Game for anything
Admired for his relentless focus and concentration while batting, Sachin demonstrated an equally fierce competitive streak away from cricket. In Pakistan during the 2003-04 tour, an impromptu indoor golf contest was arranged for the Indian players in the corridor of Lahore's Pearl Continental Hotel to kill time before their flight back to India. Contestants, led by Yuvraj Singh, had to putt into a glass tumbler from a spot roughly 20 feet away.
This proved to be a task more difficult than handling Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram on a two-paced wicket. The uneven carpet was no St Andrews, and the golf technique of the Indian players was shaky at best. What they lacked in talent, they made up for in enthusiasm, and they got noisier with the frustration of repeatedly missing the "hole". A sleepy Tendulkar emerged from his room and asked to have a go. Granted a wild card to participate, he took his position, held the putter (incorrectly) like a cricket bat, and rolled the ball into the cup on his first attempt.
As others screamed in horror, surprised by his fluky success, a triumphant Sachin casually handed the putter to a colleague and "retired" to his room grinning.
That Sachin is fanatically meticulous about his preparation became evident after a training session in South Africa ahead of the crucial World Cup game against Pakistan in 2003. The team had just finished practise at Centurion. We were walking up the 80-odd steps from the ground leading up to the dressing room .
Standard conversation on such occasions is about the match and the ground, and there is the usual speculation about the surface. Sachin noted the track looked good - the pitch hard, true, batsman friendly . But what caught my attention was what he said a little after... not about the pitch but the outfield.
Apparently he had walked round the ground and noticed that the outfield had a thick grass cover, and here is the interesting bit - the blades of grass around third man, he noticed, pointed away from the boundary, which meant they would slow the ball down. If the ball is played there, he said, there is a chance of an extra run because the ball will reach the fielder slowly.
I thought batting was about sorting out the bowler , the ball and the pitch. But the direction of blades of grass in the outfield! Phew.
Fortitude was another quality he possessed in spades. On India's flight back from Johannesburg after losing the 2003 World Cup final to Australia, Sachin, probably wishing for rest and anonymity, was surrounded by cricket fans who just couldn't get enough of him.
The Indian team was travelling economy because business class was full, and even before the plane took off, his co-passengers approached him with requests for photographs and autographs.
For the next three hours, Sachin fulfilled every request, even while having dinner, repeatedly putting his fork down to sign something. Strangers patted him on the back, put their arms around him, and grabbed his hand. Not for a moment did he show the slightest hint of irritation. No autograph was refused, no request for a photograph turned down. The cabin crew had a tough time dealing with this sort of turbulence, and frequently collided with passengers who were out of their seats when the seat-belt sign was on.
On seeing Sachin signing autographs and looking into cameras half-asleep, a concerned Anil Kumble said: "Just imagine what would have happened had we won the cup!"
When we landed in Mumbai I congratulated Sachin for his extraordinary patience. He replied: "Kya fayda? Patience wicket par honi chahiye thi [What's the use? I should have been patient on the wicket]," referring to his dismissal in the final.