So much has been said and written about Sachin Tendulkar over the last quarter of a century, about his contributions to Indian and world cricket, about what a great ambassador of the game he has been, and about his longevity. I feel whatever praise and adulation have come Sachin's way are extremely well deserved, because there simply isn't, and will never be, another cricketer like him.
Sachin was the 187th Indian to play Test cricket. The last debutant for India was R. Vinay Kumar, no. 274. Nearly 60 per cent of the 87 players who made their Test debut for India after Sachin have already retired from the game. That, to me, is the perfect illustration of the desire, hunger and commitment that have driven Sachin to turn out match after match, and perform more often than he has failed.
He broke into the Indian team when he was only 16, and for 23 years, he has carried not only the team on his shoulders but also the expectations of a billion people. He has done that in style and without fuss, taking all challenges in his stride and never shying away from a contest.
I made my debut two series after Sachin, and for a long time in our careers, we had similar challenges. The general consensus even in his early days was that Sachin would go on to become not just the best Indian batsman ever, but also the best batsman in the world, the scorer of the most runs and hundreds in Tests and One-Day Internationals, the holder of all records imaginable. That was the challenge of expectations he had to face as a teenager, and he has proved everyone right.
I was branded someone who wasn't ideal for Test cricket, who could at best be a restrictive One-Day bowler. My challenge, therefore, was to prove people wrong, and I was fortunate enough to do that in my own way. I have been retired for four years now, but Sachin is still going on, and for the first time in his career, he is faced with a similar challenge to mine—that of proving everyone wrong. And I am confident he will succeed just like he has done over so many years.
For the first time, people are questioning his place in the team. The expectations are that he should retire because his performances over the last year or so haven't matched the standards he has set over the previous 22 years. Yes, we have not seen the best of Sachin in this phase, but it is not just him alone. If you look at the overall picture, the team has struggled in Test cricket. So are we suggesting that India is still a one-man army, still totally dependent on Sachin? I think not. It used to be so for a long time, make no mistake. But once people like Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman and Virender Sehwag came in, the pressure on Sachin the individual was shared. That was one of the major reasons for the success of the Indian team because the other batsmen rallied around him. But even though the Indian batting is no longer just about Sachin, I can state with certainty that every opposition discusses him at length, and he continues to be a massive wicket. Teams know that he can come good any time and they know what damage he can do once he gets going. So oppositions treat Sachin with the same regard today as they did one year back.
Sachin's contribution extends beyond the field of play. It's about what he has been to Indian cricket, to world cricket, and about how many people he has inspired with his deeds and his conduct. He certainly is not young anymore and has been through a whole lot of injuries, but every time, he has come up trumps. He has managed his body, the pressure and the expectations of a nation with a finesse that is all too rare, and he has done that for the past 23 years—that's why he is so revered and admired. I am sure he and we would like to see that Sachin now.
But he is like any other player in that from time to time, everyone goes through a tough phase. This is the time when you need to give him space for him to think about what he needs to rectify rather than put all kinds of negative thoughts in his mind. People are asking if it is time for him to go. That's a question people ask in India when you cross 30; the only difference is that in Sachin's case, it has come at 39. But just four innings back, before the start of the England series, he made a hundred for Mumbai against Railways in the Ranji Trophy.
I know you can't compare a first-class attack with the English attack, but that century showed that he still has the hunger, the drive and the focus. I am sure when he was batting for Mumbai, the thought of people pressuring him to retire was not there. But possibly when he walks into the Test arena, this is what he has to encounter. This is the time for him to be left alone. He is such a great player that he doesn't need anyone else's advice on how to score runs. He just needs people to back off and allow him to work out what he needs to return to run-scoring ways, which I am confident he will.
The performances and the mindset of the Indian team are not helping Sachin, either. India won just three Tests last year, all at home, which probably has magnified his failures. But he is not your regular no. 4 batsman. He has been synonymous with the Indian team, with cricket, and people have taken up cricket because of him. When you have all these attributes, you can't dismiss him and his contributions on the back of a couple of poor performances. It might be easy to sit at home and say emotion should be set aside and decisions should be made only on the back of cold logic, but given the emotions that have accompanied Sachin's journey, that is unrealistic.
At 39, it's more of a mental battle for a batsman while it is always a physical grind for a bowler. Physical fitness is paramount, of course, but the mind needs to be fresh and it doesn't help when the mind is bogged down by negative thoughts implanted by extraneous forces. The only issue with age is that no matter how fit you are, the recovery gets tougher and takes longer. But knowing Sachin for this long, I can say that he is exceptionally mentally tough and still does every physical routine to prepare himself for every Test. He has followed a fantastic work ethic. In all my years of playing and watching the game, I haven't seen anyone else adapt to conditions better or faster than Sachin.
For 23 years, he has helped people dream, he has made them feel better emotionally. There have been instances when he has been the sole reason for India's wins, but he has never been the sole reason for India's losses. It's best to leave it to him to deal with what is in front of him now, because no one else has been in his position. No one else has played 192 Tests, made 34,000 international runs, or scored 100 international centuries. Let's not jump the gun, let's give the man the respect he deserves.