A black Mercedes pulls up to the curb in a central London street and out steps Sachin Tendulkar. There are no crowds, no bodyguards, and no one pays any attention to this stocky and unremarkable gentleman who, aside from a chunky watch, looks like any other office worker as he stops to make a call on the pavement.
Tendulkar wanders up and down the busy street, tourists and Londoners walking past him, enjoying the midsummer warmth and the rare anonymity. It is a mundane act for the rest of us but a treat and something to revel in for him.
“I like it here, I have more freedom to do whatever I want and move around without any problems,” he says. “I enjoy that feeling, it is very different for me. I am given my space, which is important, and I can go for nice walks in the parks.”
While his Indian teammates were unsuccessfully attempting to defend their World Twenty20 title Tendulkar was here to spend time with his family at their London home. He watched cricket from the stands, went to the men’s final at Wimbledon, took a trip to Iceland to sample some cold weather, took his nine-year-old son Arjun for net sessions at Lord’s and simply enjoyed unmolested trips to the cinema and restaurants.
When asked if he could repeat any of these pursuits in Mumbai he laughs and looks utterly astonished at the question. “No, no, no, I couldn’t do any of that, I have not done it for a long time and I don’t see myself doing it again, really.”
Back home in India, of course, Tendulkar is an icon. His every movement and utterance is monitored, while his image is on billboards and in as many as a quarter of all advertisements on Indian television.
Tendulkar recalls one public appearance several years ago in Bengaluru when nearly 200 policemen were needed to control an impromptu crowd of up to 7,000 people after word had spread he was in the city.
“There have been a few scary moments but that was the worst, it was out of control and there didn’t seem to be enough policemen,” he says. “A lot of people wanted to get close to me, it was just affection but there was a chance of me or others getting injured.”
To avoid a repeat, Tendulkar rarely ventures out or, when he does, it is in disguise or very early in the morning. “I have sometimes worn a baseball cap, a beard, spectacles and a wig not to be noticed,” he says with a smile. “It was just a bit of fun and I was once getting away with it until I dropped the spectacles and a couple of guys recognised me.”
“I also love going for a drive about 5 am, when the roads are empty and people won’t see me. I am not driving fast, just 25 mph, I listen to relaxing music, there is no one else, I like it being just me on my own.”
Today Tendulkar has come to the Opus store in Covent Garden to promote his own forthcoming Opus, a mammoth 800-page book weighing 30 kg, which will tell the story of his career. Tendulkar is only the second sportsman after Diego Maradona to be given such lavish treatment.
Tendulkar remains humble and warm, obliging and polite, speaking in a soft voice.
In a room decorated with large images of Tendulkar and his greatest innings, he will later hold a press conference that offers a glimpse into the madness of his life. It begins with a nurse taking a swab of saliva for his DNA profile, which will then become a work of art for his Opus. It ends with a gaggle of fawning Indian journalists, prefacing their questions with statements such as “I would like you to know I named my son ‘Sachin’ … ”
Tendulkar is at pains to make clear that the launch of his Opus does not signal the end of his career and, while at 36 it is inevitably approaching, he has set no retirement date, even privately.
“I have given it no thought at all,” he says, “I am good at cricket, so I will play a while longer. I still love the game as much as ever, it is my job but it remains my passion too. This is fun. Cricket remains in my heart.”
As the scorer of both the most Test and one-day runs, as well as the most Test and one-day centuries, Tendulkar’s standing as one of the modern game’s greatest players is secure and the 2002 Wisden argued that only Sir Donald Bradman can claim to be better in the entire history of the sport. Even so, he is far from sated. He wants more. Tendulkar once said being satisfied is like pulling up the handbrake on a car and expecting it to keep moving forward.
“I am not pleased yet with what I have done,” he says shaking his head. “Sunil Gavaskar has told me that I have to get to 15,000 runs, he said he would be angry with me, he would come and catch me if I didn’t. I admire him so much and to score that many would be a terrific achievement but that is not the only aim.” What else? “Winning the World Cup in 2011.”
To prolong his Test and one-day career Tendulkar has decided not to play Twenty20 internationals. “I felt as though I would have been a loose link in the team, I couldn’t do that to them,” he says. “I was not sure I would last, there was something missing. If my body wasn’t strong enough to last through the tournament then I couldn’t play.”
At 36, does he feel his body is letting him down? He pauses to think. “No, it still does what I want it to but I am older so it is different, you just have to work harder. There are moments when I try something and it doesn’t happen but it isn’t because of my age.
“I always play in pain, all the time, the last three months I played with a broken finger but you know when pain is manageable or not and most of the time I can do it.
“I can still do what I did when I was 25 but the body is changing, so your thought process has to change too. I have had to change how I think, which is about taking less risk.”