I was privileged to watch, from very close quarters, a child prodigy go on to become a true legend of the game. A batsman who stunned the world with his voracious appetite for the game and for making hundreds.
Sachin Tendulkar has only played a single international T20. His exploits in the format were all in the IPL and at the Champions League. You will agree that his impact on the shortest format of the game has been less than that on the others.
T20 cricket came into Tendulkar's life a little too late and cricket is slightly poorer for that. Had T20 come into the game when Tendulkar was in the youth of his batting career, he would have been one of the most dangerous T20 batsmen in the world. Sure, he would not have hit the ball as long as Chris Gayle does, but he would have given the bowlers the same kinds of nightmares.
Brian Lara in a TV chat recently confessed that he would have struggled in T20 cricket because it just did not suit his temperament; for starters, he needed a bit of time to get going while batting. Not Tendulkar. The Tendulkar that I saw early in his career was as much a master in the short formats of the game as he was in the longest.
In the early '90s we used to play lots of privately organised tournaments, among them various single-wicket, double-wicket and six-a-side affairs. These were typically two, three, or a maximum of five overs. Away from the glare of TV and the other media, we saw some mind-boggling innings from Tendulkar in these games. Whatever target was set, he would achieve it, single-handed. Yes, even in a double-wicket match or a six-a-side tournament.
I noticed that Tendulkar was at his best when he was pitted against another individual. This happened a lot in such tournaments, where it was a battle between one bowler and one batsman that decided the fate of a match.
I have been witness to some breathtaking hitting from Tendulkar in such events. The most memorable instance was in a double-wicket tournament played at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, when he took Manoj Prabhakar and Kapil Dev apart to reach an almost impossible target to win yet again. Vinod Kambli was the lucky beneficiary as Tendulkar's partner in that tournament.
During that contest I saw some well-aimed yorkers from two highly accomplished India bowlers disappear over the midwicket boundary for huge sixes. It was the first time I had seen yorkers being dismissed in that fashion. That innings was played away from the international arena but the bowling was international-quality and the intensity very high. The strokeplay that night from Tendulkar left all of us in a daze.
"Tendulkar was never the showman, like Viv could be, but that is not to say that he was less combative"
This trait of Tendulkar's was also seen in the nets, where too the one-to-one combat brought the best out of him, and we would stop everything we were doing to watch. Sometimes Javagal Srinath, towards the end of one of Tendulkar's batting stints in the nets, would throw him a challenge: "Okay Sachin, last four balls from me, 12 runs to win." Tendulkar would come up with a counter offer: "No, eight runs in four balls." The negotiations would go on for a bit and then a number like ten would be agreed upon. The stage was nicely set: four balls from Srinath and Tendulkar had to get ten runs to win the "match".
Srinath would then set an imaginary field, and after every ball bowled, this field would be adjusted. All this would happen while the other net bowlers continued to bowl normally at Tendulkar. But when Srinath ran in to bowl, you could see Tendulkar's demeanour change. It was not just net practice now.
I saw this little contest take place many times during my career, and I never saw Srinath win. And the same went for the other bowlers who attempted it. Tendulkar was just too good for Srinath. He would play around with him and his "field". Often, to add salt to the wound, he would deliberately hit the ball into areas from where Srinath had just removed his "fielders". Tendulkar would walk off, pleased as punch, having won another bout with a bowler, and Srinath would be seen standing in his typical arms-crossed stance, having accepted defeat, but you could see his eyes were full of admiration for the little fellow as he left the nets to take off his pads.
When Tendulkar was growing up, he idolised Sir Vivian Richards, and it was obvious to us that he also wanted to bat like him in his early days. Tendulkar was never the showman, like Viv could be, but that is not to say that he was less combative.
I remember another game that wasn't on TV. Mumbai were playing Baroda in a Ranji match at the RCF cricket ground. Tendulkar walked in at the fall of a Mumbai wicket*, and we saw as he got up that he was not looking very motivated.
Baroda had this pace bowler called Mukesh Narula who had a bit of spirit. He liked to play hard, and in this particular innings he took that fighting spirit to the next level.
Some bouncers were sent Tendulkar's way, and along with them some glares and words under the breath too. I suppose Narula wanted to show his team-mates that he was not overawed by the man, as they were. All of us in the Mumbai dressing room were thinking: "What are you doing, Mukesh?"
The inevitable happened. Bored till then, Tendulkar got charged up. The faster Narula bowled, the harder the ball bounced back from Tendulkar's bat to hit the sight-screen. I still vividly remember the force with which the ball thudded into the wall next to the sight-screen. This was not Tendulkar just scoring runs, this was Tendulkar showing disdain for Narula without uttering a single word.
After the match, I spoke to Kiran More, who was captaining Baroda. "Your best chance of getting Tendulkar out was to keep him bored. Your Narula gave him a reason to bat."
This was the Tendulkar of the early days. Obviously over his long 24-year batting career, he changed, but the Tendulkar with the ghost of Viv in him was my favourite Tendulkar.
03:54:17 GMT, 23 October, 2013: The article originally said Tendulkar's performance against Narula was in the second innings of the match