The Michael Jordan of India

NEW DELH, India — At 7:30 on a sunny Saturday morning, most of the city is still fast asleep. Rush hour won't begin until 10. But three separate cricket matches are already underway at New Delhi's Africa Avenue sports field.

There's a chill in the air as one portly bowler runs up, windmills his throwing arm and fires the ball at the wicket. Then, thwack!, shouts erupt as the batsman swats the delivery high into the sky toward the car park. It's a “six,” cricket's version of the home run.

“Now we play twice in a week,” said 26-year-old Sunil Kumar, who was keeping wickets. “In younger days, we used to play every single day. We come early in the morning, at 6 or 7, so we can play at least four matches before people have to go to work.”

A quick glance at the players tells you everything you need to know about the reason they're here. By turns spindly, pot-bellied, pigeon-toed and bow-legged, these are no fitness freaks. They're not up on the sports field at the crack of dawn out of some misplaced obsession with the peak of their biceps or the cut of their abs.

They're here because, like millions upon millions of Indians, they're mad about the one maddening sport at which this dismally unathletic country excels. And, again like millions upon millions more, they all worship the same hero: a 5-foot, 5-inch tall, curly-haired, 37-year-old cricketer with a reedy, teenager's voice who just might be the Greatest Of All Time — and the best athlete you've never heard of. His name is Sachin Tendulkar. But here in India, he's simply Sachin.

“The only name that we think of when we think of cricket is Sachin,” said Kumar. “Every single record of batting is Sachin. Whatever — centuries, half centuries, sixers, fours, boundaries, runs, test matches, one days — he is the one.”

As Kumar's passion and these early morning games suggest, India's love for cricket verges on the pathological. Walk through any neighborhood at any time of the day, and there's bound to be a match on in an alley (or “gulley,” as it's called here). Drive from Delhi to Agra or Lucknow, and with every sign of civilization you'll find a tea stall and a cricket match. Everything from the schoolyard to the cemetery doubles as a “pitch,” or field, and everybody from the lowliest cowherds to the poshest scions of snooty South Delhi seems to carry a bat and ball.

Maybe it's popular because its gentlemanly style recalls the British benchmarks for native upward mobility — in its classic five-day form, after all, the game is still played in starched white uniforms. Maybe it is that it doesn't require huge muscles or tremendous stamina. Or maybe it is simply that Indians are good at it. But everyone agrees to one thing. Cricket is the one religion that unites Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Jain.

And Sachin?

“They call him 'god of cricket,' and I think he is god of cricket,” said Vijay Lokpally, cricket correspondent for the Hindu newspaper.

Last month, Sachin staked perhaps his strongest claim yet to the title of the greatest batsman of all time with a brilliant performance against South Africa. Parrying and slashing the ball all over the field, he became the first player in the 39-year history of that form of the game to score 200 runs in a one day international, or ODI. But even though it was the cricketing equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in the NBA, it was not the statistical milestone — which joins Sachin's long and growing list — so much as the bold and seemingly effortless grace of the “knock” that converted nay-sayers. That's because unlike baseball, which it resembles in other ways, cricket does not reward power and bat speed so much as cleverness and control.

“In the history of cricket, four individuals have had a definitive impact on the game; the Englishman W. G. Grace, the Australian Don Bradman, the West Indian Garfield Sobers and the Indian Sachin Tendulkar,” said historian Ram Guha, the author of "A Corner of a Foreign Field." “He is certainly one of the four greatest cricketers ever.”

Wedge-shaped and flat on one side, the cricket bat is more like a paddle or broadsword than a club. And the gold standard of batting is the ability to wield its blade to slice and steer the ball at will to the spots in the field where there are no defenders — employing a daring and creative variety of swings, cuts, chops and blocks that commentators evocatively describe as “swashbuckling.” Sachin was arguably the first Indian player to embrace this free-flowing and aggressive style of play — emerging at a time when India was a puny, Third World-upstart vying for respect.

“India suffered from a combination of self-loathing and a feeling that it was not getting its due recognition,” said Santosh Desai, CEO of FutureBrands.

Sachin changed that. India's Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali rolled into one, Sachin's rise prefigured and paralleled that of the country. When he first walked onto the pitch against Pakistan in hostile Karachi in 1989, Sachin was a pint-sized 16-year-old with a squeaky voice and a wild 'fro. More Harry Potter than LeBron James, he was David facing Goliath, and a nation of mothers held their breath when Waqar Younis rushed toward him to fire a 100-kilometer fastball at his skull. Watching him beaned repeatedly and then unceremoniously bowled out for a mere 15 runs, many softhearted souls cried out that the boy batsman had been brought along too fast.

“The general impression was that he was being pushed too early,” said Lokpally.

But on the last day of the match, again against Younis, a legend was born. Decked by a fastball to the face, Sachin picked himself up, dusted himself off, and went on to post 57 runs with blood streaming from his nose. “That convinced everybody that this boy was different,” said Lokpally.

A fan club soon followed. Then accolades, then unprecedented riches, and, finally, as the years marched on, a cascade of statistical records.

Begun around the same time that India liberalized its economy and allowed the introduction of private television channels (in 1991), Sachin's career drove an “economic renaissance” in a sport that had never been lucrative, according to Desai. When Sachin first signed an endorsement deal worth about $5 million at today's exchange rate, he changed the scale of cricketing — and Indian — economics by several orders of magnitude.

Before long, he was selling everything from laundry detergent to Pepsi, and on the way to an estimated net worth of about $60 million today, he'd help make the celebrity endorsement a vital part of the marketing strategy for any brand that wanted to compete. The key to his appeal was simple. To Indians, he showed that the fearless underdog — no matter how small — was not only capable of standing up to the larger players from swaggering England, South Africa and Australia, but was also able to dominate them.

“What Sachin did was for the first time he gave India a sense of domination. Sunil Gavaskar played a defensive role. He proved that Indians could face up to the fastest bowlers in the world. But it was about facing up, navigating and negotiating, rather than dominating,” said Desai. “In Sachin's case, he was this cherubic 16-, 18-year-old boy with a reedy voice, and that only made it more distinctive and more magical. When you had very little to back and look up to, Sachin became something that everyone could feed off.”

For a long time, he was virtually India's only hero. And his career suffered as a result. Through his long innings he has amassed more than 12,000 runs in Test (or five-day) cricket and more than 30,000 runs in international cricket — thousands more than any player in history. He holds the record for the highest number of “centuries” (100-run games) in both Test and One Day cricket, and his tally is still rising.

As of last week, he's the only man to score 200 runs in a single one-day match. And he did it all despite adverse conditions. In the '80s and '90s Sachin labored like the proverbial Casey at the Bat. India's batting lineup was compared disparagingly to a bicycle stand: When one falls, they all fall. Sachin carried the heavy burden of the hopes and dreams of a billion Indians on his shoulders. And as he grew and became one of the team's senior players, sometimes he could not help but temper his naturally aggressive and inventive style of play.

That's why last week's performance was especially exhilarating for so many Indians. Over the past five years, Sachin's team has been transformed by an infusion of brash, young players from the new, booming India. The pressure is as great as ever. But their level of confidence is unprecedented.

Today India's giant, growing consumer market provides the advertising dollars that fund the game — giving India more muscle than England or Australia when it comes to the business of the sport. And just as India's entrepreneurs are now acquiring companies like Jaguar and Land Rover and threatening to overtake the biggest markets in the world, India's cricketers no longer play “not to lose.” That means that even at 37 years old, with his best days as an athlete behind him, Sachin has been freed to play like he was meant to do since he was 17.

And India can't get enough.