The master decision-maker
For a man who has been blessed with every stroke, Sachin Tendulkar can sometimes reveal his genius while stealing a single. As Australia, in the manner of most contemporary teams, went into boundary-denying mode after the first session today, Tendulkar switched to accumulation gear, with deft nudges and glides, pushes and silent drives. One of these strokes can be used to illustrate his command over his batting faculties.
It came off Ben Hilfenhaus. It was the ideal run-denying ball, just short of a good length, a tad outside off stump, not full enough to drive, not short enough to cut. Tendulkar was in position early - marginally back and fully across - but waited on the ball just that fraction longer and opened the bat face with a last-moment flick of the wrist to send the ball wide of Ricky Ponting, still Australia's best all-position fielder, at shortish cover. Off went Tendulkar.
Singles look easy, but they are not always so. Murali Vijay, Tendulkar's partner in the monstrous third-wicket partnership that lifted India out of potential disaster, nearly ran Virender Sehwag out twice last evening. Today, on two occasions he might have run himself out. The art of the sharp single lies not merely in placing the ball but in also knowing the speed at which it will travel to the fielder. Always knowing where the ball is is one of the vital features of Tendulkar's greatness.
Inextricably linked to this is his nose for risk assessment. In the best and the worst of times, batting boils down to managing risks. Some balls are just too good for even the best batsmen. Beyond that, every ball carries the opportunity of a run, and every stroke the danger of dismissal. Few cricketers have possessed Tendulkar's command over such a wide range of strokes, but mere possession of strokes is never enough; it is the instinct - batsmen have only a millisecond to exercise the option - about the choice of stroke that accounts for success or failure.
Among all the staggering numbers that decorate Tendulkar's career the number of balls faced is an apparently mundane statistic. But it tells you that he has been called upon on over 26,000 occasions to exercise his option, many of those against the world's finest bowlers. And more than anything else, it is the certainty of his mind and a constant awareness of his own strengths and those of his opponents that have carried him to well over 30,000 international runs. In Tests, which can turn upon a single dismissal, Tendulkar has been bested only 140 times.
At the Chinnaswamy Stadium today, all bowlers came a distant second best. Admittedly the pitch was benign and Australia had a debutant and a spinner out of his depth. Still, it was a mighty and masterful innings. It wasn't as much a matter of being chanceless as it was about snuffing out hope for the bowlers.
On one occasion Peter George got Tendulkar to fend off awkwardly a ball that rose from a length, but there wasn't a catching man in sight. And the ball passed the outside edge a couple of times when Tendulkar looked to guide it behind the wicket. But the closest Australia came to earning his wicket was when Mitchell Johnson beat him outside the off stump on 99 and Hilfenhaus produced an inside edge that squeezed past the leg stump. Apart from those moments, the Australians mainly bowled to him in hope.
Earlier in the day it seemed they had a plan for him, but that was given short shrift. Ricky Ponting posted two men in catching position on the leg side - deep backward and forward short legs - and Johnson pounded in purposefully. The first ball was thrown wide, to which Tendulkar considered a stroke before letting it go. But a short ball duly arrived next and Tendulkar swivelled to pull between the wicketkeeper and Michael Clarke. The next one was even shorter and pulled in front of square. One of the catching men was promptly dispatched to the square-leg boundary, and having busted the plan, Tendulkar put away the pull shot for the rest of the day. There were too many fielders in the deep to make it worth his while.
The morning session featured seven fours and two sixes. Six of the fours came in pairs. Hauritz gifted Tendulkar two at the start of day by slipping them down the pad, and Shane Watson was carved either side of cover after a field had been set to choke Tendulkar on the leg side. He got to his hundred with two massive sixes off Hauritz over long-on. These were peculiarly identical shots, powerfully shovelled from within the crease with the right knee bent. The shots would have delighted his son, who had suggested with startling simplicity at a time when Tendulkar was struggling to convert his 90s that he should hit a six when on 94. But the truth is that it was the sixth instance of Tendulkar bringing up his hundred with a six.
More tellingly, these were the only lofted shots he played during the day. Like all great batsmen, Tendulkar not only knows when to seize the moment, but also how to temper his game to the circumstances.
And, so, when Australia spread the field, Tendulkar didn't hit a four till the final over of the second session, when Johnson served up a leg-side offering that he clipped to fine leg. He motored along in the last session, picking gaps in the field and finding opportune boundaries. In the course of his innings he went past 3000 runs against Australia, only the third man to do so, and in the fewest number of Tests.
On his last tour of Australia Tendulkar was given rapturous ovations by an adoring public each time he went in or out. But the Australians might not have seen the last of him. Fifty Test hundreds are but a formality. A hundred international hundreds are there for the taking. Tendulkar, though, endures not in the pursuit of milestones, but because he can't fall out of love with cricket. And above anything else that's the reason why he remains the most-loved cricketer.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo