A (pre-recorded) drumroll and a cloud of smoke announced the arrival of Sachin Tendulkar. There he stood, in front of an audience of about 300 people, who chanted his name through a standing ovation.
He was sharply dressed. Beautifully cut black suit, crisp white shirt, black tie. Black patent leather shoes. The hair defied its recent criticism, proving what all hairdressers say - sometimes, you've got to give it a few weeks to settle down. He was far leaner than he appears on screen. But it was his near-implausible modesty that owned the room for the three hours on Saturday night in Dubai.
He was in top form, relaxed and talkative, when on stage with former cricketer and commentator Alan Wilkins. More on their conversation in a bit.
Later, seated at a dinner table, managing a bite or two seemed as stressful as getting that 100th 100. There was not a second that a woman, man, child - often all three together - wanted a photo, an autograph, a handshake. He obliged every single request, standing for each person who approached him, signing dozens of napkins, coasters. A ring of bouncers - some of them were Russian with the same measurements long as across - stood behind him. The Sachin fan is nothing if not an argumentative Indian. He or she will not be denied. Every time Sachin picked up his fork, someone wanted a piece of him. If he was tired or impatient or even just plain hungry - he didn't show it. He ate virtually nothing, drank a few sips (Coke, what else - with lots of ice), and thanked the waiter who brought it to him. His glass of red wine remained more or less untouched.
The event was hosted at a Dubai hotel by Wisden India to honour Sachin's 100 100s. It began with a Q and A. Alan steered while Sachin shared the journey of his cricket, his family, his life and the intersection of the three.
He didn't miss a beat on stage. When asked if he felt the pressure of a billion expectations each time he walks onto the field, he said, "I don't think they are putting pressure on me...I think they are with me." And that famous concentration - "When I am batting, I don't think of anything else except that ball." He flashbacked to his 16-year-old self in Pakistan, trying to figure out protocol for the dressing room. "I didn't know what to call them...the seniors...'uncle' sounded wrong, so I chose 'Sir'." Of India waiting in excruciating tension for his 100th 100, he said, "Everywhere I went, everyone had advice. At the airport...the security people. In hotels...laundry, housekeeping, everyone said what I should do." Slight pause. "And I took that advice, of course."
He talked about the heartache of missing that record in Mumbai in front of his home crowd. And the degree of solace he felt when India beat England in Chennai in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks. "We were all just so numb," he said, speaking of his impression of India's emotional health at the time. "We just felt like if we could change the mood even for a second of those families who had been hurt, it would be good." This was his favourite century, he said.
He spoke with visible emotion about his father, whose advice, he said, he tries to remember often. "He told me that everything else in life is temporary, but your nature...this will stay the same. He treated everyone who came to our house - from the postman to anyone else - with the same respect."
If the deal needed any more sweetening, he spoke with respect and pride of his wife, Anjali. Along with his brother, he said, she is who he turns to when he is frustrated with his game. "Luckily, Anjali has known me for a long time," said Sachin when Alan asked if she ever declares cricket off-limits in their conversation at home. "So does Anjali know you're in love with cricket?" asked Alan. "Both, hopefully," said Sachin, with perfect timing. The crowd near-swooned.
When asked if he's tired (after Alan referred to his records and accomplishments providing an endless play-list), Sachin smiled but said confidently, "I can do better." Later in the evening, a young man who placed the winning bid for Sachin's bat told him "I think you should be banned from retiring."
Comedian Vir Das delivered some stand-up. Sachin laughed when Vir asked which dummy came up with the name Mumbai Indians.
At one point, Baichung Bhutia came over to the table. Sachin stood up straight away and they spoke for 10-15 minutes, photographers clicking every few seconds.
Every table had been promised a group photo with Sachin. He stood patiently while people queued and pushed to ensure they were next to him in the picture. When he was finally done, NDTV's Nikhil Naz managed to persuade him to do an interview in a hotel room on the floor above. The bouncers formed a massive wall outside the door. Close to 70 fans begged them to help get his autograph. One, desolate, asked the main security guard who seemed Indian, "Why can't you just tell us what he is doing or when he will be done? Then we will know whether to stay or leave." The man replied, "Arre meri naukri hai ki mein yeh nahin bol sakta. And you are asking me only to tell you all this?"
At nearly 12.45 am, Sachin emerged from his interview. The bouncers surrounded him in a ring. He took off. He was leaving the next morning for London to meet his wife and children. He will be at Wimbledon.
For those of us who work as part of a TV crew, encountering a celebrity is not uncommon. They are superb bluffmasters, turning on the charm for cameras, thanking the fans, then retreating into less attractive versions of themselves even in studios where there are no over-eager fans (a rare exception is Ranbir Kapoor who joked with our entire crew many years ago, and made one colleague's day by saying "Wow, you look like me...but you're better looking.") For Sachin, there seemed to be no stand-by mode. He was unassuming and generous with his time and his attention. I thanked him after our table's photo was taken. "Thank you so much for being here," he said. Sadly, I wasn't special. He said it to so many people that evening. In a league of superstars, he is head and shoulders above the rest.