Australia v India, 4th Test, Sydney, 1st day January 2, 2004

A beautiful struggle

Sachin Tendulkar: slowly working his way back into form
© Getty Images

Sachin Tendulkar first came to the Sydney Cricket Ground as an 18-year-old prodigy. It wasn't the most glorious entrance, coming on the back of failures at the Gabba and the MCG. A return of 78 from four innings had a few sneering at the rave reviews with which he had arrived in Australia.

When he walked to the crease, India were 197 for 3, with Ravi Shastri well on the way to an epic double-hundred. Today, the scoreboard showed 128 for 2 when he stepped out of the gate to a standing ovation. There may have been talk of slumps and crisis in the media, but for the average Joe, he's still one of the few players who make it worth travelling miles to the stadium.

Back in 1991-92, Tendulkar silenced the doubters with an imperious 148 not out, an innings of the highest quality, preamble to an even better century at Perth. He was never in that sort of form this afternoon, but there was a macabre beauty to the struggle. After the horror patch that he has been through, a sparkling century wouldn't be an appropriate signpost to better times. Instead, like a wounded boxer dragging himself off the ropes and ignoring the sting of the salve applied to his cuts, he coaxed himself around the ring, avoiding the big blows, and landing a few deft jabs of his own.

Innings, even careers, can turn on the smallest things. For Tendulkar early on in this knock, the trigger was perhaps a superb legbreak from Stuart MacGill that spun right across his bat before settling into Adam Gilchrist's gloves. Given the wretched run that he has been through - dubious leg before, padding up to a straight one, tickling one down the leg side only to be caught - it was a minor miracle that the ball didn't take the outside edge of his bat. Sporting reversals of fortune are often dependent on such small margins, the width of an outside edge or the thickness of a goal post.

Once past that initial ordeal, he did play some handsome strokes, most notably a magnificent cover-drive down the ground off Nathan Bracken. And while he didn't give the Australians a chance, there was none of the dominance that we've grown accustomed to either.

But while the headline writers will inevitably concentrate on Tendulkar, it would be harsh to ignore the contributions of the best opening pair that India have had in years. Before this series, all the talk was of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, kings of the opening gambit over the past three seasons. Yet, in six innings over three Tests, the best stand they've managed is 73, while averaging a poor 25.

By contrast, Akash Chopra - who appears to have a mental block about going past 50 - and Virender Sehwag have provided India with an utterly solid platform that few expected. Today's 123-run association was their second century partnership in succession, and it took their tally for the series to 448 at an average of 64. While the likes of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly have piled on the runs in this series, it's a moot point whether that would have been possible without such a sturdy foundation.

With all the pre-match hype and hoopla surrounding Steve Waugh, you knew it would take an extraordinary effort to steal the limelight. Tendulkar didn't quite manage that, but there was much to treasure in his unbeaten 73. Picture in your mind's eye one of the Renaissance masters - bereft of his usual inspiration - taking out the broad brush and painting a little cottage, and you'll get some idea of what it was like to watch him play. Then again, most of us would settle for a Rembrandt or Raphael doing our walls.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He will be following the team throughout the course of the series.