Sachin lights up Kinrara Oval
No matter what the venue, an anticipatory buzz accompanies Sachin Tendulkar's every walk to the middle. And even though only a few hundred turned up at the Kinrara Oval on a gloomy afternoon, there was no mistaking the eagerness with which they settled into their seats once it was known that India would bat.
You couldn't exactly call it Tendulkar's return, since he had faced all of nine balls in the ill-fated Colombo triangular, but it was certainly a first chance to assess his form after the shoulder surgery that ruled him out of India's one-day matches in the final stretch of the last season. He had been in peachy form prior to that, scoring a superb century at Peshawar and then upstaging that with a magnificent 95 in bowler-friendly conditions at Lahore.
Having taken two deliveries to get his eye in against Jerome Taylor, it was back to the business of scoring runs with a deft dab down to third man after the ball kept low. It should have ended there, with Fidel Edwards producing a beautiful delivery that caught the outside edge. Unfortunately for West Indies, Carlton Baugh's right glove couldn't hold the ball in. Brian Lara didn't throw a tantrum, but you could have forgiven him for experiencing the sinking feeling that the dark-skin sailor often had in Asterix comics.
With the ball seaming around, batting wasn't easy in the opening overs. A couple of deliveries whizzed past the outside edge, but Tendulkar bided his time and then clipped Taylor superbly through midwicket for four. It helped that the opening bowlers didn't pitch the ball up enough, and when they did, he twice drove straight down the ground, only to find the ball cannoning into the stumps.
Impatience didn't play a part though, and when Taylor dropped one short outside off stump, his reaction was almost feline, and the flashing cut over point bore some resemblance to the withering stroke off Shoaib Akhtar that set India on the road to victory at Centurion Park more than three years ago.
This, though, wasn't that kind of pitch, and the next ball nearly cleaned him up, shooting through at ankle height after pitching. The variable bounce would have preyed on a lesser batsman's mind, but Tendulkar was in no mood to let scoring opportunities slip with the field up in the circle. When Edwards zipped one at his helmet, he swivelled into the hook, and the top edge fell just short of the rope at fine leg. When Edwards readjusted his line to off stump, he slashed hard and the ball flew over the slip cordon for four more.
By then, the light was so poor that the floodlight towers were in operation. And with the runs coming at an alarming clip, Lara turned to the control and accuracy promised by Ian Bradshaw. Tendulkar, though, was in the mood, and a wonderfully timed stroke that left cover and mid-off standing elicited gasps from everyone watching.
But with the ball having softened and Bradshaw quickly settling into a line, the scoring rate did come down. And after Taylor had struck Dravid a painful blow on the glove, it was Tendulkar's turn to be on the receiving end. Dwayne Smith got one to rise perceptibly and the ball crunched into the little finger on the left hand. The pain spray came out and drinks were called for, and soon after, the rain arrived to disrupt proceedings for 22 minutes.
Dravid had departed by then, first victim to the low bounce at one end, and the second Power Play produced a mere 17 runs as West Indies hauled themselves back into the contest. But the delay clearly hadn't upset Tendulkar's rhythm, because Bradshaw's first delivery on resumption was sweetly driven straight back to the sightscreen. And when Smith decided to pitch another one short, a nonchalant pick-up sent the ball sailing over square leg for six.
A glance to fine leg off Bradshaw, and a misfield from Taylor, took him to 50 from 67 balls, though a miscued pull soon after once again revealed just how challenging the conditions were. By that stage, with Irfan Pathan opening up to play some lovely shots, Tendulkar was content to slip into consolidation and accumulation mode, often opening the face of the bat and steering the ball past point or down to third man.
With Pathan giving the ball some mighty biffs, there was no need for a buccaneering approach, but once he had given Chris Gayle's first three balls a close look, he rocked back and cut one precisely behind point for four. It was the first time he had found the fence in over half an over, and he quickly produced an encore with a slashed four off Dwayne Bravo.
Bravo, so impressive in West Indies' defeat of India in the Caribbean, was wayward and ineffectual here, and Tendulkar exacted full toll with a gorgeous clip through midwicket and a delicate jab that streaked off the face down to third man. And as the Indian flag-wavers in the stand started getting more and more vocal, he thrilled them some more with a delightful loft over mid-off that took him to 95.
A couple of neat deflections took him to 99, and with the few supporters shouting themselves hoarse, a tickle behind square off Taylor saw him through to three figures for the 40th time. A long lingering look at the heavens followed, before guard was marked again for the final onslaught.
Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were both done in by worm-killers, but with Suresh Raina providing sterling support, Tendulkar picked off the gaps in the outfield before steeling himself for a final flourish. The hapless Bravo was twice lofted over the cover boundary, and the high elbow position said much about the immense power required to execute such a stroke.
He finished off with two more sixes, teeing off over midwicket when Taylor pitched too full, and then deflated Bravo further with another dazzling stroke into the crowd behind the rope at cover. It was only the second time that he had batted through an innings - there was a devastating 186 not out against New Zealand at Hyderabad in 1999 - and once again, his mastery of trying conditions made us wonder if we were watching the peerless destroyer who cut and drove Australia to distraction at Sharjah all those summers ago. No matter how jaded you were, or how many times you'd seen it all before, the sense of wonder still remained.
A senior correspondent who had watched him since he was a precocious teenager likened his batting to Zakir Hussain's tabla-playing. "Even if he's playing on a cupboard door, he can still make beautiful music. And Tendulkar's the same, no matter what the conditions." After this particular epic, you could only nod in awestruck agreement.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo