Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso who took his first bow at Carnegie Hall as an 18-year-old, once said: “For every child prodigy that you know about, at least 50 potential ones have burned out before you even heard about them." After Sachin Tendulkar’s first Test match in Karachi 20 years ago produced just 15 runs and five wicketless overs for 25, hardened cynics might have questioned the wisdom of thrusting a 16-year-old on to such a stage.

First innings: Tendulkar at age 16, polishing his moves a few months before his international debut against Pakistan in 1989 that made him India’s youngest Test player. Parikh Mahendra / India Today

A week later, in Faisalabad, there was nowhere to hide. When Tendulkar arrived at the crease to join his Mumbai teammate, Sanjay Manjrekar, India were in disarray at 101 for 4. In a column many years later, Wasim Akram wrote: “It was a lush green wicket, possibly the greenest I’ve seen in Pakistan, and Tendulkar was batting on 20-odd when a ball from me hit him. I immediately asked him if he was alright and he looked me in the eye and nodded. I was a 21-year-old then, so I did not give the matter much thought, but in retrospect that score of 50-odd was the first hint the world got about Tendulkar’s special talent."

For the world, it was a hint. For the boy himself, it was so much more. “My first innings was a disaster," he said. “When I walked out at Faisalabad, I told myself that I would do my best to just stay at the wicket, even if I didn’t score runs." He finished with 59, having stayed at the crease for a shade over 4 hours. And although it didn’t win the Test, or set the pulse racing, it meant a lot to someone thrown in at the deep end. “I said to myself, ‘You can handle this, it’s not a place where you don’t belong.’"

In one of its special issues, Time magazine had Tendulkar’s debut at No. 4 in its list of Top 10 Sporting Moments, behind Michael Jordan’s The Shot (against the Cleveland Cavaliers), Pete “Charlie Hustle" Rose being banned from baseball and Arsenal winning the English league title in the last minute of the 1988-89 season. In the years to come, you can take it for granted that thousands will claim that they were at the National Stadium on 15 November when he walked out in an India cap for the first time. In retrospect, it was certainly an I-was-there moment, though few could have imagined that Tendulkar would still be punching the ball through the covers two decades later.

Perhaps we in India can’t really fathom the full extent of the adoration and expectation that he has had to deal with in that time. Matthew Hayden, another batting colossus of our age, gave voice to what many outsiders feel when he wrote: “His life seems to be a stillness in a frantic world and I admire his mental strength. When Tendulkar goes out to bat, it’s beyond chaos—it is a frantic appeal by a nation to one man."

Some, like Muhammad Ali, protected themselves with a veneer of loudmouthed arrogance. Others, like George Best, lost themselves in a haze of boozy, womanizing nights. With Tendulkar, the humility, the feeling that he considered himself truly fortunate to be doing what he did, never went away, even if it cost him any semblance of a normal life. “I could say that I didn’t get to do all those things that a normal teenager would do," he told me once, “but then again, not many people get the opportunity to do what I do."

That awareness of the big picture was best illustrated in Steve Waugh’s final Test at SCG (Sydney Cricket Ground) in January 2004. Twenty minutes before stumps, with Australia seemingly safe, Waugh—who had scripted a typically defiant 80 just when his team most needed it—swept a delivery from Anil Kumble to deep square leg, where Tendulkar wrapped his hands around it. As 40,000 Australians rose in unison, it took Tendulkar a moment to comprehend the significance of the occasion.

No one batted an eyelid: (from left) Tendulkar waves to the crowd in Kolkata during the inauguration of the 1996 World Cup; hoisting the Sahara Cup in Toronto after his team beat Pakistan in 1997; with the Man of the Series trophy at the tri-nation championship final against Sri Lanka in Colombo in September.

“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking that I had a hand in Steve Waugh’s last dismissal," he said later. “I was thinking of how we could pull off the win. But once I realized that it was his last innings, I ran all the way from the boundary to congratulate him. I said, ‘You’ve made every Australian proud, and every cricketer admires you’. That was about it really, nothing more."

Just as Sunil Gavaskar was defined by his heroics against the all-conquering West Indies, so Tendulkar remains peerless because of the enormity of his achievements against Australia. Numbers matter in sport, but nothing counts quite as much as how you do against the best. With 10 Test centuries and eight one-day hundreds against the dominant team of his era, Tendulkar’s place in the pantheon is beyond dispute.

More than cold statistics though, it’s the moments that will endure long after he’s put his bat away for the last time. That final over in the Hero Cup semi-final. The audacious assault on Shane Warne in Chennai. The cold-eyed targeting of Shoaib Akhtar at Centurion, South Africa, in 2003. That match-winning century in Chennai, just a fortnight after the streets in the vicinity of his restaurant in Mumbai had resembled war-torn Beirut.

And most of all, Perth in February 1992. That magical 114 on a lightning-fast pitch, even as the team was routed by 300 runs. Watching the teenager stand on tiptoe and cut and drive with the panache of an old pro in baggy green, Merv Hughes, he of the walrus moustache and the colourful sledges, turned to Allan Border and said, “This little ***** is going to get more runs than you, AB." He was right.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo and Asian cricket correspondent for The Sunday Times and The Guardian.