Tendulkar evokes memories of 1992
At times you could have fooled yourself into thinking that it was the irrepressible teenager of Perth 1992 vintage batting, and not the 35-year-old veteran who was supposed to be on his last legs. The strokeplay was majestic and the approach worlds removed from the hesitancy that coloured Sachin Tendulkar's innings at times over the past couple of years.
The situation when he walked in was hardly that in which to unleash a fusillade of shots. At 27 for 2, he might even have been reminded of the bad old days, when the batting rode on his shoulders, especially away from home at venues like the MCG and Edgbaston. These days though, the line-up around him is far more robust and the freedom he batted with today was that of a man determined to enjoy a final flourish in the game that he has illuminated for so long. Even when India were under siege in the first session, there was safety in the thought that Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Man of the Match in Mohali a week ago, was pencilled in at No.7.
Brett Lee had already been taken off by the time Tendulkar emerged to raucous cheers, but Mitchell Johnson was bowling just as quick in his place. One bouncer whizzed past his helmet at 151 km/hr but if that was meant to intimidate, it had little effect. A couple of balls later, he was on tiptoe and striking the ball through point, much as he had done at the WACA all those years ago.
Johnson tried to tempt him into the sort of airy drive that Rahul Dravid had perished to, but the bait was never nibbled. For 20 balls, Tendulkar was in watchful mode, intent on seeing off the challenge of Australia's premier fast bowlers. Only when Johnson started to err on the short side did he start to open up, first tucking one off the hips past square leg and then lashing one through the fielder at point.
Lee was the culprit on that occasion, and Ricky Ponting turned to him a quarter of an hour before lunch. It was a crucial passage of play. Had Australia picked up a wicket then with the run-rate still well below three, the game might have turned. Instead, Lee was greeted with the most sumptuous of cover-drives. Lee continued to bowl quick and full, but Tendulkar either guided the ball into the off side, or played it straight back. There was no hint that the eyesight or reflexes have faded, no sign of a batsman on the wane.
The contest within a contest continued right after lunch, with Lee charging in as he had to dismiss Virender Sehwag earlier in the morning. Earlier this year, in the CB Series in Australia, Tendulkar had decided to use Lee's pace to bunt the ball over the slip cordon. It was a stroke he unfurled to telling effect in Bloemfontein in 2001, but this was Lee, the quickest bowler in the world, in the quintessential Test match battle of our times, Australia against India.
Such labels clearly meant nothing to him because the third ball after lunch nearly went over third man for six. Once again, he had rocked back, arched his spine like a gymnast and twirled the wrists to devastating effect. The score was still modest, 71 for 2, but a massive statement had been made. The unerringly accurate Stuart Clark was then thumped behind point for four more, before Lee responded the way fast bowlers do. The straight, quick bouncer would have parted Tendulkar's hair if he hadn't been wearing a helmet, but all he did was drop the wrists and sway out of harm's way.
His riposte was far more damaging, a whiplash square of the wicket that got to the ball boys before anyone in the off side cordon had even moved a couple of feet. When Lee subsequently searched for the yorker, Tendulkar drove in classical fashion to the man at midwicket. More than Lee's raw pace, it was Clark's accuracy that troubled him most, with one superb leg-cutter almost kissing the outside edge on its way to Brad Haddin.
There were still moments to drive the bowler to distraction though. There was little wrong with the delivery that Clark bowled to him when he was on 46, but Tendulkar merely waited on it as though it were a loopy leg break and then cut it fine for four. Soon after, the field changed to 7-2, but rather than be tempted into the shot across the line, he chose the path of discretion.
Cameron White was initially viewed with similar suspicion, but once a gorgeous on-drive off Clark had loosened the shackles, Ponting's first punt at spin was made to look foolish. When White tossed one up fairly wide, he pounced to drive it past extra-cover, and the pick-up over midwicket that followed was a damning verdict on the paucity of the slow-bowling resources in Australian cricket's post-Warne era.
After Johnson and Watson tied him down for a while, it all ended with a false stroke, but by then the momentum had shifted inexorably in India's favour, with Gautam Gambhir trading circumspection for aggression. Tendulkar has scored nine hundreds against Australia, and as a result half-centuries don't really linger too long in the memory. This little gem though should have a special place in the collection, right up alongside the one in Adelaide , when he launched into Glenn McGrath after the previous evening's monastic denial, and the minor masterpiece in Mumbai , when he and Laxman batted sublimely on a minefield to transform a match that had been within Australia's grasp. Even for the masters, centuries aren't everything.