It took me a long time to see eye to eye with the millions of fans who believe that Sachin Tendulkar is the best Indian batsman of all time. They would forgive me if they knew where I come from, brought up as I was on a diet of some of the finest Indian batting before him against attacks fast and slow from around the world.
Two early favourites were Polly Umrigar and Vijay Manjrekar, each a great in his own right. Though Umrigar was for long alleged to be suspect against genuine pace, especially during the disastrous tour of England in 1952, he stood tall among the ruins in another miserable English summer seven years later, and in the West Indies three years after that. It was to be his swansong, but what a swansong it turned out to be, with 56 and 172 not out in Port-of-Spain, and 32 and 60 in Kingston, Jamaica, in his last two Tests, standing out for his courage and defiance in a losing cause.
We all know Tiger Pataudi might have been one of the world's great batsmen but for his tragic eye injury, so brilliant and domineering had he been in a few classy outings for Oxford and Sussex while still in his teens against the likes of Trueman, Lock and Laker. With other accomplished batsmen like Chandu Borde and Hanumant Singh not quite fulfilling their potential, we had to wait for the advent of a couple of diminutive geniuses in GR Viswanath and SM Gavaskar to bask in the reflected glory of fearless Indian batsmanship on the world stage.
Fortunate enough to watch these two "Little Masters" first from the stands and later from closer quarters, I for long refused to place the present owner of the title on a higher pedestal. Vishy played more match-winning innings in hostile batting conditions, I argued. Gavaskar used his feet better against the spinners, and was rarely dominated by the bowlers even in the slowest of his innings, I stressed. I even believed Rahul Dravid was the more consistently solid and selfless batsman among his contemporaries. Of course, VVS Laxman on his day could make hysterical schoolgirls of all of us, with his wristy magic, but his superhuman prowess tended to come to the fore mostly at the sight of the baggy-green cap.
"Even Sir Garry's versatility might have paled in comparison had the little big man continued to bamboozle batsmen with the amazing variety in his arsenal"
Over his 24 years in international cricket, however, Tendulkar has managed to write a script that would do Hans Christian Andersen proud. He won our hearts - yours, mine, and my now 102-year-old aunt, when she was a mere 78 - with his boyish curls and squeaky voice hiding a steely resolve that matched his strong wrists and powerful blade. He continues to win the hearts of fans not born when he made his Test debut. The Tendulkar image has not aged!
His technique has been immaculate, but what completes the Tendulkar persona has been his ability to daydream and translate his dreams into pristine straight drives, preposterous paddle sweeps and audacious upper-cuts. Excitingly positive in his approach to batting for most of his career, he can defend dourly when needed or when he is simply in the mood for it. He can cut out one whole side of the cricket field from his stroke-repertoire to achieve an objective. On rare occasions he can work himself into controlled rage in order to decimate the bowlers who have foolishly angered him.
All this, Tendulkar has done in all three forms of cricket, leaving the worst sceptics in little doubt that he is the best Indian batsman in history. I am sure he could have even batted left-handed had the occasion demanded, or had he wanted to imitate a statement his idol "Mr Gavaskar" made with his bat long ago because of the quality of the pitch in a Ranji Trophy match.
Throughout his career, Tendulkar has chased the ball hard, dived unafraid of injury, plucked miraculous catches from the air, and thrown flat and straight to run out unsuspecting batsmen. As a part-time bowler, he has an enviable bag of tricks, which in his youth, he unfurled with undisguised glee, turning matches on their heads more often than not.
The greatest all-round cricketer of all time? I believe Tendulkar might have run Garfield Sobers close for that honour, had he persisted with his bowling magic throughout his career. Even Sir Garry's versatility might have paled in comparison had the little big man continued to bamboozle batsmen with the amazing variety in his arsenal.
Why did he not bowl more? Injury, his own gradual loss of interest, his captains' failure to recognise the value of his unique bowling ability? Perhaps the only cricketer of his stature to patrol the boundary line well into his senior years - till the very end, in fact - why did he move so far away from the action in the middle? Had he stayed in the thick of it, might the "Little Master" have added even more to his phenomenal contribution to his team's cause? Then he would perhaps have dislodged Sobers from his lofty perch in the minds of cricket fans everywhere.