If his passion and motivation levels are any yardstick, Sachin Tendulkar is not worried with all the talks of poor form and retirement around him. In spite of playing 24 years of almost non-stop international cricket, Tendulkar says he is the same person who made his Test debut against Pakistan in Karachi in November 1989 as a 16-year-old.
Someone who still spends a "very long" time at the nets preparing for a match, Tendulkar remains the quintessential professional who still wants to play his "best" innings ever. "Every time I get out when there is an opportunity for me to perform, do something special, I feel I could have done better, that is the innings I look forward to play," he said in a recent interview.
Tendulkar, of course, has an emotional favourite, a century dedicated to the victims of the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai. "The Chennai hundred (103 not out) against England in 2009 after 26/11. That was the most important knock. It is very close to my heart because of the circumstances," he told the Hindu.
In a recent public appearance, Tendulkar told school kids it was "wrong" to call him a "God". For a man who has scored a hundred international centuries and even has a ODI double century, Tendulkar is no ordinary cricketer, but like anybody else, is gullible to making errors. The cricket world reveres him and perhaps former India keeper Nayan Mongia is spot on when he says: "God made him to play cricket".
Always a man of few words and a very private person, fame has made Tendulkar humbler in life. "I am the same Sachin, still involved with the game as I was at 16. I will remain completely involved as long as I am playing," he says, only highlighting his deep appetite for runs.
Tendulkar probably remains the only genuine "cooling" agent in the Indian dressing room. That is probably why captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni loves his presence even if Tendulkar is not scoring.
Even if he misses a Dravid, a Kumble, Laxman or Ganguly, the Little Master is at ease with India's Generation Next. A Yuvraj Singh will dedicate his World Cup performance to him, a Virat Kohli will adore him and a seasoned Dhoni will always heed his advice. That's what makes Tendulkar "indispensable." There is no "generation gap" for him.
"Luckily the new-generation guys have been part of the one-day squad, so I know them. We have spent time with each other before they have become part of the Test squad. They are not new to me," says Tendulkar.
He may not be scoring the big runs regularly, but having Tendulkar either at mid-on or mid-off is a bowler's delight. Always accessible, Tendulkar has a good word or two every time the bowler goes for runs. "I always walk up to the captain or the bowler. I am just giving them more options. The final decision is theirs. I give options from what I feel can be done," he says.
His ability to embrace and adjust to the way the modern game is perceived and played has only prolonged Tendulkar's longevity in international cricket. He has quit T20 and ODIs at the international level. It is a shrewd move to prolong his career in Tests, a format that remains closest to Tendulkar's chest.
Tendulkar's touch with IPL keeps his brand equity as a master blaster alive and kicking. He refuses to take the burden of captaincy, allowing him the freedom to play purely as a batsman and score the runs. In many ways, the managements - Mumbai or BCCI -- have always accepted his wishes.
"To me, Test cricket will always remain the ultimate format. Without doubt, it is the most challenging form of the game," says Tendulkar, adding, "The Twenty20 format has changed the players' approach. People are prepared to take more chances, prepared to play different shots when pushed into a corner."
BCCI president N. Srinivasan recently said Indian cricket needs Tendulkar. While it was more than an assurance for the Little Master, it was also telling the former stalwarts who write newspaper columns to be discreet when they want Tendulkar to make way for a youngster in the already jam-packed Indian middle-order.
"I don't read articles. If somebody wants to tell me a few things about my batting, correct any flaws, and genuinely help me improve, he can just pick up the phone; we are in the same hotel, same ground, just come and tell me," says Tendulkar.
The indications are clear. India will surely have him on their long tour of South Africa starting in November this year. And, Tendulkar will surely have a few points to prove against the world's best Test nation. It would be a travesty of justice if the script unfolded the wrong way for, Tendulkar must go out the same way he arrived - on a high!