Sachin Tendulkar is accustomed to enduring scrutiny of the meanest type from the world’s best bowlers.
But within eight weeks he will encounter an examination unusual for cricket stars.
Opposing teams, fans and the media will have all eyes and lenses on the great man as cricket’s biggest competition comes to town to the West Indies.
It will not be for Tendulkar’s looks — everyone knows he exhibits minor physical change from the time he debuted 17 years ago. Nor will it be an examination of his marital life — the world knows he has a solid relationship with wife Anjali and their two kids.
Rather Tendulkar will be under the microscope for doing the things that made him a legend from Bombay to Bridgetown — that of scoring runs.
Those who admire him will be happy if he finds his best form before the first World Cup delivery is sent down in Jamaica’s Sabina Park. Those who worship him might have to be placed on suicide watch if he does not set the spanking new stadiums ablaze there. And even those who support non-India teams will be disappointed if he does not get among the runs, in what could be his World Cup swansong.
The cause for the abnormal attention on the Bombay mega-star needs little justification.
Ever since his return to competition last year from a string of injuries Tendulkar has not been himself.
He has not dominated bowlers the way he used to that yielded him more than 10,000 Test runs, more than 14,000 One Day runs with 35 and 40 centuries respectively in both forms of the game.
It is said that injury and age is a telling combination for sportsmen after years of wear and tear.
And already the whispers are making the rounds surrounding the Indian batting sensation ever since elbow and shoulder problems forced him to miss in total a, year of competition between 2005 and 2006.
Disgruntled Indian fans accustomed to him reeling off ton and ton with the ease they exhibit in downing a cup of tea, did the unimaginable in the crucial return series against Pakistan last year.
Boos rang out from the stands at Amedabad after one of frequent low scores from the country’s greatest batsman which staggered the rest of the world, and enticed one of India’s leading newspapers to question Tendulkar’s presence in the team .
“Endulkar”? was a headline never thought possible in the heyday of Test cricket’s leading century maker, yet India’s decline since the departure of coach John Wright only bolstered the local media’s confidence to diss the country’s most acclaimed cricketing son.
Whether it shook the great man’s resolve only time will tell, but the statistics state Tendulkar’s scoring has not improved since then.
India lost both the Test and One Day series heavily against Pakistan when he returned from a second absence for the shoulder injury last year.
They were embarrassed in the Invitational limited overs series the India Board hosted for Australia and West Indies in Malaysia and despite a big 141 against West Indies from the master, it was just not enough.
Another first round elimination in the Champions Trophy staged in India, placed greater pressure on the former world number two ranked team, in which their mega batsman’s non scoring malaise deepened.
And when they toured South Africa last month Sachin ‘s two half centuries was all he mustered in all of three Tests and four One Day Internationals that culminated in a crushing defeat and a heart wrenching 2-1 Test loss respectively.
At the same time Tendulkar’s main batting rival in the fans minds, Brian Lara continued to make the headlines with centuries against Pakistan that landed him one away from the former’s Test record.
Lara is not motivating his West Indies team to any significant level of success in the Test arena, but he is ensuring his batting legacy will be unforgettable when he eventually quits the scene.
And that will not be anytime soon, as even at 37 he is yet to contemplate a retirement date.
Tendulkar also had to hear Shane Warne and Glen McGrath rate the triple world record holder Lara, their most difficult batting foe, long after Muttiah Muralitharan made an identical pronouncement.
Then former Test stars Ian Chappell, Tony Greig, Ravi Shastri, Wright and Sanjay Manjrekar, adjudicated Lara the best contemporary batsman, in a Cricinfo convened panel, based on his consistency through a 16-year international career.
Although Tendulkar has never shown any interest in the bragging rights game between himself, Lara and Australia captain Ricky Ponting, all the recent putdowns must be tough to take.
After all he is human.
Whether all of it, or some of it ignites the competitive fires within the Mumbia Maestro, the world will know within a week.
Tendulkar and Lara will suit up for their respective countries in another of the numerous pre-World Cup warm-up competitions the India board has arranged for its team.
The venue will be India and Tendulkar will have an attack he is familiar with and from which he reeled off his biggest ODI score in recent times.
If the upcoming four-match series doesn’t bring out the best in him, don’t expect it to happen in the World Cup.