The human superstar
At first glance, the setting wasn't befitting of the occasion. It was an invitation-only media session with Sachin Tendulkar on the eve of his completing 20 years in international cricket. The Taj Land's End hotel was the perfect venue because it was only a few minutes' drive from his home in suburban Mumbai. But the room was small, tucked away in a corner of the second floor; dimly lit; and had such a narrow entrance that the television cameramen struggled to get their equipment through.
Of course only a few had been invited. Inevitably, though, word got around and inevitably everyone piled in. Could it really have been any other way? So there were nearly as many television cameras as Tendulkar's Test hundreds; the chairs were taken up quickly so many of the journalists squatted on the floor, almost engulfing Tendulkar in a semi-circle. Coverage of the event was embargoed till November 15, the actual day of Tendulkar's landmark, but word came soon that a couple of television channels were broadcasting it live. It felt shambolic.
Even so, the organisers couldn't have made it more charming had they tried. There was no flash or ostentation, no grand stage and no barriers; Tendulkar was in such proximity that some of us could have extended our arms and touched him. It felt intimate and cosy and the most colossal of superstars felt endearingly human. It was apt too, because he has been the most human of superstars. I use word human here to describe simplicity and humility, not frailties and misdemeanours associated with fame and glory.
Throughout his life Sachin Tendulkar has worn his celebrity lightly. He could have hardly been unaware of it yet somehow he has managed to stay impervious to it. Perhaps it's just been easy: that's the way he has grown up. When asked if has found the mantle of greatness tedious or the scrutiny by the media suffocating, he has an uncomplicated answer. "This is the way I've known my life from the age of 14. I'm comfortable with it."
Not everything about Tendulkar has stayed the same. His game has changed, evolved rather. It has become more nuanced, more mature, subtler, more versatile and, to the occasional chagrin of his fans, more watchful. His voice has got more timbre in it and he speaks a lot more at press conferences. He is father to two children, and the 10-year-old Arjun tries to hit as many balls into the stratosphere as he can. In a newspaper interview published on the occasion, his wife Anjali was tickled by the idea, however improbable, that father and son could play together.
But there is a Tendulkar that hasn't grown up. Cricket for him is not a vocation, not a ticket to stardom and riches, and perhaps not even about the India cap he so cherishes. It is what defines him, what makes him, and he has no hesitation in admitting that he needs cricket as much as cricket needs him.
I asked him how he has managed to retain his enthusiasm for the rigours of practice after so many years. He didn't have to search for an answer. "Cricket lives in my heart," he said with striking simplicity. "Whenever I'm on a cricket field I enjoy it, and somewhere there's still a 16-year-old hidden inside who wants to go out and express himself."
It was meant to be a 90-minute session; it lasted close to five hours. Everyone wanted a slice of him and Tendulkar was in the mood to oblige. He switched effortlessly from English to Hindi to Marathi; dignified the most inane question with an answer; even took on a politically-loaded one that provided newspapers with a front-page headline (Mumbai belongs to India, he said when asked, indirectly, about the recent campaign by a party that has made Marathi chauvinism its central plank); but had the wit to not to be drawn into the Warne-Murali debate (Whom would you rather face if they were bowling together? "I'd rather be in the dressing room."); and didn't lose patience with the photographers who all wanted that final shot.
I left while he was getting ready for another one-on-one session. "Must be the most varied attack you have had to face in a day's play," I remarked, attempting lame humour. He flashed a wide smile. His face is beginning to show signs of age but the smile retains its boyishness. "Yes, a lot of variety," he said. He still looked alert and fresh. The cricketer in him would have approved.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo