Two days before he completed a career of 20 years in international cricket early last month, Sachin Tendulkar met journalists in a Mumbai hotel in an informal gathering. After discussing the 36-year-old superstar's successful career, the native of Mumbai - capital of Maharashtra state - welcomed a question from the outfield. 'You are a role model for Maharashtrians. Who does Mumbai belong to?' the journalist asked Tendulkar, who lives in Mumbai. For years, Tendulkar has played a straight bat to any politically charged or sensitive questions. The icon is known for his humility, but could not resist saying: 'Mumbai belongs to everyone in India. I am a Maharashtrian and I am extremely proud of being a Maharashtrian. But I'm an Indian first.' In Maharashtra, where some Hindu extremist groups have violently attacked non-Maharashtrians, the comments ignited a storm. Mumbai is known as India's most cosmopolitan city, a place where people from many different walks of life come to seek a living. But the Mumbai-based right wing Hindu party Shiv Sena (SS) does not want migrants to work and live in the city because 'they take away jobs and businesses' from native people and threaten the livelihood of Maharashtrians. SS chief Bal Thackeray believes Tendulkar, by saying 'Mumbai belongs to everyone in India', has supported migrants' entry into the city. Thackeray advised Tendulkar to stick to cricket and warned him to stay away from the 'field of politics'. Thackeray wrote in the SS mouthpiece, SAAMNA, that Tendulkar had tried to take a 'cheeky single'. 'You said you are an Indian first. But you should have said that you are a Marathi first. You were not even born when Maharashtra was formed. By making such statements, you have insulted the 105 people who died for Maharashtra's cause,' said Thackeray, referring to Maharashtrians killed in last year's terrorist attack in Mumbai. 'You left the crease and moved to the pitch of politics by making these remarks, which have hurt Marathis. 'Please remember that when fours and sixes flow from your bat, people applaud you. But these sixes and fours, which have come off your tongue, have hurt Maharashtrians and they do not tolerate such statements.' For decades Thackeray has been known for his regular vitriolic attacks against different groups or individuals who do not agree with his views on local, national or international issues. Yet many were taken aback as Thackeray launched into Tendulkar, ignoring the cricketer's iconic status. Although Tendulkar refused to respond to Thackeray's comments, the rest of the country did it for him. A host of politicians, former cricketers, Bollywood stars and fans of the country's possibly most adorable sportsman said Tendulkar was a national hero, there was nothing objectionable in his remarks and Thackeray's criticism was intolerable. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, said Tendulkar's statement came 'in the spirit of a true sportsman' and that the whole country was proud of his achievements. 'Though he is a Maharashtrian, he plays for India. We are Indians first and then anything else. I believe his remark [that he is an Indian first] will unite the whole country,' said Chavan. Manish Tewari, spokesman for India's ruling Congress party, said Thackeray's comments 'deserve to be condemned in the strongest possible manner ... It is an assault on the very idea of a united India.' The chief minister of Bihar state and a BJP ally, Nitish Kumar, said Tendulkar's remarks 'have lifted the image' of the country. 'He has been revered as a great cricketer, now he will be respected also as a sensitive human being and a good citizen,' Kumar said. Tendulkar has scored more test runs (12,970) and centuries (43), and more one-day runs (17,178) and hundreds (45) than any other batsman in the world. Tendulkar insists he is still as passionate about playing for India as he was as a wide-eyed teenager 20 years ago. 'My love for cricket and the honour of playing for my country have kept me motivated all these years. I am enjoying my game and there is a lot of cricket left in me,' Tendulkar said last month. 'Whenever I am on a cricket field I enjoy it. There is still a 16-year-old hidden inside who wants to go out and express himself.' However, despite condemnation from across the country, Thackeray remained unfazed and some of his party leaders even maintained their chief had done nothing wrong by 'warning' Sachin 'not to repeat his mistake in future'. 'Sachin may be a big cricketer, but he is not bigger than Maharashtra,' said Sanjay Raut, a parliamentarian from Shiv Sena. 'He has not sacrificed his life for the country. He's never helped any other Marathi players or even friends like [former cricketer] Vinod Kambli, unlike [former India captain] Sunil Gavaskar, who helped several Maharashtrian players get recognised internationally.'