Australia v India, 4th Test, Sydney, 2nd day January 3, 2004

A marvellous symphony

Sachin Tendulkar: spectacular return to form
© Getty Images

The last time Sachin Tendulkar was eclipsed by a batting partner, Allan Donald was one of the world's most feared quick bowlers, with a sunblock-smeared face and snarl to rattle the best in the business. Going into that Cape Town Test of January 1997, Tendulkar had gone 11 innings without a century, his worst run since the barren 13 that followed his debut in Pakistan.

On a wonderfully sunny day in the southern cape, Tendulkar marked his return to form with a magnificent 169, but that effort was put in the shade by Mohammad Azharuddin's manic, yet gorgeous, 110-ball 115. Those were isolated notes of defiance though, as India were crushed by 282 runs.

Such a result isn't possible at Sydney, after a day when Tendulkar and VVS Laxman danced remorselessly on the grave of Steve Waugh's final Test dream. There was an element of the cold and the clinical to the manner in which India batted at times, keen to grind the opposition into the dust as much as pile on the runs.

Cold, though, is not a word that can be used about Laxman's batting. Tendulkar played some handsome strokes once he got going, but he rarely looked as majestic as Laxman did in full flow. Almost every single shot he played with intent raced to the fence, with such wondrous timing that the fielders were conned into chasing to the bitter end.

The headlines will still focus on Tendulkar, and justifiably so. Until 2003, not once had he played more than four Tests in a calendar year and failed to make a hundred. The innuendo of the past few months must have sat heavily even on those broad shoulders, and today's riposte - though lacking the amazing grace of Laxman's knock - will give him immense satisfaction. Not once did he let up on the intensity, and even in the final over of the day, he scampered the singles with beaver-like eagerness.

If India go on and win this game, as logic suggests they should, it will also be unquestionably the most important innings ever played by an Indian batsman. After all, winning a series in Australia is as good as it can possibly get in cricket, especially given their invincibility at home over the past decade.

The applause that Tendulkar received when he got to 100, and then to 200, was also something to savour. There may be a few rotten apples here and there - as there are in any sports stadium in the world - but this Sydney crowd didn't hold back in acknowledging one of the game's true champions. There is an impression here that this could be the last time they see him - given the demands of the international game - and there were many who wanted to see him depart these shores on a Caruso-like high note. This evening, they weren't disappointed.

Perhaps only Pele and Muhammad Ali, among sporting legends, have elicited such love and devotion wherever they went. The two Michaels, Schumacher and Jordan, dominated their sports more, but without having personalities that were as endearing.

Waugh's farewell has thus far consisted of diving stops, futile chases to the fence, and the furrowed brow. The only bowler exempt from criticism was Jason Gillespie, as magnificent in patches today as he was in another futile burst, at Chennai in the deciding Test of 2001. Sadly, he was backed up by some who would struggle to get into an England side, and for Australians, there can be no greater insult.

Brett Lee pumped his fists and celebrated as though the score was 5 for 70, rather than 5 for 570, when he dismissed Sourav Ganguly. If he paid as much attention to bowling a decent line and length as he does to theatrics, he'd be one of the greats, a worthy foil for Gillespie. As it is, he's not even close. Gillespie's tremendous opening burst in the morning - when Tendulkar was feeling his way back into the game - was utterly negated by Lee's dross, which Laxman creamed through cover and midwicket with disdain.

Two months ago, it was suggested that changes in the rules would be needed to curb this Australian team. But without Glenn McGrath, Gillespie has ploughed a lone and unhappy furrow. And suddenly, the iron-nailed boot is on the other foot. No one will feel the pain more than Waugh, whose swansong was drowned out by the 353-run Tendulkar-Laxman symphony.

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