By Jaideep Vaidya
March 16, 2012, was a landmark day for India. It was a day when the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, declared the Union Budget for the financial year 2012-13. The budget was one that flattered to deceive the public. While Pranab babu saved the Indian taxpayer Rs 4,500 crore in direct taxes, he took away almost 10 times that amount in indirect taxes. Meanwhile, as Mukherjee dabbled in figures mounting to billions and billions in the parliament in Delhi, about a thousand miles east of the venue, another Indian was riddling in humongous numbers.
Stuck on 99 international hundreds for just over a year, spanning 33 innings, Sachin Tendulkar hit Mukherjee’s googlies for a six and knocked him off the pedestal as he went on to notch a never-before achieved 100th international hundred at the Shere Bangla National Stadium, Mirpur. As a nation erupted, one got to see the marvel of Tendulkar. Long forgotten was the now costlier restaurant and mobile bill, it was time to celebrate an unprecedented, arguably unconquerable — for Indian fans at least — record with their cricketing god. The finance minister could take a hike, figuratively, of course.
The occasion was an Asia Cup round-robin match between India and Bangladesh. The host skipper Mushfiqur Rahim won the toss and, surprisingly, elected to bat second on a pitch that promised to turn more as the match progressed. A delighted MS Dhoni, who would’ve batted first in any case, went back to his team and asked Gautam Gambhir and Tendulkar to pad up.
The Little Master opened his account with a leaning cover-drive that fetched him four runs off Shafiul Islam’s half-volley outside off-stump. Not many in the Shere Bangla knew that this was his 2000th ODI boundary. His next five boundaries targeted either the same area or the deep backward point region. His late and timely cuts, as well as his routine cover-drives off the half-volleys magically pierced the field.
Tendulkar’s first six of the innings came in the 17th over, and it was a shot that his fans had craved to see for months. Stepping down the track against spinner Shakib Al Hasan’s length ball pitched on middle, Tendulkar made room and launched the Bangladeshi into the stands behind long-on. The shot took him to 43, even as the handful Indian spectators in Mirpur began to cradle hopes of the ultimate. Yes, the ultimate, because if Tendulkar did not reach the ultimate — the pinnacle of them all — all his past records could take a hike.
In Shakib’s next over, off a similar delivery that had earlier been carted for six, Tendulkar made similar movements and whacked the ball to the cover fence, bringing up his first half-century since the majestic 85 he had made in the World Cup semi-final against Pakistan. Yes, he was halfway to the ultimate. It did not matter scant to the public that he had just notched up a record 96th ODI fifty.
Tendulkar raced along into the eighties and received good support from young Virat Kohli, who had scored his own half-century. It was here that, perhaps, Tendulkar realised that he was near the ultimate. Ever since that 111 against the Proteas in Nagpur in the World Cup, he had been nagged and nagged about the next one. He had come close on quite a few occasions — at The Oval (91), the Kotla (76), the Wankhede (94), the MCG (73) and the SCG (80). But the three figures had remained elusive, and people never let him hear less of it. “The 99 hundreds that I scored, nobody spoke about them,” he was to say. “Everyone had their opinion…”
After hitting 80 off just 102 deliveries, Tendulkar crawled his way to 99 off 137. Eventually, he reached the ultimate in the 44th over of the innings, after working Shakib to mid-wicket for a single. As the 38-year-old jogged and reached the non-striker’s end, the helmet came off and one got to see an expression composed of a mixture of stress and relief. He took a quick look at his blade, one he had used to amass thousands and thousands of runs, whereas it did seem as if these 100 that he had just scored were the only ones that mattered to anyone. Tendulkar then raised his arms and pointed to the Indian crest on his helmet with his bat’s handle. “It doesn’t matter how many hundreds you score, you still have to put your head down and do your job for your team,” he was to say.
Tendulkar was dismissed for 114 soon after as India put on a competitive 289 for five on the board. It would seem as if the total was enough for the Indian bowlers to defend, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. A spirited Bangladesh revelled in the second-innings chase even as the Indian bowlers struggled with the evening dew. Irfan Pathan was clobbered for 61 off nine overs, Ashok Dinda was hit for 38 off 32 balls and Praveen Kumar conceded 56 off his 10 overs as Shakib (49 off 40 balls) and Mushfiqur (46 off 40 balls) took the hosts home with four balls to spare.
In the end, it was the gutsy, resolute partnerships that won the match for Bangladesh. With one 100-plus stand and two rapid partnerships of 68 and 64, at the end, it did seem as if Bangladesh coasted through, inopportunely overshadowing Tendulkar’s efforts.
The vitriol-spewing critics were to have a field day. What they had always maintained had been proved once again — that Tendulkar’s hundreds, more often than not, came in losing causes. What they failed to see was that 33 of his now 49 ODI tons had resulted in Indian victories. Some even said that it was his cautious approach through the eighties and nineties that cost India the match.
As a drained Tendulkar appeared for the press conference, he admitted that it was the “toughest” century of his career. What was even tougher, probably, was the one-year phase between Nagpur and Mirpur. “It was a tough phase for me, [I] felt at times [that] I was luckless…” he said. “A year ago when I got my 99th hundred, no one spoke about it during the World Cup. Then, I guess it was the media who began talking about it.
“Wherever I went, to a restaurant, the house-keeping, the room service, whoever I met just spoke about the 100th hundred. It became a little difficult mentally, because I am not playing only for my 100th hundred… The 99 hundreds that I scored, nobody spoke about them. Everyone had their opinion but eventually I have got to do what is important for the team.”
Tendulkar then joked that the pressure had made him lose “about 50 kilos”. “I am human and I have emotions so I was frustrated. It does play on your mind,” he said. But perhaps the most stimulating, almost piteous, statement of the whole presser was, “I am not God, I am Sachin Tendulkar.”
Unfortunately, billions of Indians will never believe it.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber)