The Leading Cricketer in the World was instituted in Wisden 2004. The six previous winners were Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Andrew Flintoff, Muttiah Muralitharan, Jacques Kallis and Virender Sehwag. A full list of past notional winners, backdated to 1900, appears on page 35 of Wisden 2007. Players can be chosen more than once for this award, as Sehwag was in 2009 and 2010. Tendulkar was also the notional winner in 1998.
From the middle of October to the middle of December 2010, the Republic of India was beset by a series of corruption scandals - money illegally made on contracts for the Commonwealth Games, on housing projects in Mumbai and mining schemes in Karnataka, on the allocation of scarce airwaves for mobile-phone companies. The amount stolen by politicians (of all parties) ran into hundreds of billions of rupees. The scandals dominated the headlines for weeks until they were temporarily set aside to make way for Sachin Tendulkar's 50th Test hundred. This was met with relief, but also with wonder and admiration - indeed, it revived calls for the batsman to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest honour, previously reserved for politicians, scientists and musicians.
For Tendulkar to be viewed as a balm for the nation's (mostly self-inflicted) wounds was not new. As long ago as 1998, the Bombay poet C. P. Surendran wrote: "Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit their visored saviour."
Over the next decade, the social anxieties of Indians abated. Economic liberalisation created a class of successful entrepreneurs, who in turn generated a growing middle class. Hindu-Muslim riots became less frequent.Meanwhile, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S. Laxman and Virender Sehwag arrived to take some of the burden of making runs (and relieving fans) off Tendulkar. It became possible once more to appreciate him in purely cricketing terms, rather than as the Saviour of the Nation.
Viewed thus, there appear to have been three distinct stages in Tendulkar's career as an international cricketer. For a full decade following his debut as a 16-year-old in 1989, he was a purely attacking batsman. Coming in at (say) ten for two, he would seek not to stabilise an innings but to wrest the game away from the opposition. This he did frequently, and in dazzling fashion, through slashing square cuts and pulls, and drives past the bowler and wide of mid-on. There was no shot he would not play, no form of bowling that in any way intimidated or even contained him.
Then Tendulkar began to slow down. He now ducked the short ball (previously he would have hooked it), and played spin bowlers from the crease. The back-foot force through cover that was his trademark became scarce. He still scored runs regularly, but mostly through the on side, via dabs, sweeps, drives and the occasional pull.
We now know that this transformation in Tendulkar's game was due to a sore elbow. But while it lasted it appeared to be permanent; I even wrote at the time that "the genius has become a grafter". (My embarrassment at recalling this is tempered by the fact that some other writers were even more dismissive.) On the advice of a Mumbai doctor, he rested his left hand completely - he would not even, I am told, lift a coffee mug with it. The treatment worked, for as his elbow healed he recovered his fluency. The hook shot and the lofted drive were used sparingly, but his mastery of the off side was once more revealed in all its splendour.
It is commonplace to juxtapose Tendulkar with Don Bradman, but a more relevant comparison might be with the great Surrey and England opening batsman Jack Hobbs. There was a pre-war and a post-war Hobbs, and there has been a pre-tennis elbow and post-tennis elbow Tendulkar. Like Hobbs, in his late thirties he no longer so wholly dominates the bowling, but he is still pleasing to watch, and remains the batsman whose wicket (Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman notwithstanding) the opposition prizes most highly.
Young Sachin enjoyed several truly fabulous years, but 2010 was the annus mirabilis of the Late Tendulkar. Last year he scored more Test runs (1,562, at an average of 78) than anybody else. In February he scored the first double-century in one-day internationals; in December, he became the first man to score 50 Test hundreds, both landmarks achieved against the best pace attack in world cricket, South Africa. I was privileged to watch, live, a magnificent double-hundred he made against Australia at Bangalore, marked by cuts, drives, pulls, hooks and even two colossal sixes into the stands.
As he has grown older, Tendulkar has taken several measures to prolong his career. He does not play any Twenty20 internationals, bowls rarely, and fields mostly at mid-on, a position Sir Robert Menzies once called "the last refuge of mankind", but in this case a measure intended to preserve his fingers from damage (when younger he fielded very effectively in the slips).
Hanif Mohammad once said of Garfield Sobers that he "had been sent by God to Earth to play cricket". It is not only Indians who think that way about Tendulkar. Like Hobbs, he is equally admired by fans and players, by teammate and adversary alike. His off-field conduct has been exemplary (with one trifling exception - when he asked for a tariff waiver on the import of a fancy foreign car). Australians venerate him; they do not even sledge him.
What might mean even more to him is the frank adoration and love of his team-mates. Indian cricket was long marked by personal rivalries and parochial jealousies; if that seems now to be behind us, this is the handiwork of a generation of gifted and selfless cricketers, among them Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Anil Kumble, but perhaps Tendulkar most. One image captures it all. A cake was being cut to mark victory in a hard-fought one-day series in Pakistan several years ago. The first piece was offered to the player of the tournament, Yuvraj Singh, who immediately turned the plate towards his hero and said, "Pehle Sachin bhai ko": the first one is for our elder brother, Sachin.