I first saw Sachin Tendulkar when I was 14, in an U-15 game between West Zone and South Zone at Cuttack in 1986. I was a substitute; Sachin was playing, and got 60-odd. I saw him again the next year in an U-17 game at Nagpur. A number of things struck me about Sachin: that he was obviously a special talent, that he used a very heavy bat for one so young, and also that his bat was a fine imported Slazenger, the envy of many of us! Within a couple of years, he was playing for India, and taking on Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in Pakistan.
In the early nineties satellite television had just come in, and we all watched Sachin's progress with a great deal of interest and took inspiration from him. Here you were, struggling to score runs in a Ranji Trophy game, and there he was, taking on the best attacks in the world, a teenager with the maturity and understanding of a veteran.
I believe his success was also beneficial to us in another way. After him a lot more young cricketers started getting fast-tracked into Ranji sides. Previously you would have to wait till you were 19 or 20 at least before you were considered. I got into my state side at 17; Sourav Ganguly did so at much the same age; Vinod Kambli got an early opportunity to play Test cricket ... more opportunities were available to young players than before.
Sachin has been a great influence on my career. I made my debut for India in 1996 and after a while settled into the No. 3 slot in both forms of the game, and since he opened in one-day cricket and batted at four in Tests, we've spent a lot of time batting together, during which I've always regarded myself fortunate to have the best seat in the house. In Test cricket, three and four are key positions in the batting order, and it is important that the two men there have games that complement each other. Just his entry would create a stir in the opposition, who would then focus almost entirely on getting him out. This allowed me to go about quietly doing my job at the other end.
Like most other great batsmen, Sachin possesses the ability to control where the bowlers bowl to him: sometimes by taking chances and going on the attack against them, like he did against Shane Warne at Chennai in 1998, or even with a more defensive strategy, like leaving balls outside off stump alone and forcing bowlers to bowl straighter at him.
Sachin's greatest attribute is his ability to adapt to different situations. It doesn't matter if the wicket is low and slow, or fast and bouncy - he just works out what shots he has to play and goes about it. I remember how once in the West Indies in 1997 we played a one-dayer at Trinidad in which we had to bat first against Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and Franklyn Rose on a pitch on which the ball was doing all sorts of things. Sachin sized up the situation quickly and unleashed a flurry of strokes to disconcert the bowlers. He was out for 44, by which time he had already hit 10 fours.
The hallmark of a great player is how you perform in different situations, and also how you perform when you're not playing at your best - like Sachin's double-hundred in Australia when he was going through a lean trot. He just decided to eschew certain shots and piled up a big score. That is why I have little patience with those who say that Sachin these days doesn't often bat with the dash and flair of old. I've never seen any batsman play in one way right through his career - your responsibilities change, your body changes, the way you think changes. Finally the most important measure of an innings is its value to the side. Many of Sachin's knocks, like that double-hundred at Sydney, even if more restrained and not as pleasing to spectators as some of the blazing innings of old, have been contributions as crucial and significant as any he has made before.
In fact, it is interesting to watch the way Sachin still scores at a very high rate in the one-day game, but in a slightly different way from before - without hitting over the top as much as he used to - because he has learned how to work the ball around at will: he achieves the same results with a different method. In particular, the emergence of Virender Sehwag as his opening partner in the one-day game has led to Sachin adjusting his game slightly. I think he sees a young Tendulkar in Sehwag, and wants him to have the license to play freely; besides, he knows that you don't have to go bang-bang at both ends to keep the scoreboard rattling along.
Even now, his technique and in particular his balance are impeccable. That flick he plays behind square leg to the fast bowlers, often taking the ball right off his stumps, is all about perfection of balance. No other batsman in world cricket can do it quite like him.
As told to Chandrahas Choudhury. This first appeared in Wisden Asia Cricket in August 2004