He has been in international cricket for over 23 years but in a way the upcoming India-Australia Test series could well be the most important one for Sachin Tendulkar. Simply put, will it be his last series or will he carry on and become the first cricketer to play 200 Tests.
While the calls for him to hang up his bat have become more vehement in the last year or so thanks chiefly to his indifferent form, he himself has said that he does not see himself playing for too long. His retirement from ODIs is seen as a first step towards retiring from all cricket, yes even the first class game for one cannot see him playing in the Ranji Trophy once he has called it a day in Test cricket.
So the India-Australia series could well see Tendulkar take a decision one way or the other and one supposes that his form will determine his future. Should he end the recent run drought and finish among the runs, perhaps even get international hundred No. 101 he could well say ''what is 40 but a number'' and carry on.
Yes, he celebrates his 40th birthday in April and this itself will be a notable achievement for there are not many Indian cricketers who have played after turning 40. The last was the great all rounder Vinoo Mankad who was a couple of months short of his 42nd birthday when he played his last day of Test cricket against the West Indies at New Delhi in February 1959.
It is a tribute to Mankad's strength, skill and stamina that he could play on for so long as one of the greatest all rounders in the history of the game after making his international debut as a sensational discovery against Lord Tennyson's English side in 1937-38.
But of course even Mankad's feat cannot be compared to Tendulkar given the latter's longevity, outstanding record, the non-stop cricket and the tremendous pressure he has played under during a time when the media focus and the fans' expectations have been unbelievable. One really marvels at Tendulkar's hunger for success.
It is not easy to sustain this quality for so long but he has gone on and on enjoying a successful career that has gone beyond's anyone's wildest imagination. That is why one has to be careful in writing off Tendulkar.
Many of his admirers turned critics have taken this risk, stuck their necks out and have been proved wrong. The doomsday prophets have had to swallow bitter pills in the past after predicting the end of Tendulkar's career. The cynics can only make dire predictions about Tendulkar at their own peril.
In fact many times I recall the now infamous headline carried by a national newspaper at the start of 2006. ''Endulkar?'' it screamed on page one after a few failures in the Test series in Pakistan. This can be summarily dismissed as sensationalism or a vulgarly irresponsible job by a deskman who tried to be too clever but was made to eat humble and distasteful pie.
Since then of course Tendulkar has gone on to make many more hundreds besides thousands of runs in Tests alone while being an integral part of the ODI squad till his recent retirement from the latter format.
Ageless is perhaps the best way to describe Tendulkar's art and craft. His keenness and enthusiasm has kept him going for an amazingly extended period and while he is still obviously enjoying his cricket there is a well known sporting adage that while the spirit may be willing the flesh may be weak. The ageing process is a ruthless and unfeeling phenomenon. It spares no one not even the most gifted of artists or the fittest of sportsmen.
Sooner or later everyone who has held centre-stage for years has to accept the fact that his career is nearing its end and perhaps the time has come for him to ride off into the sunset. The first signs of all this have been evident in Tendulkar's batting for some time now. The last of his 51 Test hundreds was compiled two years ago and this has not happened before during a long and illustrious career.
In 31 innings since then he has topped the half century mark just seven times and his career average has fallen from 57 to 54. Most alarmingly in his last 13 innings he has scored 236 runs at an average of fractionally just over 18. Moreover, there is a certain diffidence in his approach and the manner of his dismissals are becoming repetitive. Also he has fallen to bowlers who are either rookies or whom he would have decimated till not too long ago. All these are worrying signs.
One wonders what peaks still remain for Tendulkar to conquer. Sometimes a personal achievement is what makes a sportsman continue even though he is past his best. One recalls Kapil Dev despite struggling carrying on till he surpassed Richard Hadlee's record of 431 Test wickets. There is nothing amiss with chasing personal records provided it does not affect the team's interests.
But in Tendulkar's case he has hopefully achieved the last of his ambitions - winning the World Cup in 2011 and reaching his 100th international hundred last year. His tally of runs and centuries are almost as unsurpassable as Don Bradman's career average of 99.94 - arguably the most important figure in the game. One wonders what is left for him to achieve unless becoming the first man to play 200 Tests counts as an important landmark. Interestingly enough at the moment he has played 194 matches.