THERE have been occasions recently when one has often felt that it was time for Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar to think about retirement. The man has been hesitant at the crease, often slow to react and caught off-guard by balls that he would have smashed to the boundary ten times out of ten a year or two ago.
But then he just blows you away with an innings which puts him on par with the late Don Bradman, Sir Gary Sobers, Sir Vivian Richards, and the diminutive Brian Lara. It is a privilege to be able to watch one of these innings unfold, a chance to study a man who, despite having every reason to be puffed up and proud, is still very much a self-effacing character.
He played such an innings in Hyderabad a few days ago, an innings that almost took India to an incredible victory. He made half of his opponents’ total, in a manner that looked effortless and made the observer realise that, after 20 years of playing at the top level, he still has a few years of good cricket left in him.
The odds were very much against the Indians making anything like a good showing when, in the face of chasing down 351 for a win, they lost two wickets before 100 was on the board, and a further two by the time the score reached 162.
This meant that Tendulkar, who opened the innings, had just one specialist batsman left to play alongside him, and 189 runs more to get if the match was to be won. By the time the fourth wicket fell, he was six runs away from a hundred and had already indicated that he was at the top of his game.
Australia was aware that if he went, a win and a 3-2 lead in the seven-match series, was there for the taking.
The match was all Tendulkar It speaks volumes for his mastery, as his innings came after Shaun Marsh, son of the illustrious Geoff, had made his maiden hundred, and Shane Watson had contributed a well-made 93. That the man of the match award came to Tendulkar says a lot.
Tendulkar hasn’t been in the best of form in this series, and the one time when it looked like he was regaining a bit of touch, in the fourth game, he was the victim of an umpiring error. He made 32 in the third game without really looking anything like his best.
But Hyderabad was a different story. He watched as the flamboyant Virender Sehwag sprayed the ball all around the ground in a quickfire knock of 30 that kept the scoring rate high – India needed a trace over 7 an over to win after Australia made 350 – and kept his end up, taking no chances.
The bad balls were treated as they deserved but Tendulkar played as though he was planning to settle down at one end for the night. It almost turned out that way. It took until the seventh over for a masterly touch, when he played a classy pull shot and a flick off Doug Bollinger, both to the boundary.
He had to cope with the distraction of reaching 17,000 runs in one-day cricket early on in his innings and as there was a full house, there was quite a din when he achieved that mark.
But his concentration never flagged. It was in the 20th over that he began to look ominous when he went back and across to hit Watson over the mid-wicket boundary. There was control, class and domination writ large in that one stroke. At that point, anyone who has seen him play a long innings would have realised that he would be at the crease for a while.
In the same over, he drove home the message by hitting Watson to the cover boundary, dancing down the track and placing the ball very neatly just out of reach of a diving extra-cover fieldsman.
He treated Nathan Hauritz with contempt in the next over, hitting two sixes off successive balls. One went over long-off, the other over long-on. Hauritz saw the second one coming and dropped it short but Tendulkar adjusted in a trice and did not even bother to run.
After his captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, left at 162, Tendulkar found an ally in young Suresh Raina, who played with panache. The pair went through the same routine time and time again – they played a couple of overs without taking a risk, and then got the run-rate back to a manageable level with some calculated big-hitting.
The big hits were never made in desperation; they were cricketing shots every time. Despite the big total, it was Australia that looked the worried team.
Raina was dropped twice but Tendulkar only offered one half-chance when he had crossed 130. It looked very much like India would get home with the little master there at the end.
But, sadly, it was not to be. Not that Australia deserved to lose; it was just that with a player like Tendulkar in such majestic form, he deserved to be on the winning side.
In the 48th over, he fell to debutant Clint McKay. A slower ball caused his demise as he failed to clear short fine-leg with an up-and-under. Hauritz took the catch and the game was over.
India had 19 runs to get off 17 balls but as usual the tailenders flattered to deceive and fell in quick succession to hand Australia victory by three runs.
The night belonged to one man, Tendulkar. He played down his contribution by characterising his 141-ball 175 as “one of my best. I was striking the ball very well…”
Then he went on to talk about the game and the rest of the team. Like Lara, he often plays great innings and ends up on the losing side. He hasn’t won as many games off his own blade as Lara did but the only word that fits for a knock like this is genius. There is no current player in the game who is his equal.