'I never saw him get irritated'
We had already heard a lot about Sachin Tendulkar when we first saw him. He had come to Hyderabad to play a Ranji Trophy match for Mumbai, and I was practising with the Hyderabad Under-15 then. I had seen Sachin on Cricket with Mohinder Amarnath, a television show in which Amarnath would explain technique and interview players. Amarnath had interviewed Sachin at Shivaji Park.
In Hyderabad, Sachin scored 59 at the Ensconce Cricket Club, where I played. The club belonged to Arshad Ayub, the India offspinner, who would tell me how this 15-year-old kid was playing against world-class bowlers. He would give Sachin's example to motivate me. With every innings, Sachin was becoming more and more popular. He was an inspiration for all of us growing up in that era.
In 1994, I had a very good series against the Australia and England U-19 sides. Some months later I met Sachin for the first time when I was playing for Hyderabad and he was playing for Wills XI in the Wills Trophy. I was surprised when he congratulated me on my performances against the youth teams, surprised to know he had an eye on domestic cricket. It turned out that Sachin kept up with domestic cricket through his friend and Mumbai team-mate Amol Muzumdar.
Amol and I were colleagues. He used to talk a lot about Sachin. I spent one night at his house, and saw that behind his bedroom door was a big poster of Sachin. Amol used to really admire and adore him. You expect that from a fan or a younger cricketer, but this was a colleague and a contemporary. In time, I understood why he felt that way.
Sachin and I had many memorable partnerships, but one that is not mentioned a lot is our stand in Sharjah, when he single-handedly took us to the tri-series final. I came into bat at 138 for 4, and out of the 112 runs that were scored after my arrival, I made only 23. His 143 was one of the most dominating knocks I have seen by an Indian batsman. That was the day I saw someone actually in the zone. I was talking to him between overs, but I know he wasn't listening to me.
Another memorable partnership between us that I remember, apart from an obvious candidate like the Sydney 300-plus stand, would be the 91 we added in Mumbai in 2004-05, on probably the worst pitch I have ever played on.
Whenever we were in a tough situation, Sachin would say, "Just go out and enjoy and play your free game." In Mumbai - I had been promoted to No. 3 and we were trailing in the first innings - we decided we would do that, because you could be dismissed any moment. We just played our strokes, and suddenly everything fell into place. Suddenly we were getting boundaries on that pitch, and the pressure shifted to Australia.
However, more than in actual matches, it was at nets that I learnt a lot from watching Sachin trying to get ready for the challenge of facing a particular bowler or a particular team or a particular surface. It was unbelievable to see what he had practised being executed so professionally.
In my third Test, Cape Town in 1996-97, we were facing a quick pitch, trailing in the series, and up against Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Brian McMillan. Those days we didn't do much in the nets. During throwdowns just before the start of the match, Sachin changed his stance to a more open one, and instead of keeping the bat behind the right toes, like we normally do, he placed it between his feet. He batted with that stance in the match and got one of the best hundreds I have seen.
I have told him many times that for the rest of us mortals, if we want to change something, we have to first do it in the throwdowns, then in the nets, and then carry it into a match. Here he was, against the best bowling attack of the time, trying something new in the throwdowns and directly using it to get a brilliant Test hundred. That shows the kind of mental control and ability he had. There was no restlessness to suggest he had tried something new, or anxiety about whether it would work. He had just tried it moments before the match and it worked.
Everybody knows how he cut out the cover drive in Sydney 2004, because it was getting him out early in the innings, but the discipline it takes to do that is incredible. We had a chat about it in Melbourne, before the Sydney Test. He told me he wasn't going to play the cover drive. We all, at certain times in our career, have tried to avoid a shot that has been letting us down, but usually once you get your eye in, once your game starts to flow, you start to play all the shots. But Sachin, from his first fifty to the double-hundred, never once played a single cover drive in the match. Not only against the top bowlers, but also against part-timers like Simon Katich and Damien Martyn. It was a great example of the control he had over his senses and temptation.
Not everyone was happy with Sachin, though. He was the most scrutinised cricketer of our era. There was criticism when he toned down his aggressive style in favour of a safer but more consistent game. My own judgement of a batsman depends on how many runs he gets, not how. Ultimately a batsman's job is to get runs. And usually the more experienced a player gets, the more mature he becomes, the better his shot selection gets. That's what happened to Sachin. It's normal. He cut down on the shots that were leading to his downfall even though they entertained the crowd, and he improved the shots that were giving him consistent results. Because of that he has been the most consistent batsman I have ever seen.
A few critics might say that in doing so he lost the demoralising effect he had on the opposition, but that is a matter of perception. Is it demoralising if you play aggressive shots and risk losing your wicket? Or are percentage cricket and big hundreds more demoralising? I value someone who plays percentage shots, doesn't give the opposition any chance and plays them out of the game. That is more demoralising for the opposition.
Sachin was also a good captain even though the statistics suggest otherwise. I always tell him that. If he had the support structure available to a captain today - a professional coach, good trainer, physio, fielding coach, logistics manager, administrative manager - he would have done wonders. It was unfortunate that he was captain when the seniors were fading and the juniors were finding their feet. I don't believe in statistics. Thankfully Sachin didn't take those statistics to heart. He had an opportunity to prove himself once again before Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni became captains, but he didn't take it.
For his team-mates, Sachin was nothing but a morale-booster. Whenever I had any issues with my batting, I would discuss them with him. A lot of cricketers in our time would do that, especially seeking his advice from a technical point of view. He was always there to help us and discuss the game.
That's why I always respected Sachin the person more than Sachin the cricketer. A lot of credit needs to be given to his parents. In a country like ours, where cricketers are treated like gods, it is very difficult to be grounded. Sachin has strong values instilled in him. He never thinks he is bigger than the game. He respects his fellow cricketers, junior and senior. On flights, whether in India or abroad, everybody wants a piece of Sachin - autograph, photograph. Never have I seen him irritated. That is the hallmark of a true gentleman. Never have I seen him arrogant. Anjali and his brother and his entire family should be applauded.
Sachin used to come across as shy and introverted, but once out of the public view, he is a fun person who enjoys music and meeting friends. During rain breaks, he will be the first guy in the dressing room to start playing tennis-ball cricket, or put on different kinds of music in the dressing room. He always made the youngsters feel comfortable. All newcomers felt overawed at first, but he took the initiative to make them feel part of the team.
Having retired a little earlier than Sachin, I must now share with him some of my experiences, just the way he did for me by reading the conditions and the match situation when I went out to bat after him. He will enjoy the time with his family. I know how much he respects his family time, especially now that Arjun and Sara have grown up. His family has sacrificed a lot. All our families did. The travel will be cut down, so he will have more time with them now. He and his family have earned it.