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The way things have panned out in this Test it would seem nothing has changed. Another stirring hundred from Sachin Tendulkar is likely to be, barring a washout tomorrow, in a hopelessly losing cause. And once again, the personal landmark of India's favourite son will ease the pain of the failure of the team. Tendulkar's 50th hundred will make it to the front pages tomorrow while the story of impending defeat will remain in the back pages.
Of course many things have changed. India are no longer a one-man team. Whatever they have achieved in this decade, including reaching the No. 1 status in the ICC rankings, a feat unimaginable when Tendulkar started playing, is because they have had an outstanding bunch of players. But that he should, after 21 years, still be India's finest batsman in conditions that challenged all India batsmen, is almost as incredible as him getting to 50 Test hundreds.
In my memory it was John Wright who first spoke about 100 hundreds for Tendulkar. And he did it casually during a post-interview chat in February 2002. "It's down to him how he wants to bat, how much he wants to push the envelope," Wright, then India's coach, said. "I have told him he should go for 100 hundreds." It seemed almost fanciful then. Tendulkar's tally was 59 at that point, 28 in Tests and 31 in ODIs, and he was nearly 30. But nothing about Wright was ever fanciful; he must have known.
But could he have imagined that Tendulkar would have his most prolific year in international cricket eight years from then? There was time a couple of years ago when it seemed inevitable that Ricky Ponting will overtake Tendulkar both in career runs and Test hundreds. Ponting, a couple of years younger, now finds himself in an extended, and perhaps, unarrestable, decline, while Tendulkar has reeled off seven Test centuries and over 1500 runs since the beginning of the year with a Test to go.
Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to discuss Tendulkar's batting with two players who have played alongside him and count among the sharpest observers in the game. Sanjay Manjrekar pointed out how Tendulkar had managed to so tighten his game that he now had the best defensive technique among the batsmen he had watched. Rahul Dravid, who shares with Tendulkar the record for most century partnerships, spoke about his backlift. "It's amazing how he has minimised it and yet is able to generate so much of power."
So when you next hear Tendulkar talk about wanting to get better, he is not merely dishing out a quote. Unbelievably, he is still working on his game, and the runs are hardly a coincidence.
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Editor Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.