999 Chennai Test is the one that springs to mind. He could hardly bend, so bad was his back. But he battled on in the heat of Chennai to almost win the game single-handedly (we eventually lost by 12 runs).
The current clamour for his retirement has been very, very disappointing. If we are feeling let down as he is not scoring, imagine how he must be feeling. He has bailed out Indian cricket from rock bottoms. He has entertained and enthralled us for long. And he has done it with dignity and grace.
In his time of distress, we owe it to the Little Master. We must stand by him.