India have let themselves down
Sachin Tendulkar has made a 50th Test century seem more like an appointment kept than a journey into the uncharted. Great men do that, reaching out to things that others cannot even spot. His longevity has been staggering, and I often wonder if others deny themselves that because they stifle the child within, drain the enthusiasm that an untroubled childhood possesses. Tendulkar's 50th, and in course of time maybe his 100th, is as much a tribute to his innate ability and extraordinary intelligence as it is to his youthful exuberance. Cricket is a toy, a pet that he hasn't yet outgrown.
Too many others fall in love with the reward. In its mindless pursuit they find the journey tedious, they seek to shorten it, often to ignore it. It has become a cliché to say so but Tendulkar is still in love with the journey. The box office may pass its verdict but the role is still to be enjoyed. It's an extraordinary, beautiful way to live, and one that is available to all of us.
Tendulkar's 50th, dazzling as it was, blinded many to two other events. In an extraordinary, and dare I say heartless, act of omission, most of India chose to ignore that another legend of the modern game had gone past 12,000 runs. Rahul Dravid has rarely demanded the spotlight, and increasingly in India, with its modern obsession for self-promotion, the strong, quiet, efficient ones get overlooked.
If Tendulkar's life is about enthusiasm, Dravid's is about determination. If Tendulkar is the child splashing colour about with glee, Dravid is the scientist in a relentless search for progress. He might seem weighed down but that is his style and it is a style that has served him and his team handsomely for almost 15 years. Tendulkar might have been a Formula One driver or a striker in a goalmouth, Dravid would have been an Olympic shooter.
Twelve thousand runs is a colossal achievement. Very good players are respected for life for scoring half those. It is a reward for an unwavering work ethic, for a man who has never drifted from the path of perseverance and integrity, two rather unfashionable qualities in public life these days. By not recognising the enormity of what Dravid has achieved, India has let itself down.
Having said that, neither champion will have enjoyed the occasion for their landmarks. Indeed, Tendulkar's achievement blinded many to the fact that a Test match was eventually conceded. Once again India had lost the first Test of a series overseas, and once again the lesson will be completely ignored.
India are slow starters on bouncy pitches. It takes time to make the adjustment, even for the very best - as it would be for a linguist who has spoken Tamil for a couple of years to switch to French immediately. But India have always been adamant about not giving themselves more than a game to acclimatise; now even that is a luxury. And so we must reap what we sow. In 2007 in England, rain, and an astonishing umpiring error, allowed India to escape with a draw in the first Test, and in Australia later that year India kept the tradition alive by losing the Boxing Day Test match.
Yet India seem to enjoy jumping off planes and into cricket matches. In 2007, after much pleading, Anil Kumble was given one warm-up game in Australia. I found that staggering: that an Indian captain was having to negotiate with his own administration for the best possible opportunity to win. Admittedly there are some players who don't enjoy playing warm-up games on the grounds that they are served with poor opposition on pitches that may not always resemble those in the Test matches. And it is true that conditions at Centurion on the first day were very different from those on subsequent days, but I can't help thinking that better preparation might have ensured India didn't get bowled out as cheaply as they did.
But India's current problems lie deeper. The best teams in the world are those that are capable of taking 20 wickets in most conditions. Strong bowling sides keep you in the game longer than strong batting sides do. India's bowling in Centurion was amiable, even embarrassing. It didn't have the potency to drag India back into the game and allow the second-innings performance to take them to safety. India might have lost the Test on the first day, but the bowlers ensured that no other result was possible.
India produced the landmarks, brilliant as they are; South Africa produced the result.
Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here