It is a long time since Sachin Tendulkar took guard for the first time as a Test cricketer. He made his debut along with Waqar Younis in Karachi in November 1989; Imran Khan was captain of Pakistan, more surprisingly Kris Srikkanth led India. Elsewhere the Berlin Wall had just come down; the Church of England had voted to allow the ordination of women; Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and Graham Gooch had just been appointed captain of England. It seems like another age — except that there was a recession going on.
Throughout the intervening 24 years Tendulkar, who has announced he will retire next month after his 200th Test on home soil against West Indies, has been a source of adoration in the cricketing world. We had even been given advance warning that He was coming despite the fact that Tendulkar was only 16 when he made that debut. The rumours had already surfaced of the precocity of the boy from Bombay who wore Sunil Gavaskar's pads. For once the rumour mill was right.
No cricketer has been venerated in his own country like Tendulkar; and no one has broken as many records: the most Test appearances, the most runs, the most centuries – records that it is hard to imagine ever being surpassed. Tendulkar's longevity is as gobsmacking as the technical purity of his batsmanship.
His hunger for the game has been incredible. He has continued playing into beyond his 40th year even though his mortality as a batsman has become obvious to everyone. There still seems a boyish enthusiasm as he gambolls around the boundary, buried in his floppy hat, in order to gather the ball before sending it decorously back to the wicketkeeper.
Arguably (but we won't argue about this now) the best player after Sir Donald Bradman, whose wife, Jesse, famously saw echoes of her husband when watching Tendulkar at the crease, was prepared to keep going even when the ICC Test rankings had him placed at No26, just below Virat Kohli, just above Angelo Mathews. Those rankings may not be foolproof but the broad picture they paint does not lie.
Tendulkar, it seems, never tires of batting. The crease is where he is most at home, most at peace with the world. It is his habitat. He can't be mobbed by the throngs there. As a consequence he takes precautions to ensure that his stays in the middle last a long time. He rarely expended mental energy as a captain (he led India just 25 times in 198 appearances) and he usually opts not to field in the slip cordon, which is where most of the greats with their enhanced hand/eye co-ordination have been stationed (though neither Bradman nor Geoff Boycott fielded there much). He has dictated that he should bat at No4 – even when the upper order has been disrupted by injuries. Others have had to change their routine, not Tendulkar.
Sometimes he appears to be playing the game in a vacuum. But that is not his fault. He has never courted the adoration that has come his way. Yet whenever Tendulkar arrives at the crease in a home Test match the bike park is full and the crowd has eyes for noone else. They have come to the ground more to see Tendulkar bat than than witness a game unfolding. Somehow Tendulkar deals serenely with all this attention. For him it is the norm.
For more than two decades he has been his nation's hero. Surely there has never been such a pacific career. Throughout all that time his behaviour has been just about impeccable. He was a bit grumpy when Rahul Dravid declared on him when he was 194 not out against Pakistan in 2006. And there was uproar in India when Mike Denness, the match referee, accused him of ball-tampering in the 2001 series against South Africa. As a consequence effigies of Denness were burnt in India and there were accusations of racism (though certainly not from Tendulkar himself — he would never stoop so low).
It became almost heretical to sledge Tendulkar. Somehow he was beyond that.
Oddly enough Mike Atherton once harangued him from cover at Edgbaston in 1996 when he thought that Tendulkar had given the umpire too much information about whether he had snicked the previous delivery. Atherton reports that he got a swift, concise reply and that his piercing observations did not seem to disturb Tendulkar's concentration greatly.
Amid the rubble of the Indian innings Tendulkar posted another masterful century.
All that serenity, all that pacifity masks Tendulkar's teak-toughness. He has scored runs against everyone. English eyes witnessed his maiden century at Old Trafford in 1990; he delicately shredded the English spinners in India in 1993; he was still doing the same in Chennai in 2008. But perhaps his best innings were against Australia, who dominated world cricket during much of his career.
His 1992 century at the WACA on the fastest pitch in the world at the age of 19 was an innings beyond any of his Indian peers and is reckoned to be one of his finest. It convinced the Australians of his genius. His later duels with Shane Warne were mesmerising and more often than not he won them.
Those battles with Warne when he kept hitting blameless leg-breaks over mid-wicket are a neat reminder of Tendulkar's mental strength. Warne, more than any other bowler of his era, had the knack of getting under the skin and into the minds of his opponents. But Tendulkar was impenetrable. He played the ball, not the man and inevitably this emasculated Warne a little. Warne always acknowledged that Tendulkar was his "most awkward" opponent.
That deep reservoir of mental strength, which was never paraded, will surely serve him well in the future. No doubt Tendulkar recognises that he will never be as good at anything as he was at batting. But the chances are that he will cope much better with his retirement than the many millions in India, who have lived all their lives with the reassuring certainty that Tendulkar comes out to bat at No4.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk