Tendulkar to the rescue, again
Sachin Tendulkar walking out to bat with India 12 for 2, and déjà vu floods the mind. That India's opening batsmen are too fragile. That pure pace can destroy possibility, momentum and tempo, and change the course of Tests and series. That once again, hauling the Indian total to respectability was going to depend on a short, square fellow with his dark stare of purpose. The same dude who has been walking around on our TV screens since the time some of us used typewriters and telex machines. India 12 for 2 and Tendulkar up next. Good grief, has nothing changed?
Heaps has changed of course, but let's not get into that. The batsman walking out on Saturday, was neither the Tendulkar of the 1990s nor the Tendulkar of the first decade of the 21st century. Or Mr Hundred Hundreds, to be honest. This was Tendulkar at the tail end of a season where he averaged a nightmarish 19.44 and had kept getting bowled, including to bowlers called Boult and Monty. His eyesight and reflexes were under microscopes and breathalysers, his days in the international game were being counted down (mostly under the breath, okay) and his mortality as a cricketer was being freely discussed because he will turn forty in two months, and forty in most sports equals fossil.
Australia's fastest, burliest - surely not the most delicate? - bowler James Pattinson had knocked India's openers out of the park. M Vijay got a full-length screamer that shot off the ground, clipped an edge of his slowly descending bat and hit the stumps. Virender Sehwag defended nobly but the ball bounced up behind him and looped on to clip the leg bail.
Then the nearly-40-year old turned up. First ball from Pattinson, over 140kph, outside off stump. With what must be an extra nanosecond, Tendulkar takes a short precise step forward, his bat comes down quick and sharp, greets the ball with its sweet spot and pushes it through covers. Four. The next ball is sent slightly wider to the boundary, four again. The fourth and last ball of that over is turned around to fine leg. Strike three and he's in. Pattinson's third over is a bewilderment - he has taken Sehwag's wicket and been hit for three fours by Tendulkar.
India end the day 182 for 3, still 198 runs behind Australia, with the old guy batting on 71. His steady presence in two partnerships, with team-mates who were just over a year old when he made his Test debut, has given India a shot at turning the Test in their direction. Tendulkar and Cheteshwar Pujara put up 93 for the third wicket at an equal clip, before Pujara was bowled by Pattinson, having lost sight of an incutter that hit his middle stump. As the day drew to a close, Virat Kohli drove, flicked and flick-drove his way to 50, in an unbeaten 77-run partnership with Tendulkar for the fourth wicket.
Pattinson was strangely offered by Australia, not as an unrelenting fire-snorting pace dragon, but a plate of nouvelle cuisine only to be had in bite-sized portions. Tendulkar faced 10 balls from him out of 128 and Kohli seven in 84. They are not complaining.
After that early dressing down of Pattinson, Tendulkar settled into a more sedate pace of run scoring. He faced one over of sustained hostility from Mitchell Starc, and survived a ferocious leg before appeal off Nathan Lyon when on 37. It was a 50-50 call with Tendulkar on the full stretch forward, the ball hammering into his pad and no shot being offered. Two overs later, his quick single wasn't quite as quick as it needed to be, and had David Warner hit the stumps, he would have been run out. Michael Clarke's first ball leapt up from the rough outside leg and hit him on the glove.
But that was it. For the rest, Tendulkar was in his element, batting with surety and purpose. He clipped off singles, unfussed if deep fielders meant that his most well-timed strokes weren't rewarded with fours, his batsmanship in sync with the scoreboard. Pujara let it slip afterwards that he had not batted alongside a Tendulkar in "such a positive mindset." It is perhaps true because as Pujara flourished against New Zealand and England, Tendulkar had to endure his version of batting hell.
Explanations and analyses of his innings today include a slightly altered, compact stance with low backlift, particularly against Pattinson, the quickest of the bowlers. The straightness of his bat led to total certainty against a pace attack that fired it in full towards middle stump. That, and the precise, concise movement of his feet. A batsman's stage is, at its heart, his crease and Tendulkar covered his as if Chepauk was the Bolshoi theatre and he was the male lead in Swan Lake. He was neither the mad attacker of the 1990s nor the accumulator of the early 2000s, but someone in between.
India are 198 behind Australia, there are 18 days left in this series, Tendulkar is still 29 short of his first Test century in two years, since the Cape Town Test of January 2011. Who knows what will transpire between now and then? But if anything, this innings will brush off some recent rust and some gathering dust and show us once again, for as long as it is to be, the 24-karat competitor under his familiar blue helmet.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo