Tendulkar's insatiable thirst for runs continues despite playing for India for more than two decades  [Reuters] 

Selecting the greatest batsman of all time is a debate restricted by the changing realities of history, but when Sachin Tendulkar nonchalantly dispatched Dale Steyn through the covers, he achieved a feat so monumental, few would dare to dream. 

In bringing up his 50th test century - in the modest manner that to this point defines his career - he carved his name forever into the history books.

Even though South Africa completed a crushing victory over India, the lasting memories from Centurion will be that of Tendulkar reaching an unimaginable milestone.

Testament not just to his God-given natural ability, but to a life time of dedication to a sport that he has illuminated for more than the past two decades.

Even in the dawn of his International career, he plies his trade with the same zeal as when he first entered into the international sporting arena. Breaking into the public's imagination back in 1989, as a baby-faced 16 year old.

And since his much vaunted international debut against Pakistan, in which he was famously mocked for being a kid and subsequently knocked over by a sharp rising delivery, Tendulkar soon became India’s muse: a performance from him almost always guaranteed an Indian victory.

And it showed. The expectations of an entire nation soon nested itself upon his shoulders as India’s fortunes relied on the shy-boy from Mumbai, with impeccable timing, fluid wrists, perfect balance and the fearlessness of youth.

From the beginning, Tendulkar’s ability to score off any surface, not just on slow and low tracks like many of his fellow Indian contemporaries, and his delicious selection of shots and startling prowess to play on both sides of the wicket, quickly turned him into an idol for a new confident India, emerging out of the shadows of economic stagnation, looking for new heroes.

Tendulkar's fame followed the model of the new Indian economy, young cricketers the world over rejected their domestic heroes and outsourced their attention onto the young Indian genius.

The greatest of all accolades 

Sir Donald Bradman, considered by most to be the greatest batsman of all time, compared his own technique to Tendulkar’s - in the most famous of the countless of compliments paid to the man - known as 'the little master'.

South Africa’s legendary fast bowler Allan Donald once described Tendulkar’s balance as "freakish", enabling him to react like a viper and strike the ball to his desired destination. 

Throughout his career, his first instinct has always been to dominate, to dictate, a philosophy which often manifested itself into some of the most fetching encounters in cricket, especially involving the Australian leg spinning legend Shane Warne.

Warne, considered the most talented and exciting leg spinner to ever grace the game, with an equal penchant to attack, has frequently described the Indian batting star as the most challenging batsman he’d ever bowled to. Unsurprisingly, the Tendulkar-Warne encounters will go down as one of the most captivating battles between bat and ball. Ever.

Perhaps the most imperial factor that raised the plaudits for Tendulkar has been his proclivity to score against all opposition and in all formats of the game.

The stats don't lie

He is the leading run scorer in both test match cricket as well as ODI cricket, approaching a total of 100 international centuries in both formats of the game. In February 2010, he scored the first double-century in ODI cricket making him statistically the greatest batsman in the game.

Tendulkar’s average (56.08) against the Australian team, considered the best team over the last decade is the highest amongst all batsmen around the world.

In fact, India’s status as the top rated side in world cricket might be temporary, following the reshuffling of world cricket after the sudden end to Australian dominance with South Africa vying for the top spot, but India’s progress up the ladder of world cricket has its roots in the new brand of consistent, brave and aggressive cricket introduced by Tendulkar’s entry into to the world stage.

Saurav Ganguly added leadership impetus, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman added a touch of class and longevity, while Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni’s clever violence have given India a frenetic charge, but it has been Tendulkar’s consistent genius that paved the way for the Indian cricket team to enjoy the plaudits of consistent success. 

The burden of a nation's expectation

Tendulkar has long been criticized for failing to ‘lead’ India to victory, often stumbling at the final hurdle, and even more severe, is the criticism that his credentials lack the tenacity of some of his team mates, namely Dravid and Laxman, for starring in some of the greatest rearguard acts in test history.

Predictably, Tendulkar’s absence from India’s T-20 World Cup win is most noted while his inability to have inspired a ODI World Cup silverware (2011 might well be his last chance) is perhaps one of his personal regrets. Tendulkar is also anonymous in arguably the greatest turnaround in test match history in 2001, when India followed on against Australia, only to overcome the deficit and win the test match.

Moreover, despite his numerous records and unfathomable following in India, that makes him a demi-God in the cricket-crazy nation of over a billion, Tendulkar failed to make his mark as a great Indian captain, often the ultimate stamp of immortality. His brilliance notwithstanding, he battled to inspire a crop of diverse teammates to reach the standards that he set, resulting in a disparate team that bore poor results and affected his personal form.

But Tendulkar’s dedication to the game and to Team India has never been questioned.

The rare combination of modesty and genius 

His squeaky clean image both on and off the field has ensured that he hasn't made the headlines for the wrong reasons. Despite his fame, there are no scandals to his name.

Here is a man anchored firmly by family values, and religious conviction, boasting a brand of cricket that is at once sexy and almost impossibly clean (barring a handful of unsavoury but mostly trivial incidents on the field).

It is a quite an anomaly; Tendulkar, with all his product endorsements, one of the most recognizable and wealthiest sportsmen in the world - perhaps the prime catalyst for the incredible brand power and wealth that Indian cricketers attract today - has maintained a dignity, humility and youthful respect that keeps a genuine love for the game running through his veins.

The ultimate milestone

When Tendulkar hopped down the track and lifted South African Paul Harris over his head for a thunderous six, thereby moving into the nineties, journalists on twitter commented that the following deliveries suggested that he was nervous.

You would think that having played 175 test matches, lapped up more man-of-the-matches than anyone else, that the nerves would have calmed, but it has not. 

He is still that baby-face wanting to bat for as long as possible as he once did as a kid at the Sharadashram Vidyamandir school in Mumbai.

Gary Kirsten, the former South African test opener and now Indian coach commented after the Day’s play that Tendulkar is always the hardest worker at training, always giving himself the best chance to succeed, never taking his experience for granted and with his work ethic, passionate disposition and hunger for India to succeed was an exemplary model for the rest of the team.

You get the feeling with Sachin that all the generous wealth thrown at his feet is welcome, appreciated, at times even indulged upon. But you get the feeling he’d still do it all for free.

You can follow Azad Essa on Twitter @azadessa

Source: Al Jazeera