The words that I remember the most from my first major interview with Sachin Tendulkar three years ago, when we had talked about subjects as diverse as sleepwalking in search of bats and his love for cars are: "I'm still obsessed". This was, after all, the same individual who used to arrive at Shivaji Park at dawn and ask if the malis could be instructed to erect nets right away, failing which he could do it himself.
The next time we had a chat, a year later, he spoke of the prodigy's burden - "I could say that I didn't get to do all those things that a normal teenager would do, but then again, not many people get the opportunity to do what I do" - and of the satisfaction gained from an epic innings of 241 in Steve Waugh's farewell Test at the SCG.
Two seasons on, the man I meet is at a crossroads, with injury and inconsistency having dogged his every step. Some fair-weather fans, such as those that booed him at the Wankhede Stadium in March, have even gone to the extent of questioning his place in the side - almost blasphemous given the status he has enjoyed since those first tussles against Wasim and Waqar a week after the Berlin Wall came down.
There are those who suggest that maturity, fatherhood and the receding sands of time have taken the edge away, reduced the extent of the man's fixation with his craft. It's not something that he agrees with. In his hotel room in Chennai, his elbows resting on a writing table, hair still damp from the shower, he says: "Kids and family are something different. When I cross the boundary line, it's not cricket, it's family. And when I think about cricket, it's only cricket. Once you learn to manage your time, it helps. When I'm focusing on cricket, I don't want anyone around. I just want time for myself to know more about the game. When I play with Sara and Arjun, I don't think of someone bowling at me."
Outside the quiet room three plainclothes policemen sit guard, one of them armed with an ugly machine-gun, the likes of which I had last seen in the gun-markets of Peshawar. It's still stiflingly hot, but the soaring mercury is the least of Tendulkar's concerns as he endeavours to prove his fitness ahead of the Test series in the Caribbean. Having flown in from Mumbai in the morning, he has already had a session in the small gym on the MRF Pace Foundation premises - a gentle warm-up supervised by one of the trainers there, Ramji Srinivasan, and captured for public consumption by a variety of lenses and microphones. When he emerged, dressed in an electric blue T-shirt, rivulets of sweat running down his face, the expression was impassive, as inscrutable as one of those moulded masks you find at carnivals.
His composure and sense of perspective - perhaps inherited from his father, a noted Marathi writer - have kept Tendulkar going, even while others like his old school chum Vinod Kambli lost their way. For nearly a decade, Tendulkar was a byword for consistency, a relentless accumulator of runs who could also pillage an attack when in the mood. The last two seasons, though, have seen gremlins creep into the machine. A tennis elbow problem and a shoulder tear haven't helped - "It's not like a fracture where you know it'll heal in four weeks," he says - and doubt, the performer's greatest enemy, has crept in. "It's not easy to forget the injuries," he says. "There are times when you spend some time in the middle and the body complains. That's when you need to hold back a bit and take it easy for a couple of practice sessions."
Despite his best efforts, all the training wasn't enough to convince the physicians, or himself, that he was ready for Caribbean challenges. Such disappointments have recently become commonplace, and Tendulkar is the first to admit so: "Your thought process changes. When you have a fit body, you think differently, but when you're not 100 per cent fit, or you've just overcome an injury, then your mind works differently. Thinking is everything in this game. It's hard to express what it's like, but there have been sleepless nights, there have been days full of frustration where you just want to get back in action but the body doesn't cooperate even if your mind is ready to go out there and do it. You have to be sharp enough to pick up those signals."
Along with the frustration, there is also a sense of equanimity, a resigned acceptance. Tendulkar calls it the greatest test of his character, and one that he has no intention of failing. "If you're unlucky, you'll get injured, even if you're the fittest guy in the world," he says. "What I don't want to lose is the desire to get back in action and the hunger to go out there and perform."
That hunger has been an ever-present. There is an anecdote from his boyhood, of travelling all night for a game, reaching the destination at 3am, and an hour's sleep. Well before dawn, the coach was woken up and asked whether they could proceed to the ground because little Sachin wasn't happy with his game. All these years later, that meticulous streak is still there, purple patch or lean trot. "Your technique cannot go wrong overnight," he tells you. "It's just the thought process.
"When you're constantly attacked by injuries, it's not easy to start thinking like a 24-year-old with a fit body. It's got a lot to do with rhythm as well. Sometimes, when you get it going your way, you forget about the injuries and think differently. Once you cross that hurdle, there's no looking back. I had a very bad back injury in 1999, just before the World Cup. For a certain period, it held me back. But after that..." His voice trails off, and the eyes wander, perhaps visualising another return from bleak midwinter along the lines of Sydney 2004.
On the matter of thinking, he has the right man by his side. "Greg Chappell was a top cricketer, one of the best to have played this game," he says, when asked whether the coach has helped him through the lean times. "He understands the game very well. It's important to have someone around who's played a lot of cricket at the highest level. Technically, to a certain extent, one can progress, but mentally you can get better each time you go out into the middle. That's where Greg chips in. It's the thinking of someone who's played and seen this game for over 40 years now. He understands the highs and the lows and he himself has experienced it."
The hard times have given the critics enough ammunition, and the most persistent criticism has focused on Tendulkar's circumspect approach to certain situations, especially in Test cricket. Apart from a superb half-century which inspired an Indian win against Australia at Mumbai in October 2004, his recent Test innings have been diffident affairs, with sporadic explosions of strokeplay the only reminder of a batsman who imposed his will on bowlers for the best part of a decade. Tendulkar smiles when asked how the ravages of time have changed both the man and his game. "I've never understood that aspect of the criticism," he says quietly.
"Change is part of our lives, and as you get older, you try to reach your destination in safer ways.
"Let me give you a small example. Earlier when I used to hit the ball in the air and get out, people used to say, 'Why can't you play all along the ground? It's simple. You don't need to hit the ball in the air.' Now, when I play all along the ground, people say: 'Why don't you hit the ball in the air nowadays?' Basically, people are not satisfied with what one does. You've got to figure out what's the best thing to do for your team and as an individual - try and go ahead with what your instincts tell you."
The 35th century at the Feroz Shah Kotla seems a hazy image from a distant past, and with Ricky Ponting seemingly scoring hundreds for fun, any records that Tendulkar establishes may prove to be ephemeral ones anyway. Yet when you mention that to him, he doesn't come back with a flippant line about how records don't matter - everyone says it, few mean it. "People do remember landmarks," says Tendulkar earnestly. "You want to be remembered 50 years down the line, like people remember Don Bradman and Garry Sobers now. The word 'landmark' itself sort of compels people to remember you."
As we look back at the highlights reels and the fading snapshots, we still marvel at some of the things he did as a teenager. Many of us can recall waking up before the roosters to watch the telecasts from Australia - early dawns where we witnessed a superb century at Sydney, full of cheeky strokes that screamed irrepressible youth, and an even better one, courageous and defiant, at Perth. When asked about them, Peter Roebuck, who watched both, said: "Between them, those two innings expressed Tendulkar. The rest has been a struggle as genius wrestled with adulthood."
Perth - was it even possible for a 33-year-old with a patched-up body to play an innings of such resplendence? Tendulkar's answer is revealing. "See the innings I played against Pakistan at the  World Cup, and also Lahore [third one-day international, last February]. At Lahore, the first few overs, when the ball was doing a lot, I had to occasionally hold myself back - wait for an opportunity, or sometimes create chances. You're obviously working on the bowler's mind when you counter-attack. I have played a few innings like that. Even in 1991-92, I wasn't playing each and every innings like that. But as time goes by, expectations grow. Sometimes, they're unrealistic."
He insists, though, that public perception doesn't bother him. "Eventually, people don't score runs for me; I do that," he says pithily. "Basically, I have to feel good about myself and find a way out. People have been good to me by calling me up and suggesting a couple of things. But you have to figure out what suits you best and go ahead with that. I've had the help of a lot of senior cricketers, and my brother at home.
"I remember I was asked a question in Sydney after I got the double-hundred. 'Were you reading the newspapers because the media was after you?' And I said I never read any. 'What about tomorrow?' they asked. I said that I don't need a newspaper to make me believe that I've got a double-hundred. Whether there are highs or lows, I try to maintain a certain balance."
Sidelined by injury, Tendulkar missed the start of the Chappell era and all the palace intrigues - "I wasn't there for the first two tours, so it would be hard to tell you what happened" - that resulted in Sourav Ganguly being left by the wayside. And while he waxes eloquent about the revival, especially in the one-day game, he avers that good planning and preparation need to go hand in hand with good fortune. "We started experimenting, and it clicked," he says. "Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.
"I remember when I was the captain in Sharjah against Pakistan. I sent Robin Singh at No. 4. He got out first ball and I was criticised for that. 'What was the need to send Robin Singh? You could have come'. About a month later, when Azhar was captain, we did the same thing in Dhaka in the [Independence Cup] final against Pakistan. Robin Singh scored runs. Sometimes, when you try certain things, you've got to be lucky."
Ask him about the brilliant current crop of youngsters, and he looks at the broader canvas. He talks of the seniors - bonafide legends like Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble - and also those like Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and Ajit Agarkar, who have been around for more than half a decade, before coming to the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina. "It's a good blend. It has worked wonderfully and the balance is just about right.
"The newer crop is talented, and they're match-winners. Even the bowlers - Munaf [Patel] has done well; Sreesanth has been quite consistent; and Irfan's been around now for three years. He's been delivering quite consistently with both bat and ball. When the batting hasn't been up to expectations, the bowlers have made it a point to bowl some wonderful spells, and vice versa. We've got players who are fit and raring to go, with brilliant attitudes. With Chappell around, it's a perfect combination."
But what of those like the 19-year-old Raina, who are riding a wave of adrenaline and adulation after an unforgettable first season at the top? What advice would he give him when the sun is obscured by clouds? "He doesn't need to worry about bad times," says Tendulkar emphatically. "When you start thinking about bad times, they come sooner than expected."
The worst of times, and the best, are often inseparable. It was certainly that way at the Wanderers one March evening three years ago. Tendulkar finished as Man of the Tournament, but a top-edged swing at Glenn McGrath ended his hopes of World Cup glory, just as a batting collapse and the crowd's bonfires had consumed the dream seven years earlier. Walking back to the pavilion was one of the most wretched experiences of his life, a trek that he hopes he will never have to repeat. "In retrospect, you feel that we could have done things differently," he says. "But at that moment, you go out there to do what you feel is the right thing to do then. "I don't want to put too much pressure on myself thinking about the next World Cup. It would be a dream come true if we can pull it off, but there are plenty of steps on the ladder and we can't get carried away by emotion."
As a younger man, he often did get carried away. There are stories of him being sent to third man, of a chatterbox with a head full of ideas. The urge to get involved can still be seen when he fields at mid-on or mid-off, with frequent jogs to the bowler and a word or two in the ear. Several, like Sreesanth and Agarkar, have spoken of how valuable his inputs have been, and he smiles as he explains how he stays switched on in the field. "I won't be telling them to correct their action or anything - that's not the place to do those things. But I share whatever I see from mid-on, what the batsmen are trying to do. I walk up and tell them that I get the feeling that this batsman is setting himself up to play everything on the off side or off the back foot - so, try and work on him accordingly.
"Eventually, it's Ajit who has to think whether that's the right thing to do or not. It's equally important to let the whole team know about what we're trying. They should have an idea of the plans and what we're trying to achieve. And obviously, the captain makes the calls."
Those that know Tendulkar well, and I'm not one of them, speak of a warm individual who cherishes his friendships and associations. Gautam Bhimani, the ESPN anchor, who was once invited over to Tendulkar's house on his birthday, had this to tell me: "It never felt as if I was interviewing India's biggest sporting icon and superstar. It was more like being invited home by a loving father who was excited about the fact that his kids had made special cards and woken him up in the morning to wish him. Sara [his daughter] had even drawn the whole family on the card.
"The defining moment of the day was when the cake was being cut. First, the sight of cake being smeared on his face by the kids and then his inability to blow the candles out - because they were the kind that re-light! It was refreshing to be reminded that when the doting millions allow him, he relishes being just a normal guy in his 10th-floor apartment, enjoying his birthday with his wife, mother and kids - and one intrusive reporter, a producer and a cameraman."
The more you talk to Tendulkar, the more an idea begins to take shape of how he views this third incarnation of himself - the one after the precocious adolescent, and the peerless strokemaker who scored runs against all attacks and in all conditions for years. Long before Chappell spoke of him as the perfect mentor, Tendulkar had eased into the role of elder statesman. The glory days have become more and more infrequent as time goes by, but instead of giving in to creeping insecurity, he has embraced the spirit of the changing times and become one of the boys. Many of his contemporaries, including Jack Fingleton, alluded to Bradman as being aloof and self-obsessed. Few will ever level such an accusation against Tendulkar.
Whenever we've chatted, he has been earnest, engaging and precise with his words. On tour, I've also seen the lighter side of someone on whom role-model status was foisted even before he had left the rebellious teenage years behind. In Colombo two years ago, I was sitting at a deli on Galle Road, when Tendulkar walked in with Yuvraj, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan. He ordered a chocolate éclair, and as they sat down at the next table, he nodded in my direction and said to the others: "He won't tell the trainer."
The quiet sense of humour is buttressed by increased self-awareness and poise these days - a far cry from the stilted commercials and shy media conferences of the early years. At a press conference an hour after our chat, he had everyone in splits with an impromptu yarn about his first visit to Chennai as a 13-year-old. "I left my home to become a fast bowler, and came to MRF for a trial. Fortunately, my brother had asked me to carry my pads just in case. That was a wise decision."
John Lennon's "Imagine" played in the background as Tendulkar took his seat on the dais; the dreamer in him is certainly in no hurry to walk away, golden sunset or otherwise. "It's not about achievement," he says, when you ask him why the well of motivation hasn't run dry. "So long as I love playing the game, so long as I enjoy the sound of bat hitting ball, I'm going to do it. I don't have to force myself - it just happens."
A few months ago, he took several of his team-mates to visit Sai Baba, and shortly before the team left for the West Indies in May, he spent two days at Kukke Subramanya on the Canara coast to perform some rituals. But when asked about his faith, he becomes reticent, shielding one of the few private facets of a life lived in the public eye. "To a certain extent, you can rely on faith," he says. "I have no complaints. Whatever has happened has happened, and by complaining things don't change. I have thought about things that will make me a better person in future, and tried to learn from the mistakes I've made."
There haven't been many of those, and despite the game having been such an integral part of his life, you sense that Tendulkar will cope with life away from cricket better than most - that he won't pontificate and splutter like an Ian Botham or a Fred Trueman, or denigrate his successors in the manner of Neil Harvey and Bishan Bedi. He will have a vast, Beatlesque catalogue of achievement to look back on, and more than his fair share of regret - the capitulation at Bridgetown in 1997 and the century in a lost cause at Chennai in 1999 will, in his own words, haunt him for a long time. But over and above all that is likely to be satisfaction at a job well done, a warm glow when he summons up memories of a career that has held this land of a million mutinies in thrall for nearly two decades.
Dileep Premachandran is a former associate editor of ESPNcricinfo. This article first appeared in the June 2006 issue of Cricinfo Magazine.