It took 370 days and 34 innings in coming. The man who had sighted peaks invisible to mortal eyes, had been harangued, vilified and denigrated as his last step on the summit had been laboured.
The milestone was manufactured.
Test matches had seen the master go past a half century of centuries, and then one more. When he had been born the record had stood at 29.When he had started playing Test cricket, the figure had been 34.
In One-Day Internationals (ODIs) he had scored 48. Ricky Ponting stood second in the list, with 30 to his credit.
Hundreds in the two formats were diametrically different, cricketing equivalents of apples and oranges, certainly not suited for elementary addition.
It made about as much sense as cumulative worth reaching 100,000 when the rupees and dollars in the bank were counted together.
Yet, the two figures added up into that nice round sum that had fascinated mankind from the birth of the decimal system. The media and administrators latched on to it. Mass hysteria was fanned. The man himself suddenly found himself dogged by expectation and excitement that soon turned to endless demand.
Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international hundred seemed to have become the entitlement of every Indian by birthright, kept from their rightful ownership by the batsman himself who seemed to take his own sweet time to deliver.
The hype and hoopla grew, the impatient fanatics snapped at the heels of the greatest batsman of Inidan cricket. Sniffing the trend, the media hounds howled in the most chaotic chorus. Ex-cricketers were attracted to the build up like a swarm of flies, sucking greedily at the juice generated by each of his unsuccessful attempts.
From 2008 to the end of the World Cup, the master had scored 21 hundreds in 104 international innings. During that period, he had averaged 65 in Tests and 52 in ODIs. Yet, now that he underwent a slump — and the team with him - each failure multiplied the decibel levels of criticism exponentially.
Yellow journalism and traditionally biased reportage, going viral with the exploding number of experts frequenting social networks, the favoured game of the season being to call for Tendulkar’s head, millions of people with zilch to show as contribution to the nation alleging his monumental collection of runs and centuries to be products of selflessness, worldwide people asking him to look in mirrors and retire — the last 12 months had been a graphic demonstration of how to defile national treasures.
He had come close — quite a few times. Chris Tremlett had trapped him leg before for 91 at The Oval on what can turn out to be his final day in England. He had missed a pull off Devendra Bishoo at 76 at Delhi. Ravi Rampaul had ended a delightful knock of 94 at the Wankhede. Peter Siddle had broken past his defence at Melbourne when he was on 73. Michael Clarke had found the edge of his tentative bat at 80 at Sydney. But the three-figure score had remained elusive.
And finally, after an interminable vigil, the century did come. It was at Mirpur, against a lowly Bangladesh in the Asia Cup —much like Pele’s thousandth goal scored via a penalty-kick. But, apart from bringing up a landmark that seems all set to remain untouched in foreseeable future, this hundred also completed Tendulkar’s set of a century in Tests and ODIs against every Full Member country.
On March 16, 2012, the master put the onus on compilation rather than thrills. The runs came sedately, the scoreboard ticked along. Shakib al Hasan was carted over long on for six, but that was more of an aberration.
The half full stadium at the start of the game was nearly packed to capacity by the time Tendulkar lofted Shakib over the extra-cover to get to 94. The overly noisy and blatantly partisan crowd now started cheering for the champion.
A number of singles followed. The milestone could be made out in the middle, hanging from his neck like a giant burden, slowing down the sparkling flow. At last, after 14 balls in the most nervous of nineties, he turned Shakib to square leg to get the final run.
The helmet did come off. The bat was raised. Eyes were closed, face was turned up, half upraised hands flanked the head, lips seemed to utter the same silent prayer. Everything was quite like the 99 previous occasions, but there was something missing. And not all of it could be attributed to the curls that had disappeared.
One does not associate Sachin Tendulkar with the coarse celebrations, but his winning smile is almost as wide and widely known as the blade of his bat. That smile was conspicuous by its absence. The gestures of jubilance came off as if from the recesses of memory, reactions conditioned by 99 rounds of rehearsal. But, it was like watching a man step out of years in prison. Every movement seemed slow, laboured.
Never before had the greatest batsman of modern times looked so subdued in his celebrations. Was it the realisation that it had not been one of his better innings? Was it the untold relief putting ecstasy in the remote background? Or had the achievement left him too emotional?
The nation had ground to a halt with Tendulkar closing in on the elusive century. The silence in the loudest of countries was almost deafening. As he ran for the 100th run, millions of Indians around the world went into a simultaneous orgy. The team mates erupted, and even the Bangladesh players rushed up to congratulate him with hearts full of gladness of being there for the occasion. But the man in the middle remained stoical. It is a record that will probably never be broken, but the one who set it also set his face in a stony expression.
Why? We may never know. It can go down as yet another of the innumerable mysteries of Indian cricket. The only clue that we have pointing to the working of his inscrutable mind is the way he pointed at the Indian tricolour on his helmet.
Perhaps for the first time the relentless criticism of the past year had finally seeped through and ruffled his personal space.
Perhaps the great man for once wanted to make a point that no amount of runs with his bat, no amount of wins engineered by his performance could ever convince a country full of people rooted to fallacious fables, holding on to moronic myths. Perhaps it was his way of saying that all the 100 centuries I have scored have gone down and added to the Indian total in a way no one has ever done for any country.
It is indeed sad that someone respected the world over as the best batsman of modern times has to deal with so much armchair contempt for his 22 years of sweat and blood in his own country. Has the cherished journey, which has reached a landmark people did not even know about, left him a disappointed man, pained at the careless way every insignificant voice has managed to trivialise his unparalleled achievements?
As Irfan Pathan and Pravin Kumar leaked runs, Bangladesh overhauled the Indian total of 289. And the country being India, thousands of accusing fingers, supported by the team against individual cliché and united by groupthink, pointed towards Tendulkar’s strike-rate as he approached his century.
Well, in this country of paradoxes, one of the downsides of being a champion is that you can never win.
As a culture we are not used to sporting greats. When one such rare individual appears, we tend to bestow esoteric powers on them, expecting them to be the mythological gods we grow up hearing about. And finally, when the brilliant but mortal men cannot keep up with our soaring expectations, we drag them down to earth with an acceleration that defies reason, logic and decency.
In such a land, it is indeed strange that it was only the first time in 22 years that we saw Sachin Tendulkar display symptoms of hurt.
Former cricketers worldwide heaped praise on the untiring march of the great man. Some like Adam Gilchrist and Wasim Akram felt that it was a feat that would remain untouched. Kapil Dev remarked that it might be achieved in future. Tendulkar himself said that Virat Kohli could break the record and he would be glad if the one to do so turned out to be an Indian.
The master had gladly borne the irrational expectations and mindless denigration of millions for 22 years. But perhaps he was finally tired of the turncoat tricks of fans, media and ex-teammates. The back he has strained to breaking point in constructing the cricketing fortunes of the country had perhaps felt too many stealthy knives plunged into it in surreptitious stabs. For the first time, ever since he strode out to bat for India as a 15-year old, he gave vent to emotions with words along with his bat.
It was uncharacteristic. “My critics haven't taught me my cricket,” he voiced.
“There are people I do not respect, and I have a bigger job playing for India,” he added.
Finally, he voiced that famed opinion.
“My belief is that if I feel I can contribute, I am mentally there where I feel I am bringing value to the team, then I should be playing. It's a very selfish thought that when you are at the top you should retire.”
Till then, no one had questioned the adage of “Retire when people ask why and not why not.” It had been voiced by Vijay Merchant and followed by Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid.
Tendulkar had looked at the question of retirement from another dimension. It did make sense. Few men in the history of cricket have looked at the game in the way the Indian genius has. That is precisely why no one else has ever set sights on 15,000 runs in Tests, 18,000 in ODIs and a hundred hundreds in international cricket. Or featuring in 68 wins for the Indian Test side and 234 for the One Day team — for the fanatical individual-versus-team cults.
The most notorious members of the media had always wisely refrained from asking provocative questions. Tendulkar had been known to sidestep all such bait. Hence his voluntary comments came as a surprise to many. There were telltale signs that the Zen like equanimity, which had shielded him in a nation of the most savagely irrational fans, had been breached, and ripples of hurt had made their way to the open.
The road ahead
The journey since then has been sketchy.
The master played just one more ODI, scripting a 48 ball master-class against Pakistan, blazing away to 52. His six Tests against New Zealand and England, in contrast, earned him just one half century. At the end of the year he called it a day from the shorter format.
Runs have flowed in domestic games. He has looked good in the few knocks played against Australia. The packs of critics have continued to grow. The century column has not moved. The millions of admirers have waited with trepidation, expecting the dreaded announcement to be made with every passing Test match. How long will he continue?
No one knows. What is heartening is that he seems to have regained that sublime calm that has allowed the craziness of the critics to pass him like the gentle wind which threaten him not. In the Chennai Test, the first innings 81, followed by the two sixes off the first two deliveries he faced in the second innings were testimony to there being gems yet in his wondrous bag of treasures that can continue to dazzle us.
Recently, speaking in an interview to this writer, South African great Clive Rice stated, “Sachin Tendulkar should play till not a drop of juice is left in that orange. He is that good a player. He will know how he can handle things. He understands himself one hundred percent.”
Here is hoping there are indeed plentiful drops remaining — after all these years of ceaseless deluge of heavenly ambrosia.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix
First Published: March 16, 2013, 10:16 am