Tendulkar's promise of a glorious summer
Just before tea on day two of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. James Pattinson and Ben Hilfenhaus had bowled with serious pace and menace. Pattinson in particular. Rahul Dravid had struggled, but he had hung on. Virender Sehwag had sizzled, but he had been bowled. Every head at the stadium, all 52,858 of them, plus the others working on the match, turned towards the change rooms. There was a delay of about 30 seconds before they saw Sachin Tendulkar, and gave him a reception to rival Ricky Ponting's.
The second ball Tendulkar faced he inside-edged. Safe. A sigh. Michael Clarke brought on Michael Hussey to bowl the last over before the break. Tendulkar was playing to block out this over, and Hussey's slow-mediums could be dangerous. He has a history with those. He bat-padded, but it didn't carry to a fielder. Another sigh. The MCG was abuzz. Australia could sense they were back into this one. Dravid had not been at his best; he was just clinging on. Tendulkar had made an iffy start. India were still 214 behind.
Many times before this, sides have come back immediately after a Sehwag dismissal. It's just the change of tempo that is huge, which leaves an opening for bowling sides. India needed somebody to take charge of the situation. The tea break arrived at the right time. Twenty minutes later, Clarke went to home boy Peter Siddle. The first ball was a bouncer, over the stumps. Tendulkar arched back, for there was no room. He had to use the wrists to make up for the lack of room. He did. And he guided it over slip.
If this were a cricket documentary, I would tell you the rest of the story - at least a major part of it - through an almost fast-forward video of one shot merging into another: another cut behind square, a drive on a bent knee, an on-the-up drive through extra cover, a punch straight down the ground, a glance off the pads, a slog-sweep placed expertly in front of deep backward square, another upper-cut for four.
It all happened that fast. Yet it wasn't an awe-inspiring Sehwag fast. You could savour this. Usually when batsmen score this fast in a Test - he was 54 off 62 at one stage - the bowler's faces tell a story. Here the story was happening at the batsman's end. There was the class, there was the innovation. There was the high elbow, there was the arched back. There was the glorious sun that wouldn't set till quarter to nine. During that period it seemed he couldn't find fielders even if he tried to.
India had well and truly taken charge. Dravid was allowed the space to struggle, and hasn't he earned it after a fabulous year? Test cricket, though, doesn't go at the same pace all the time. Clarke finally found some control on proceedings through Lyon, David Warner and deeper fields. Tendulkar settled down too. Not in a playing-for-stumps sort of way, but in a long-innings sort of way. The singles were on offer; he kept taking them.
Inevitably the talk of the hundredth hundred reached fever pitch. Not that there hasn't been talk. There has been talk all through the year. There has been talk it plays on his mind. However, if you had been deprived of cricket all year long and if you were dropped in at the MCG today, you wouldn't have guessed the man had scored 99 international hundreds, had been stuck there for nine months, had been out in 90s twice, and came from a country that could think of little else.
Tendulkar here was setting the tone for the summer; if the hundredth was on his mind, it didn't show. India's last four tours have all begun with batting failures; he was trying to make sure this one wasn't going to. He knew Dravid was having an off day, and it's only a few like Dravid who come out of such off days unconquered, but if Tendulkar hadn't scored that fast from the other end Australia could have cornered India.
Tendulkar fell to a superb spell of bowling, when two Victorians, Peter Siddle and Pattinson, chugged in for another spell of testing fast deliveries in front of their home crowd, just before stumps. He left India needing another brief period of recovery if they needed to take full control. That was the imperfection in an otherwise perfect innings. But four years after every Australian ground had bid him farewell, he also made us a promise of another glorious summer.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo