At the start of Indiaís tour of Pakistan in 1989-90, a short, shy 16-year-old was the cynosure of all eyes. The seniors in the Indian team ó Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri and Krishnamachari Srikkanth ó were full of praise for Indiaís youngest debutant, and naturally we were curious to know if Sachin Tendulkar was worthy of the hype.
It was during the second Test in Faisalabad that the world first realised that there was something special about the cherubic youngster. It was a lush green wicket, possibly the greenest Iíve seen in Pakistan, and Tendulkar was batting on 20-odd when a ball from me hit him. I immediately asked him if he was alright and he looked me in the eye and nodded. I was a 21-year-old then, so I did not give the matter much thought, but in retrospect, that score of 50-odd was the first hint the world got about Tendulkarís special talent.
A similar incident took place in the fourth Test in Sialkot when Waqar Younis hit Sachin and gave him a bloody face. Sachin, of course, took some treatment and then continued batting.
More of that spark was visible in an exhibition game during which he hit Abdul Qadir for four-five sixes. Even though it was not an official one-dayer, it was being played in all seriousness. Moreover, Qadir was at his peak those days, and was treated with respect by top batsmen the world over. Everyone who saw that match realised Tendulkar would dominate the best bowlers in the world in time to come, and that he loved the challenge of playing and destroying quality bowling.
India and Pakistan have rarely played each other after that, and it is one of my lasting regrets I didnít get to bowl against Tendulkar in Tests when I was at my peak in the early 90s. Of course, we have seen a lot of each other in one-dayers and bowling to him has always been a challenge I look forward to.
Even when we are not playing India, I always follow the scorecards to see how Tendulkar is faring. He is one batsman I really like watching on television. Even if they are showing a repeat of an old match, I always watch the game as long as Tendulkar is around. Of late, I have been watching Virender Sehwag too, which is saying a lot for these two guys since I donít normally watch cricket.
As I mentioned earlier, itís really unfortunate that neither Waqar nor I could bowl to Tendulkar when we were at our fastest. In fact, when I watch him on TV, Iím always plotting ways to get him out.
I cherish all the occasions on which I have dismissed the little maestro. My favourite memory is dismissing him in Sharjah two years ago. He had just hit me over my head for a boundary and I followed it up with a slower one. He had expected a bouncer, normally a fast bowlerís reply at being hit over the head, and the slower one fooled him completely and bowled him. When you castle a batsman of Tendulkarís class, you tend to savour the memory.
Other Indian batsmen are often accused of relying too much on Sachin Tendulkar, but I can understand that happening. When you have a player of his class and calibre, you are bound to expect a 100 from him every time. There has been the odd benefit game in which Tendulkar and I have been in the same team. Each time I would rely on him to win the match. If I felt that way during a benefit game, imagine what the expectations are when itís the real thing.
Itís the way Tendulkar carries these expectations so lightly that makes him more special. Iím not too much into statistics, but one thing that has really impressed me about Tendulkar is the fact that his average has never been constant in either form of the game ó it only gets better and better. Itís 55-plus in Tests and improving all the time. Can you blame any team for having that extra bit of expectation from a player who boasts of such credentials'
Nine years elapsed after his debut before I saw Tendulkar in Tests again. That century in Chennai was an exhibition of batting of the highest order and many of my teammates feel that is the best Test innings they have ever seen.
During that series, I watched him handling the adulation and extra pressure that comes with being the countryís biggest hero. I think the fact he is a shy guy helps him keep his balance. I also hear that his wife is a wonderful person who understands the pressure on him and helps Tendulkar cope with it.
Itís not easy being a superstar in this part of the world, and there are always those who try to pull you off the pedestal. I find articles and debates over Tendulkarís abilities really silly, coming as they generally do from people who have not played cricket at the highest level. They obviously donít know much about the game or are out to settle personal scores. One bad game or even an indifferent series does not mean that a player suddenly transforms from great to good-for-nothing.
If Tendulkar follows the pattern of other great batsmen, his best is yet to come. Most batsmen peak between 28 and 33, and Tendulkar is at the beginning of this phase. Bowlers all over the world cannot breathe easy just yet.
One of the saddest aspects about the breakdown in cricket between India and Pakistan is that Pakistan fans have been deprived of one of the best sights in cricket ó Tendulkarís batting. Iím sure Tendulkar too would like another chance of playing and scoring a century in the country where he made his debut.
Which brings us to the question of how many centuries will Tendulkar end up with. If I have to make a prediction, I will say he will end up with 50 tons in each form of the game. Anything less would disappoint Tendulkarís fans and more importantly, the great little man himself.