Star of India prepares for Testing times

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There are are not many cricketers who spend a good deal of their non-playing time in film studios, but Sachin Tendulkar is one of them.

As the most famous player in India, if not the world, he is long used to being treated like a film star in the country where the love of cricket is unsurpassed. But his regular appearances in studios are not for starring roles in Bollywood blockbusters, rather for more prosaic parts in advertisements.

Indeed, he has been doing this almost since he emerged as a teenage batting prodigy for his country in 1989 aged 16. It was therefore no surprise when Tendulkar suggested we meet at a studio in north-east Mumbai, where he was appearing in a commercial for his cricket equipment makers. We spoke in a “vanity-car”, one of the air-conditioned caravans used by film stars. Asked if he remembered his first such commercial, he said it was in 1990 and filmed in Hyderabad stadium. “It was for a Luna moped [and] because I wasn’t 18 and had no licence, I couldn’t drive in the streets.”

Like cricket, he says that appearing in commercials requires a certain discipline. And from time to time our conversation is interrupted as he is called away to appear before the cameras.

Later this month, however, Tendulkar’s focus will be firmly back on cricket as Pakistan’s tour of India begins. The historic enmity between the two countries makes this series of three Tests and five one-day internationals one that matters more than most to players of both sides. “There’s always additional tension when we play Pakistan,” he says. “They may not be thought very strong now, but it was they who won the one-dayer in Calcutta last November.”

He has not had the ideal preparation. Last year he suffered “tennis elbow”, a condition not eased by his own brilliance. He scored 248 not out against Bangladesh in Dhaka in December, his 34th Test century, and the long innings did not help. “Yes, it did get quite stiff,” he admits, adding that he was no longer receiving either medication or physiotherapy. Nevertheless, he has been advised to rest the affected limb for a month prior to the forthcoming series.

He seems faintly irked that some attribute his tennis elbow and earlier back problem to using a heavy bat weighing more than 3lbs. “If I used a lighter bat – really lighter, not just an ounce or two less – my back swing would be affected, and my timing would be totally upset. As for my elbow, the jarring it endures, a lighter bat wouldn’t absorb the shock.”

One advantage Tendulkar has is being ambidextrous. He writes and holds a spoon left-handed, but for Indian-style meals uses his right hand, as for other activities. The roughly equal strength of his hands must help his hitting power. Looking at the world game, he believes batting to be in rude health with, himself excluded, a number of players vying for the title of best current batsman. “Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Imzamam-ul-Haq, Rahul Dravid all are very good at this point. But Lara is that little bit better.”

And which would be the best innings he has ever seen? “Live? Or you’ll allow ones I’ve seen on video? Well, then it’s Viv Richards making 189 not out at Old Trafford in 1984, a fantastic knock. In India? That would be Laxman,” he said, referring to VVS Laxman’s 281 in Calcutta against Australia four years ago.

As for the fieriest spell of fast bowling he has faced, there have been so many occasions, he says. “Melbourne ’99, Brett Lee’s debut Test – he was consistently fast. People who were there told me I’d handled him very well [Tendulkar made 114] and later, when I saw it on film, I realised it was a very good effort against some really fast stuff.”

Does he support “walking” – admitting to being out without waiting for the umpire’s decision on a contentious decision? “I’d walked, instinctively, against South Africa here in Mumbai, February 2000, when it was difficult for anyone to know I’d played the ball, off [Jacques] Kallis.”

Tendulkar’s wife Anjali is a paediatrician; his mother-in-law Annabel Mehta is an Englishwoman who married a Gujarati and settled in Mumbai. Anjali’s grandmother lives in the UK, so would Tendulkar consider returning to English cricket for a season? “There have been some approaches. But no, county cricket takes a lot of effort. I’d rather conserve my love for the game, try to do better for India. Certainly, my season with Yorkshire in 1992 was a great experience.”

He has noted the progress of Twenty20 cricket, firstly in England and now elsewhere in the world. “Any change is exciting. I think it would help batsman get accustomed to chasing targets in short spans.”

Away from the game, he had been billed to take part in a charity run some days earlier, but security considerations prevented him taking part – the peril of his being mobbed is constant.

He explains that he sometimes manages to get away from it all, and retrieve some anonymity, by flying to Europe, with his fascination for Formula One motor racing taking him to the German and Spanish grands prix, and he has attended the British GP at Silverstone a few times. Within India, too, he has secret places of refuge.

All takes and re-takes done, a posse of tough-looking studio hands escorts Tendulkar to a waiting car. I jump in behind the driver, so our conversation about his non-cricketing life continues through the city-bound traffic.

He confirms that he had been named “Sachin” after a famous Indian composer, and that music remains a passion. He is known to be fond of good food, but does he also cook? “There are dishes I’d learnt in my mother’s kitchen – I can make a good prawn curry, and also some other fish items.”

Tendulkar’s mother-in-law runs a trust for underprivileged children, in which he has become involved. Was it right he contributed to the education and healthcare of children? “Yes, I do that, for 200 kids,” he responds, a trifle shyly.

Before his arrival at Wankhede Stadium, there is time for one last question: “You may be entering the final phase of your career. How would you take it, if the Indian captaincy came back to you?” For once, he looks away, through the window. And then he turns towards me again: “It’s not something I’m thinking about, right now.”

The car stopped at the kerb, Tendulkar steps on to the busy pavement to let me out. Before passers-by realise who it is, he is behind the tinted glass again. A discernible wave of the hand, and he is on his way.

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