The man who beat the machine
Even after the shouting has subsided and the whirling dust of celebration given way to the stillness of normalcy again, Sachin Tendulkar's numbers will still speak eloquently and loudly. A hundred international hundreds is an unreal number. It is more than a four-minute mile or a perfect ten or a clutch of Grand Slam titles in tennis or golf majors.
As Tendulkar's final step towards the Hundredth extended across series and continents and lasted days and months, the record was deemed to be artificially created and farcically obsessed over. The quest went from being considered an enormous feat to a petty pursuit. Whatever else it may be, Tendulkar's numbers will never go away, no matter what we think of them. Or even that the 100th came against an opposition far from formidable, in a tournament never lauded, in an unfashionable town and, with a final wicked twist, a game that was lost.
The context of Tendulkar's 100th century will be remembered today, tomorrow, even at the end of his career. Debating societies will exhaust themselves over its significance, particularly what transpired between 99 and 100. But the memory of Tendulkar's labours over the last 12 months will not outlast the hundreds. The numbers will neither be repeated nor surpassed. A hundred hundreds are the stuff of sporting eternity; this is our generation's 99.94.
For an entire year it actually seemed destined to become the 99.94 - a final Bradmanesque flourish of imperfection. In less than three months, between December 2010 and March 2011, Tendulkar had scored four centuries in 12 innings. His march towards the 100th was, we believed, destined. A hundred centuries was a landmark waiting to be reached. Except, of course, like every cricketer will tell you, nothing is merely written, because everything is accounted for. The game sought its dues and Tendulkar paid with with heavy interest. Between Nagpur and Mirpur, he has clanked through various gears to find the form to take him past three figures. From free-flowing to fastidious, from studiousness to abandon, from the purity of shot to anxiety of thought. He came close, went adrift and over and over again.
Tendulkar's failure to get across that ever-receding line had actually begun to shrink the hundred in its import. In the period, he took surprising decisions that have still not been clearly explained: he first missed out on a Test series for the first time in his career for reasons other than injury, and he chose to return to the ODI game after the World Cup, first in Australia and then, to everyone's surprise, in the Asia Cup.
Along with Tendulkar's trials, there was mayhem in India's Test cricket, the team went through two tours from hell. The eight Test defeats were larger than the absence of a Tendulkar hundred. Eight-zero reflects a worrisome future for Indian cricket which is not going away soon. The completion of 100 centuries still stand though for Tendulkar's appetite, drive and sheer cussedness as a competitor over two decades - and the combination of those qualities will be gone from Indian cricket sooner rather than later.
What unsettles some is that Tendulkar's 100th had to arrive in ODI cricket. Mirpur was not pretty, it did not round off a great script, it did not reflect the nobility of the longer version of the game, or indeed, the purity of Tendulkar's own game at its best. India didn't even win. But there it was. Slammed down our throats like a shot of country liquor. Gulp that down, boys.
Yet, it was in the short form cricket that Tendulkar became the boy-man to walk out for India and it was with 50-over feats that he first grew in the public eye. His identity as team-mate and prodigy, colleague and hero in Test cricket, will remain his most enduring. But one-day cricket has always been bread and butter. Tendulkar has often said that opening the innings in ODIs helped bring a greater range of shots into his Test game. So what if Mirpur was not poetry or fine dining? Right now, bread and butter will do just fine.
The 100 international hundreds are an essential part of the reason why Tendulkar has continued to survive in the game; this desire to put his game into repeated examination, has remained front and centre in his life, over and above everything else - the pop-icon status, the cult, the insane fans, the media circus, the protesting body, the clock, the scorn. The fact that the 100 hundreds even exist is because he wanted questions asked of himself and he found ways to answer them. A few minutes after Mirpur had happened, Sanjay Manjrekar tweeted to say that attention should not be so much on the 100th hundred, "but how he got his 100 hundreds."
Today Tendulkar is seen on billboards, on television, in magazines and newspapers, saying this, offering that, standing for something else - a corporation, clothing, a bank. This constant presence can dim an athlete's aura and annoy his public. But magically, not Tendulkar's. In the world of advertising and marketing, they may think of him as The Brand, but he is yet to be been consumed by it. The Brand is not yet a brand. Unlike what Andre Agassi - a Tendulkar contemporary at one stage - became for a while. Or like David Beckham is now. Or Tiger Woods used to be. Or MS Dhoni has tipped over into. As India and Indian cricket have changed during the course of his career, Tendulkar mysteriously has not.
In his two-decade-long odyssey, his main opponents, you would imagine, were bowlers, pitches, the opposition. He was, however, also involved in another contest, running on a parallel track for the same length of time. Tendulkar versus the Machine.
It was Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith who first described the Machine in 1997, as he tried to argue the (now tragic) claim of Tiger Woods' father: that his son was not just a golfer but humanity's Chosen One. Smith didn't believe the idea, because, he said, in the contest against the Machine, with its "chewing mechanism of fame", the athlete could never win.
Circa 1997, Woods was what Tendulkar still is, and these were Smith's words:
"The machine will win, because it too is destiny, five billion destinies leaning against one... it will wear the young man down, cloud his judgement, steal his sweetness... The machine will win because it has no mind. It flattens even as it lifts, trivialises even as it exalts, spreads a man so wide and thin that he becomes margarine..."
In just over a decade Smith's fears for Woods came true. The Machine today is a recognisable, seductive, dangerous thing. It is fuelled by success, fame, money, celebrity, the image industry, all of which have seeped into the Tendulkar career, alongside the startling inevitability of his progress. Every series, every game, every season, every year, every achievement, Tendulkar goes up against his external adversaries and also the Machine. That he has stayed ahead of the Machine so far is as much of an achievement as 100 centuries and thousands of runs. That he has not turned into margarine is a miracle.
In an interview Tendulkar spoke of a moment early in his career, about what had happened to him just after he pulled on the India cap and t-shirt: "You start thinking that, oh, I'm somebody special." An unnamed friend then sent him a message. "Just tell Sachin that I've noticed he is probably starting to think differently. The sooner he realises that, the better it is."
Tendulkar said, "And I sat back and I realised that, yes it was true..." It is not the most profound piece of wisdom, it was probably a mate, saying, "Hey, don't act like a punk, yaar." But it came at the right time. For the particularly gifted and successful athlete, the penny often drops all too late.
Tendulkar's survival in a brutal business - Indian cricket, which first skyrocketed to financial highs before achieving consistent sporting success - has extended beyond his being a conventional "role model", defined and lauded by "good" public deeds. For a large demographic looking for clarity in a churning world, Tendulkar represents an idea that will always wrestle with contemporary circumstance: the athlete as a clean, fair, respectful and successful competitor. It is so old-fashioned a notion that it gets called boring.
Being so boring is actually hard work. For a man who hates losing, it cannot be said Tendulkar has no ego. (All the great ones have large egos.) For a man who loves cars, it cannot be said he does not appreciate wealth. (Who does not?) What probably overrides both these powerful intoxicants, along with the advice from his friend, is a central belief that keeps Tendulkar a step ahead of the Machine, that convinces him to keep his own publicity at bay.
He is not merely a student of cricket but, in fact, a devotee. Tendulkar never throws his bat, ever. There is a clue there. He understands what he would be without that bat. If he leaves the dressing room like a snarling competitor (telling Virender Sehwag before they went out to bat together against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup, "I'm going to get these guys") he returns with humility. Every dismissal is a reminder of his flaws, his weaknesses.
His former India coach John Wright says that after he is out, there are never wild displays of emotion. The aggressor and accumulator becomes a reflective batsman in the dressing room who sits down to debrief himself. It is why, Wright said, Tendulkar "knows where to go with his mind and his technique".
Those around him say he forgets nothing about his time in cricket, about others who shared the field with him, what happened, what was said to him. Be it in his neighbourhood as a schoolboy, or in his first club game, or during a match played before thousands, when a nation held its breath. It is why he goes to meet his now-ailing coach before every tour, how he stays true to his gift. It is how he dodges the Machine.
Twenty years on, what is easiest to understand about Tendulkar is his cricket. How it all falls into place: the eye reads the length of the ball, the mind decides to pick a stroke, the feet follow that instant of shot selection, the arms and torso choreograph towards the moment of impact.
It is the man who has evaded the Machine who is the mystery. People say it is his background, his family, his deep moorings, but the Machine has always seen it all before and still won. Maybe it is because Tendulkar actually comes from another time, when he played a different sport to the one he now explores. He comes not only from a time that is now just memory, his familiar surroundings as a growing boy have now turned into another place. When all else fails, it is there, that time, that space that he can return to in his mind: what did he want to do as a 14-year-old? Bat. Score runs. How many? A hundred. When? Every time. The 100 India hundreds are not the only ones that define his career; he also has 38 first-class hundreds. And the schools cricket scores, and the pick-up matches he could play, and the tours he went on when he was 13 or 14 or 15.
When Tendulkar first broke through, he was a very shy teenager, a prodigy who didn't like being treated as one, who hated attention and barely spoke to strangers. Who disliked being photographed outside his area of work. Who had police constables standing outside the examination hall where he took his class XII exams. He could have folded up, he could have fled, but he has looked the Machine in the eye and stood his ground. It means now, on the field, the crowd bears down on him, surrounds him, demands of him. There is not a public space in India that he can walk free in; his holidays in Mussoorie for the last few years now have begun and ended with a short press conference.
It is the Machine, always at his side, purring, growling, always trying to win. He will have to keep it at bay for the rest of his life, but for the moment, with the fortress of a hundred international hundreds around him, Sachin Tendulkar is winning.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo