A meeting of generations
If Sachin Tendulkar was the face of Indian cricket in the liberalisation-satellite TV era, then no one epitomises the Internet-Twitter generation quite like Virender Sehwag. Tendulkar grew up idolising the 1983 World Cup heroes. Sehwag grew up wanting to be Tendulkar. And despite the following for the game increasingly manifold since Tendulkar made his debut as a 16-year-old, Sehwag remains the only one of the generation that watched him avidly to mature into a truly world-class batsman. Initially regarded as a Tendulkar clone, he has since gone on to traverse paths that no other player has. They said of Victor Trumper that he batted to his own tempo. So does Sehwag, with beats so accelerated that they can drive bowlers insane.
Despite both of them batting in the top four, there have been few significant partnerships between the role model and the maverick follower. Tendulkar has shared a remarkable 17 century stands with Rahul Dravid, and 12 with Sourav Ganguly. With Sehwag, this was only his fourth. Yet, on the rare occasions when they do bat together, the opposition usually has cause to regret it. Of the Indian pairs that have batted more than 10 innings together, Sehwag and Tendulkar have an average (75.22) behind Tendulkar and Navjot Singh Sidhu (77.81) and Pankaj Roy and Vijay Manjrekar (76.18).
When Tendulkar arrived at the crease on Monday morning, there was plenty to do. The pure adrenaline of the opening partnership had given way to serious concern after a needless run out and a fine delivery from Morne Morkel to Murali Vijay. The dressing-room mood would have been even worse at lunch had JP Duminy not put down a fairly straightforward chance at slip with Sehwag on 47.
Seeds of doubt seldom germinate in the Sehwag mind though. After lunch, it was as though he had started again with a clean slate. Kallis was clipped through square leg, while Dale Steyn - who claimed to have worked him out before the series began - was cut and then stroked through midwicket. Paul Harris was watched for a few deliveries before the slog sweep came out and deposited the ball over the rope at deep midwicket.
At the other end, Tendulkar was doing what he does so well these days, nudging the score along almost imperceptibly. A guide behind point and a superb square-drive off Steyn, and beautifully timed clips through midwicket off Morkel and Harris. As Corrie van Zyl, South Africa's coach admitted afterwards, it was all very unsettling, especially with the typically vocal Kolkata crowd roaring on their heroes.
Each time the South Africa looked like reining in a rampant run-rate, Sehwag would unleash a booming drive through cover, or infuriate Harris by reverse-sweeping from well outside leg stump. It took him just 87 balls to bring up a fourth consecutive hundred in home Tests, and further mock those that once wrote him off a flat-track bully and slogger.
This was no one-paced innings though. At several points during the afternoon, Sehwag took a step back, avoiding the overly ambitious and allowing Tendulkar to find the gaps in the field. When he did give Harris the charge after tea and AB de Villiers fluffed a simple stumping with his score on 129, it was the signal for a period of introspection. His first four after the interval, a cover-drive that burst through Hashim Amla's hands at cover, came only after he had faced 30 balls in the session.
Tendulkar, who now has five centuries in his last seven Tests, saw a few deliveries snake past the outside edge, but didn't so much as give a chance. Watching him bat these can be a demoralising experience for those on the other side. He knows his game so well, and seldom does anything more than is required. The Russian-roulette kind of strokes that are almost obligatory in a Sehwag innings are nowhere to be found once he gets set.
Yet, despite the overwhelming impression that his was a supporting act, Tendulkar scored only 13 runs fewer than Sehwag during the course of the 249-run partnership. It will irritate him hugely that Sehwag's exit was the precursor to his own, allowing South Africa a route back into a game that appeared to have slipped beyond outstretched fingers at 4pm.
When either of these two bat with Dravid, the clash of styles is easily apparent. Here, you could see some of the similarities, especially the stillness when the ball is bowled and the bat-flow when the ball is sent speeding through the covers, but the differences were also apparent. With Sehwag, every lull seems to precede a stroke-making storm. With Tendulkar these days, as opposed to the man who eviscerated Shane Warne at Chennai and Bangalore in 1998, patience is a weapon used to wear down bowlers.
Between them, they ensured that the bulk of the second day belonged to India. No one should trash Vijay or S Badrinath on the basis of one innings, but the manner in which they were sorted out by bowlers that Sehwag and Tendulkar had handled with some aplomb tells you all you need to know about the difference between the highest echelons and domestic cricket. It's difficult to flourish in the shadow of greatness and that's all the more reason to savour it while it's around, gracing venues like the Eden Gardens.