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The Michael Jordan of India

Meet Sachin Tendulkar: the best athlete you've never heard of.

India's Sachin Tendulkar looks skywards after completing his double century during the second one-day international cricket match between India and South Africa teams in Gwalior, Feb. 24, 2010. (Punit Paranjpe/Reuters)

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.”