New Delhi: "His wicket was always the most important for us," said legendary Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan as he paid tribute to Indian batting legend Sachin Tendulkar terming him the "greatest cricketer" of his generation who played the game like a "true gentleman" for 24 years.
Muralitharan, with whom Tendulkar has fought many a stirring battles, said the sheer hard work and dedication Tendulkar put in over the years made him a "legend", who played the sport with great enthusiasm, passion and dignity.
The 41-year-old off-spinner, who took a staggering 800 Test wickets and over 500 one-day scalps in his 20-year-long international career, said while Sir Don Bradman is the greatest when it comes to averages, but for the number of runs and for longevity, Tendulkar would go down as the greatest of his era.
"Sachin is the greatest cricketer of my time. He is the modern-day great. His passion, dedication, hard work before every game, and his love for cricket stood out for me and that makes him the greatest player I have ever seen since I started playing in 1992," Muralitharan told PTI in an exclusive interview.
"I have not seen others. I have not seen Don Bradman bat. If you look at the average, Bradman is the greatest but if you look at Sachin's stats, the sheer amount of runs he has scored, his longevity...it makes him the greatest cricketer of my time. Nobody played for such a long like him. I have no doubt while stating that he is the greatest.
"His love for the game, his attitude, putting in a lot of hard work before every game, practicing hours and hours to prepare for the match, that's how he became a great player. Sachin is just amazing and remained the same person I met him 24 years back," said Muralitharan.
A teary-eyed Tendulkar on Saturday brought the curtains down on his illustrious 24-year-old career at his home ground, Wankhede Stadium, after India crushed a hapless West Indies by an innings and 126 runs in his farewell match to complete a 2-0 series whitewash.
Tendulkar, regarded as the greatest batsman in contemporary cricket, bows out as the most successful batsman in international cricket with 15,921 runs in 200 Tests. In his ODI career, which he needed last year, he amassed 18,426 runs in 463 matches.
The Mumbaikar is the only batsman in international cricket to score 100 centuries. He was the first batsman to get a double hundred in one-dayers.
Muralitharan, who had his first encounter with Tendulkar during a one-day series in 1993, said Tendulkar "inspired" him in many ways.
"He has inspired me with his passion and dedication towards the game. His contribution will always be remembered. He played like a true gentleman. He conducted himself in a dignified manner. Playing for 24 years, it just talks about his greatness...a gentleman of the game. He always came across as a humble and quiet person. He was just outstanding."
Many have already started talking about new batting sensations and India's vice-captain Virat Kohli as Sachin's possible successor but Muralitharan said there was no point in this comparison.
India's dependence on Kohli in the lineup and his current performances and batsmanship has been compared to that of Tendulkar's in the 90s.
"Two things cannot be same. Virat Kohli is one of the greatest young talents around. It would not be right for me to say that India has found another Sachin in Kohli. The time will only tell. It took Sachin 24 years to become great and Kohli has just started. If Kohli keeps on realising his talent, playing like he plays these days, shows same discipline and dedication, then he can become one of the greatest players. But, as of now, Sachin is the greatest," he said.
"I like Kohli's attitude, his aggression, his hunger for runs. He captained me (for RCB) in the IPL. I saw his hunger to win every time, to score big. He is a talented cricketer. Sachin is definitely the greatest of my time. Sachin has already achieved everything in his career and Kohli is in the process of achieving it," he said.
Muralitharan said the champion batsman was the best in all conditions against all types of bowling and that his opponents always had a "special strategy" for him.
"It was always difficult to contain him. It was always difficult to get him out. His wicket was always the most important for us. We always had special strategy for his wicket. We will discuss how to get him out in our team meetings. We always gave more importance to his wicket than anybody else. He was always the key opposition player for us," recalled Muralitharan.
Wishing Tendulkar all the best for his post-retirement life, Muralitharan said the Indian should enrich the game with his knowledge and experience.
"I wish him a very happy life. All the very best for his future. I would like to see him in the role of a mentor, helping the young players with his rich experience and knowledge of the game. He has a done a lot for the game and it's amazing to see how he conducted himself in these years. Keep on contributing to the world cricket. This game needs your guidance and I would like to wish him happy retirement life," he said.
Muralitharan, though, felt it was unlikely that Tendulkar would take up a coaching assignment.
"As far as I know him, it won't suit him. The coaching job is difficult and I don't think he would be comfortable with the job. It won't suit him that's my personal opinion. He can, at the best, mentor the Indian team. He has so much to give to the Indian cricket."
Muralitharan, too, has fond memories of the man that go beyond the boundary.
"I started playing cricket in 1991 and first played against him in 1993. There are many favourite memories against him and it's very difficult to pick one. All have remained my favourites. There are many off-field memories also. Whenever we meet, gone for dinners, we always chatted about cricket, about each other's game. We shared our thoughts and respected each other's views. We have enormous respect for each other," he said.