(Published on Jan 05, 2008)
His response came as much from his heart as his head. A push through the covers took him to the coveted tally and the crowd stood to cheer. Just for a moment the Indian appeared frozen, as if the accomplishment of a feat long in the making was too much to absorb.
After a pause that lasted an age, he slowly raised both arms towards the heavens and stood staring with something akin to ecstasy etched in his face. Clutching his bat and helmet he raised his arms a second time, punching upwards like a gladiator who had looked immortality in the eye and survived.
It was not so much that he had conquered a field or a fierce opponent. He had conquered himself.
Tendulkar stayed with arms aloft for several seconds. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Harbhajan Singh, a frisky counterpoint to a grave elder, dashed across to embrace his colleague but his partner had withdrawn into some ethereal world of private contemplation and hardly seemed to recognise him.
As the ovation finally faded Tendulkar walked towards square leg to give himself time to recover and then went back to work. Stuart Clark’s next delivery was met with a discouragingly straight bat.
At times of heightened emotion it seems almost impertinent to delve into the innermost thoughts of the performer. Perhaps, he was thinking about a father whose passing moved him deeply. Perhaps, he was remembering previous successes on a ground that relishes him. Or maybe he was reflecting upon the passing of the years, knowing that he could not expect to tread this path again.
Accordingly, he had steeled himself to produce something special.
At stumps every day he had repaired to the indoor nets to tighten his game. Presumably, he was working on his back foot drive, the shot that had been bringing him down. Batsmen of this calibre do not allow bad habits to take hold. It was an innings notable for its construction and control. As much as an exhibition of batsmanship, it was an act of will. Every thought was precise, every decision certain, every stroke seemed to be carved in stone. It is not that his batting was thrilling or that any flamboyant strokes were played. Indeed, he hardly produced anything exceptional till three figures had been reached whereupon he fed the boundary at third man with upper cuts and crafty steers.
Rather his innings was satisfying, in the manner of a perfect chess game. Throughout, his head was immaculately still and his eyes remained fixed on the ball. Somehow his bat appeared broad of beam, an illusion created by presenting the full face of the blade to every delivery. Not for him the rubbery movements and wristy flicks commonplace in the subcontinent. Hardly once, too, did he lift the ball, preferring to keep it scorching the turf.
Tendulkar set about building his score methodically and meticulously. Exuberance is the prerogative of youth, wisdom belongs to elders who seek not glory but achievement. Bafflingly Tendulkar is sometimes chided by his own constituency for advancing slowly, as if it were fit for a man to remain forever young. Now, he reminded supporters that age, too, has its satisfactions.
Mostly Tendulkar pushed the score along with superbly constructed defensive strokes placed into gaps. It was the innings of an old pro. His first run of the day had come with a push wide of mid-on and an alert scamper.
Already the brain was ticking. For a time, his attacking strokes found the fieldsmen, a frustration that did not upset him. Unperturbed, he kept tucking the ball away, kept collecting runs, gradually gathering momentum. Not the least distinguishing feature of the Indian's innings lay in his willingness to play second fiddle to various partners.
Tendulkar watched as Sourav Ganguly unfurled numerous sweet strokes before his untimely dismissal. Later he was happy to support Harbhajan as the spinner played with the utmost spirit. Tendulkar did not try to dominate the strike, did not panic as wickets fell to the second new ball.
Nothing was allowed to disturb his resolve. Throughout, he concentrated on serving the side the best way he could. By scoring a hundred.