England v India, 4th npower Test, The Oval, 5th day August 22, 2011

The moment eludes Tendulkar again

Sachin Tendulkar's quest for his 100th century is a feat of Olympic proportions. He got excruciatingly close to the mark on Monday

1425 hours. Monday. A moment Sachin Tendulkar may never forget. A moment of agony for his fans at The Oval and elsewhere. A moment when time stood still: Tim Bresnan reverse-swung the ball, drew an alert Tendulkar out of his crease, rapped him on the front pad, then appealed. A moment, probably the most important in the Indian second innings, that umpire Rod Tucker will never forget either. Forced to make up his mind quickly by a baying England team and a raucous crowd, he upheld the appeal.

Tendulkar was out for 91. Nine excruciating runs short of what we have come to know as the infamous hundred. He stretched his stay by more than a couple of moments. Tendulkar appeared unruffled after missing the milestone, and more worried if Tucker had got it right, considering he had come so far out of his crease.

The decision was right: replays showed the ball was clipping the top of leg stump. Tendulkar walked back slightly numb. He had played his best innings in eight outings on the tour. Yet, as he was escorted by security guards, as he climbed the 46 steps to the dressing room, listening to a second standing ovation in under 24 hours, Tendulkar will have been disappointed that he could not do enough to help India salvage a draw.

Nothing went right for Tendulkar this series, nothing he tried worked. He began hitting throw-downs nearly two weeks before the series had started. He continued hitting them before and during the Tests at Lord's, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and then The Oval. Before this innings, his highest score was the 56 at Trent Bridge. All through, Tendulkar wanted to make an impact. He took hits on the body, on the helmet, tried playing with soft hands, switched to hard hands. He kept failing.

Today was the first day in the series where the voices of Indian fans were louder than those of the home fans. It was the first day India's supporters outnumbered England's. When the bell rang five minutes before the start of play, The Oval was two-thirds full. By mid-afternoon virtually all the seats were occupied. Some of the people streaming in had skipped office meetings, citing lunch as an excuse.

The party atmosphere of the weekend was back. The England fans were happy to support Tendulkar's century as long as India lost 4-0. The Indians wanted to celebrate Tendulkar's century and a draw. The Oval was alive with banter, emotion. As Tendulkar neared his century, only 15 away, Matt Prior failed to hold onto a tight nick off Swann. The replay showed up on the big screen and a few voices, no doubt Indian, were heard over the collective gasp of the crowd. "Don't catch," they cried out, "don't catch."

The crowd was desperate from the first ball Tendulkar faced. Every run - single, double, four - was cheered. They were trying to push him from the outside, towards the never achieved and possibly unattainable landmark of hundred international centuries.

Tendulkar survived a handful of chances - on 34, 70, 79 and twice on 85 - and millions gasped each time, but when Tendulkar pulled Kevin Pietersen to move nine short of the century, The Oval chanted his name. Five minutes - an over later -Tendulkar was out and there was a release of emotion: elation from England's fans, disbelief in the Indian contingent; in the media box, the journalists were aggrieved and there was disbelief at the decision more than the fact that Tendulkar missed his century.

Tendulkar's quest for his 100th century is a feat of Olympic proportions. Usain Bolt takes nine seconds to achieve the unthinkable. For Tendulkar, the pursuit is over days, weeks, years, decades. It tests mental application, skills and discipline as much as physical endurance.

A senior Indian cricketer once pin-pointed what differentiated Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid from the rest. "They will murder you when they are on top of the game and score big hundreds with ease. But it is when they are down and things are not going well, even then they can last for three hours. The rest just wilt without a spine." That is the difference.

An hour after play ended today, as the spectators were being asked to leave, one of the stewards remarked: "India will be back. India will be back big-time. No doubt." Tendulkar's fans will be back too. Waiting for their moment.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo