No one can have a true understanding of the impact that Sachin Tendulkar has had on the Indian nation except by having sat, at some time during these past two decades, in the stands of an Indian cricket ground during a match involving the national team.
His every move is scrutinised, his celebrity, the sheer adoration that he embraces from a country of a billion people, is perhaps unmatched in the history of sport.
His image is everywhere, yet it fazes him not. When, for example, he bats in Delhi, he does so under the austere gaze of an advertising figure of himself maybe the height of a four-storey block. The very existence he has in his own land involves confinement: there are few if any public places he can go without an entourage; his sports cars can be driven only in the dead of night.
Only abroad can he find anonymity. His fame has brought him immense fortune but it has come at the price of an existence that to him alone, since he emerged as a teenage protégé, would represent what is normal because he knows no other. Yet somehow in himself he does remain what we would recognise as normal, and that in itself is an immense achievement.
A wicket falls. The ground hushes. Anticipation fills the air. Then the small, chunky figure emerges on to the field, gazes aloft and blinks a few times to adjust to the light, and makes his way to the middle. As he does so, the noise erupts explosively, a harsh piercing screeching that almost hurts the ears.
Every time, without fail, it greets him, and somehow he remains implacable. For however long he remains at the crease, the same noise will accompany every run: each single scampered or sauntered, or boundary threaded mathematically between desperate fielders. And then, when finally he is dismissed … silence. A butterfly flaps and is heard.
Tendulkar's genius needs no further amplification here, or indeed anywhere. One more century – which he has finally achieved against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup in Dhaka – makes him neither a better player nor worse. His record over the years speaks for itself without the artifice of milestones to highlight it. The runs have flowed in a quantity unequalled in international cricket, a tribute not just to his immense skill and tenacity but to his longevity.
When, as a curly-haired teenager, he made his first Test hundred, in Manchester, Graham Gooch was leading the England side; when, famously, a few months later, first in Sydney and then Perth, he played innings of such exquisiteness that Donald Bradman spoke of watching himself reincarnate, Allan Border was the Australian captain. That is how long he has been excelling.
Runs have come not just on the flat subcontinental pitches of legend but around the world: in Australia, South Africa, West Indies and England. Always he has adapted where others have failed.
He has made batting both art and science, instinct and meticulous planning alongside one another. The attention to detail and sheer self-discipline is why he could make a double century in Sydney and hit not a single cover drive, because it had troubled him in the previous game. It is why he used specially prepared nets, with rough artificially created and appropriate bowlers, to help him counter Shane Warne. It is why on the tour of Australia he had his own personal throw-down expert to provide the sort of practice he feels he needs.
Longevity gives him an unparalleled practical knowledge of batting at the highest level. Nothing is left to chance.
Yet, the fact that Tendulkar, now 38, has scored precisely 100 centuries in India's colours is, to my mind, a statistical irrelevance. Taken in isolation, the fact that he has scored 51 Test centuries is sufficiently eloquent on its own. Likewise, the fact that he has 49 hundreds in ODIs is as remarkable, without the further embellishment that would inevitably come with the addition of a couple of more.
The addition of one to the other to create something else is mixing apples with pears to create a fruit bowl, as if a voracious media and public have striven to create yet another monument to Tendulkar's greatness that they might not accord others. As if, for example, the 79 first-class centuries that he now possesses was an insufficient distinction that does not even place him, like for like, at the pinnacle of Indian batsmen.
Jack Hobbs made a century of centuries after he turned 40 years of age but Tendulkar is unlikely to match Zaheer Abbas as the only batsman from the subcontinent to register 100 first-class hundreds. And again, of current players, both Kumar Sangakkara and Jacques Kallis average more than him in Tests. None of these facts diminish him.
On 2 March 2006, in Chittagong, a scorecard entry told us that Khalid Masood had been caught by Dilshan from the bowling of Muttiah Murilitharan. This, it transpired, was Murali's equivalent of Tendulkar's latest achievement and Cricinfo recorded it as such: "Muralitharan to Khaled Mashud, OUT, GONE! tossed up outside off stump, moves across and offers the pad, takes the arm and ball pops up on the track, Dilshan dives forward on the track and takes a good catch. Bad decision from the umpire. 1000 international wickets for Muralitharan." And that was that.
Ten months later, in his final match for Australia, Warne dismissed Monty Panesar, the penultimate wicket of his career. Cricinfo again: "Warne to Panesar, OUT, Panesar picks the wrong ball to sweep, it started on off stump and never moved, he missed it and Aleem Dar had a simple decision to make. It's Warne's 1000th international wicket but the celebrations are so muted as to be almost non existent ... a handshake from his colleagues and a half smile from the man himself."
Not much there either. Apples and pears, like adding in Shane Williams' tries in international sevens tournaments to the 58 he got in Tests for Wales.
Is all the hype disproportionate? Does he really need it or indeed has he wanted the extra attention? Certainly it would appear that it has weighed on his mind these past 12 months and may well have been something he could have done without. Each failure to reach three figures has been marked down as a sign of pressure without recognising the cyclical nature of batting.
When Geoffrey Boycott scored his 99th first-class century, he added to it in his very next innings. So did the Don. Graeme Hick managed two in a match. The great Wally Hammond, on the other hand, took 25 innings. When Hammond finally reached his landmark, according to his biographer David Foot, "the applause was more dignified than vociferous. For Hammond it was just a passing event. Statistics did not preoccupy him."
And that, surely, is how Tendulkar, with his run-Everest, would see it. He is too old a hand for frippery now. A phenomenal record has been created for a genius but it is a synthetic one.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Graham Dean