Sachin Tendulkar enroute to his double hundred at Sydney Test against Australia in 2004 © Getty Images
Sachin Tendulkar enroute to his double hundred at Sydney Test against Australia in 2004; yes, yet another leg-side stroke © Getty Images

When Sachin Tendulkar arrived in Sydney for the fourth Test between India and Australia 2003-04, he had scores of 0, 1, 37, 0 and 44 in his five Test innings on the tour. He had a plan to come out of the slump and did so in a display of almost meditative restraint. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the 241 he finished on January 4, 2004 without playing a single drive through the off side.

The series was level as the teams moved to Sydney for the last Test. India was in the midst of one of the greatest tours of the Antipodes, and somehow, Sachin Tendulkar had not yet scored a half century.

Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had conjured up their second miracle as India had won the Adelaide Test. The surprisingly insipid Australian attack had been bolstered by the return of Brett Lee as the hosts had drawn level at Melbourne. In the second innings, Tendulkar had shown snatches of his best form, but had perished to a snick while playing an expansive cover drive.

Now, as he walked in at the fall of the second wicket, the great man was determined to banish the horrors — 82 runs in 5 innings, including two blobs — that had dogged him through the tour. Just one more Test remained for him to set the record straight in a land where the feats with his bat were already legendary. He  had come prepared to make amends, to keep the saga of his Australian summers as heroic as ever.

Monk-like discipline

Tendulkar’s innings began 20 minutes into the second session on Day One. Ten hours later, he was still batting on the third morning. When India declared the innings at a mammoth 705 for 7, he walked off after having batted 613 minutes, negotiating 436 balls without being conquered.

It was an extraordinary knock, during which another facet of Tendulkar’s immense genius peeped through from behind the self-imposed barricade on strokeplay. A world that knew him for scintillating drives through the covers, off the front foot and back, now suddenly discovered the face of restraint. In a monk-like display of meditative concentration, Tendulkar did not play one drive through the off side in more than 10 hours of batting. The balls pitched up outside the off-stump were allowed to go through, the years of mastery curbed in a dour display of discipline.

If the balls approached the stumps, the wrists came in to play. Offerings on or just outside the off were sent searing past the non-striker with impeccable timing. Anything straighter or angling into his body was dispatched through the huge gaps that appeared like gaping holes in the on-side. Seldom had one seen Tendulkar score more between  the square leg and the mid-on with a bat virtually straight, the wrists working the ball away again and again through the infield, the balls speeding across the outfield, gaining on the fielders all the way to the fence as testimony to the brilliance of timing.

At the other end, Laxman at his sublime best performed magic with his bat. But, even the thrills of esoteric adventure witnessed 22 yards away did not entice the master. Tendulkar did not play one cover drive that innings.

The hundred arrived borne on 16 boundaries, the double-hundred studded with 29. Laxman departed after an association of 353, and a couple of wickets went down. But Tendulkar stood there like a rock — in an innings that approached a trance-like quality.

One did not need to be well-versed in the finer points of cricket to experience the aura of spirituality of the innings. Seated in the stands was tennis legend Martina Navratilova, not the keenest follower of the game. According to her, “Sachin was so focused. He never looked like getting out. He was batting with single-minded devotion. It was truly remarkable. It was a lesson.” 

When the innings was closed, the great man walked back to thundering applause, still unbeaten on 241.

“I had got out a couple of times to balls bowled outside the off stump. So I decided not to play the cover-drive. They were bowling consistently outside the off stump, and I decided to leave all those balls. Then they had to bowl to me and I used the pace of the ball. I would put this innings right at the top of my hundreds. I had a plan and I am happy I could execute it well. I am happy that I was able to maintain the discipline throughout the innings. Things had gone wrong a couple of times with my shot selection, and I knew I had to cut out a few strokes,” Tendulkar recalled later.

Genius, as they say, finds a way out of the most unpromising dead ends.

He was not done though.

As India pushed for declaration in the second innings, after the mistake of not enforcing follow-on, he scored an unbeaten 60 in the second innings. After 82 runs in the first five innings in the series, he ended with 383 runs for the tour at 76.60.

Down Under, the heroic Tendulkar tales continued in fullest grandeur.