By Sudipto Ganguly

MUMBAI (Reuters) - An apocryphal story freely circulated about Sachin Tendulkar holds that for most of his career India's selectors never debated his place in the national team. They merely asked him if he was available.

The diminutive 40-year-old Mumbai native has enjoyed the same iconic status off the field since his Karachi debut in 1989.

For a star-starved nation disgusted with tainted politicians and mediocre sportsmen, Tendulkar's self-discipline, fiercely private family life and controversy-free image make him a role model for the country's burgeoning youth population.

It is therefore not surprising that Rahul Gandhi, scion of India's largest political party and a strong candidate to become Prime Minister next year, was wiped off television channels in the middle of a speech as news of Tendulkar's retirement came in.

During his career, which has spanned almost a quarter of a century, Tendulkar has never let his phenomenal success go to his head.

He has remained a conservative family-orientated person despite the glare of a perpetual spotlight and, unlike some of his team mates, he is rarely seen on the party circuit.

Salil Ankola, who played his only test match in the Karachi test in which Tendulkar made his debut, revealed in a 2009 interview that he sleepwalked into a team mate's room in Pakistan and asked if the bats he had ordered had arrived.

Former Pakistan captain Javed Miandad said Tendulkar's dedication made him a guiding light for all aspiring cricketers.

"He is a role model for a generation of cricketers. I keep on telling our youngsters here is a cricketer they can learn so much from. Just learn from the way he has dedicated his life to cricket," he said.

"GOD OF CRICKET"

A cricket commentator once described Tendulkar as India's greatest unifier since Mahatma Gandhi.

Not too far off the mark as 'the God of cricket', as fans call him in India, managed to glue together a fractious parliament, whose members all thumped tables to welcome him as a member of the upper house last year. When he was gifted a Ferrari, the country's government went out of its way to waive off the hefty import duty for India's favourite son.

And every suggestion that he should step down to pave the way for youngsters in the Indian team is met with irate reactions from his worshipping fans.

Over the years there have been a few critics who felt he had concentrated too much on personal targets but Tendulkar has never let criticism or negative headlines breach his defence.

"If people throw stones at you, turn them into milestones," he famously said after overtaking Brian Lara as the highest scorer in tests in 2008.

No cricketer has shouldered a greater burden of expectations than Tendulkar and for many an India match ended whenever he got out.

Since unsuccessful stints as national captain, Tendulkar has eased into the role of senior player and he was instrumental in Mahendra Singh Dhoni's elevation to the post of India captain.

Virat Kohli, India's emerging batting talent, summed up Tendulkar's contribution to Indian cricket.

"Sachin Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders," he said, after the Indian cricketers completed a lap of honour with their master batsman on their shoulders following India's World Cup win at home in 2011.

(Editing by John Mehaffey)

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