"Mushy, bas ye ek hi wicket hai," bellowed Pakistan's combative wicket-keeper Moin Khan as Sachin Tendulkar arrived at the crease in the World Cup clash at Sydney in 1992. Despite the presence of other stalwarts in the team, Moin felt it prudent to alert leggie Mushtaq Ahmed about the benefits Pakistan would reap if they dismiss the then 18-year-old Tendulkar early. That Pakistan couldn't and Tendulkar scored a match-winning 54, is mere statistic. What was more revealing was the attention he commanded even at such a young age.
Circa Centurion 2003, a raging Tendulkar was making a mockery of a sizeable target of 274 and a potent Pakistan bowling attack, en route to a regal 98. The knock wasn't without alarms though. While on 46, Akram deceived Tendulkar with a slower ball and the batsman checked his drive but Abdul Razzaq at mid-off jumped too late and dropped the catch. "B*****d, tereko pata hai batsmen kaun hai," was Akram's furious response to Razzaq.
Twelve years and three World Cups later, Tendulkar remained the man to get.
After graduating from a middle-order batsman to opening in ODIs, he was breaking records out of habit and had become the biggest scalp for bowlers and India's pulse. A Tendulkar ton had the potential to prompt even the most corrupt babu to work without accepting a bribe!
His legend though had started to gain root just before the 1996 World Cup came to the sub-continent for the second time. Tendulkar had just signed a $10million deal with World Tel. In the World Cup, he justified the hype and the billing, scoring the tournament's highest run tally (523 runs in 7 matches).
India's dependence on him was growing. And no where was it more prominent than in the semifinals .
Till he was at the crease, the Eden Gardens pitch appeared docile. The moment he fell for 65, the pitch metamorphosed into a minefield where every Sri Lankan bowler appeared to be hurling a bomb and India crashed out.
As the 1999 edition in England drew closer, Tendulkar had gone past Desmond Haynes' record for most centuries in ODIs. He had had by far his best year in international cricket (1998). He had gained and lost captaincy and had been introduced to injuries. An attacking and talented opening partner, Sourav Ganguly, had been unearthed along with a solid middle-order batsman in Rahul Dravid. The team's over-reliance on Tendulkar though remained a constant. But he failed to get going, barring the game against Kenya where he scored an emotional century after his father's death. Not surprisingly, India exited at the Super Six stage.
After another failed dalliance with captaincy post the World Cup, his game blossomed under the John Wright-Ganguly regime.
Success chased India and Tendulkar in the West Indies and England, but just months before the 2003 World Cup, a disastrous tour of New Zealand followed.
With Dravid being asked to keep wickets and acting as a finisher along with Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag finding his feet as ODI opener, Tendulkar was asked to bat at No. 4. Although he scored runs there, he was happier at the top. Post India's loss to a second-string South African side in a warm-up game, coach Wright sought a one-on-one with Tendulkar and restored his opening spot. The Kiwi realized that a happy Tendulkar was key to India's fortunes.
Tendulkar's massive stature prompted the team management to request him to address the nation prior to the match against Zimbabwe at Harare after fans attacked players' homes and families following India's humiliating defeat against Australia in the group stage at Centurion.
His reassuring words calmed them and India's campaign was up and running. Tendulkar ended the World Cup with a mammoth 673 runs and pocketed the man-of-the-series award.
In the Chappell era, insecurity and injuries didn't get the best out of the legend and the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies proved to be a shambolic campaign.
But the pieces have been put together now. The Master, now semi-retired from the ODI game, picks and chooses his tournaments. New strokes have been added and every move he makes is with keeping in mind the World Cup.
To achieve that, he's changed a few things. The crouched stance has given way to a more upright one, easing the pressure on his back. He doesn't play pre-meditated shots. While batting in the powerplays there is no more the reluctance to play lofted strokes, an affliction he suffered from between 2005 to 2007. His bat too appears lighter and that could be a reason why he is playing more horizontal bat strokes.
2011 could be Tendulkar's World Cup. Yes, India as hosts will be under pressure and the media will keep gloating over the fact that he is close to a hundred international hundreds. But hasn't Tendulkar lived his entire life meeting expectations?
Sachin at World Cups
1992: Still only 18, Tendulkar came to grips quickly on the bouncy surfaces of Australia. He won the man-of-the-match award in back-to-back games against Pakistan and Zimbabwe in winning causes.
M: 8; Runs; 283; Hs: 84; Avg: 47.16; 50s: 3
1996: At the peak of his powers, Tendulkar mastered most bowling attacks and led the team to the semis. His counter-attacking 90 against Australia and his ton at the Kotla against Sri Lanka were absolute gems. Finished as top-run-getter.
M: 7; Runs: 523; Hs: 137; Avg: 87.16; 100s: 2; 50s: 3
1999: Came to the tournament after a lengthy injury lay-off and had to rush to India after the first match against India after his father died. He scored a hundred on return against Kenya, but wasn't his fluent self.
M: 7; Runs: 253; Hs: 140*; Avg: 42.16; 100s: 1; 50s: 0
2003: With his opening spot restored, was at his very best. His knocks against Pakistan, England and Sri Lanka were the highpoints of the edition.
M: 11; Runs: 673; Hs: 152; Avg: 61.18; 100s: 1; 50s: 6
2007: Scored a scorching 50 against Bermuda, but looked insecure and scratchy at No. 4.
M: 3; Runs: 64; Hs: 57*; Avg: 32; 50s: 1
Total: M: 36; Runs: 1796; Hs: 152; Avg: 57.93; 100s: 4; 50s: 13.