The first of a hundred
"Oh the places you'll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all."
- Dr Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go!
Waiting for something special to unfold can be as thrilling as its arrival. Tension, fraught with anticipation, can both delight and devour: when the magical moment actually comes, it is to be cherished and never forgotten. This could be your first taste of ice-cream, your first kiss, your first car, or in this case, your experience of Sachin Tendulkar's first century.
Casting my mind back almost a quarter century, the prologue now seems as important and eventful as the story of the hundred itself. After protracted turmoil between senior players and the administration, Indian cricket was in makeover mode and the 1990 tour of England was seen, apart from all else, to be a test of new policy.
The late Raj Singh Dungarpur, then chairman of the selection committee, had floated his vision of the "team of the '90s", beginning with Mohammad Azharuddin's unexpected elevation to captaincy for the New Zealand tour earlier that year, and the inclusion of young players like Anil Kumble, Sanjeev Sharma and - above all - Tendulkar in the preceding 12 months.
His numerous achievements as a schoolboy cricketer had made Tendulkar a rising star in the cricketing universe. But was he really the metaphor for the Indian team of the '90s - as touted by Dungarpur - or was this misplaced hype? Could he bat as well in England as he had done in the subcontinent? Just how good was he?
It was a star-studded team that reached England. Navjot Sidhu, Ravi Shastri, Sanjay Manjrekar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Azharuddin, Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar and Kiran More were proven and classy performers. But the cynosure of attention was Tendulkar, for several reasons, not least his youthfulness: to the English, 17-year-old Test players were rarer than an igloo in the Sahara.
In the Indian press corps on the tour, a great deal of the conversation centred around when Tendulkar would make his first Test century. Now, a maiden century is a significant landmark in the life of any batsman, but in India, given the obsession with records and milestones, it is accentuated further.
Tendulkar's career till then had been defined by a hunger for high scores. In his schoolboy years, he had plundered single, double- and triple-centuries with mind-boggling regularity. Moreover, he had centuries on debut in the Ranji and Irani Trophies, and after the England tour, in the Duleep as well.
So when he became the youngest Indian Test cricketer, making his debut at 16 against Pakistan, expectations that he would break Mushtaq Mohammad's record as the youngest century-maker hogged the headlines in the subcontinent. He had a modest first Test, made two sturdy half-centuries in the series to show mettle, but Mushtaq's record (he was 17 years, 82 days old when he made his first century) was intact.
A couple of months later, the record came under grave threat when India played New Zealand in the second Test in Napier. Unbeaten overnight on 80, Tendulkar had nearly the entire country waking up at an unearthly hour to follow his progress on radio. But after two boundaries, he drove Danny Morrison to the off side and was caught at mid-off for 88.
The disappointment in India was huge. The next Test was to be played only in late July, in England, when he would be more than 17 years and 82 days old. A Test century had seemed ordained from the time he held bat in hand as a ten-year-old. But it had now been seven Tests since his debut.
There was a hint of scepticism about whether he was too flashy to succeed in international cricket with any degree of consistency. Not every child prodigy necessarily makes it at the highest level in any sport. Did he have the wherewithal and the discipline to make the quantum jump from first-class to Test cricket?
Tendulkar himself was unfazed - indeed even uncaring - about it. I remember interviewing him at his house for a magazine in the period between the New Zealand and England tours. He regretted missing the century in Napier, but not the record. He said playing attacking shots, dominating bowlers, gave him greater satisfaction.
His prized possessions then were a new music system on which he could listen to his favourite bands (Dire Straits topping the list), a new Maruti car, which he loved to drive even though he was underage, and a pair of used pads gifted to him by Sunil Gavaskar.
Curiosity about Tendulkar in England was obviously high. Given the attention and expectations, his team-mates and team management, and even the Indian press corps, were fretful about him: who he met, what he ate, what he said, and most importantly, was he still sleepwalking, as noticed by his first manager, Chandu Borde, in Pakistan nine months earlier?
He wasn't. But other unusual aspects of his cricketing persona were emerging: for instance, the half-squat before settling into his stance that was to become a signature mannerism in subsequent years. Not that Tendulkar fussed when team-mates pulled his leg about it, I was told by one.
In the first Test, at Lord's, Graham Gooch was dropped on 36 and went on to make 333, followed by another century in the second innings. Azhar, he of the tensile wrists and whiplash on-drives and sizzling cuts, made a dazzling 121 that many critics rated as the best knock played by an overseas batsman in half a century, perhaps more. There were attacking tons from Allan Lamb and Robin Smith too. Then there was Kapil, hitting Eddie Hemmings for four sixes to avoid a follow-on. The match saw six centuries in all, but India lost to some extent because they made runs too quickly in their first innings, giving England enough time to force the issue.
Two Indian players in the limelight for different reasons failed to capitalise on the placid pitch. Vengsarkar, looking for a fourth successive century at Lord's, managed a sketchy 52 in the first innings. Tendulkar had scores of 10 and 27, looking good both times, then throwing it away. He had one terrific moment in this match, though, which is an abiding memory for me: taking a steepling catch after running in about 20 yards from wide deep mid-on, to dismiss Lamb in the second innings. In my opinion he hasn't done better in the field since.
The Lord's Test lost, the Indians were despondent and desperately seeking some inspiration. A fortnight later came the second Test, at Old Trafford. It was a better, bitter (in the cricketing sense) contest than the first, making huge demands on the technical skills, commitment and temperament of the Indian players.
The bowling, alas, did not have enough depth and England's batsmen were in roaring form again. Gooch, like a run-hungry ogre, hit his third successive century, and put on 225 with his opening partner, Mike Atherton, who also scored a hundred. Smith rubbed salt into India's wounds with a 121 that had the bowlers and fielders running for cover. Batting first, England made 519.
However, the track was still a belter on which Manjrekar and, particularly, Azhar revelled. But when Manjrekar fell for 93, India were 246 for 4, the threat of a follow-on still hovering uneasily over them. Precipitate batting collapses were not unknown in Indian cricket.
I can't quite remember Tendulkar's first scoring stroke, but I do recall that it took him nearly an hour to get off the mark. Once the shackles were broken, the runs came freely, marked by an uncanny ability to pick gaps in the field and backed by clever running between the wickets with his captain.
Tendulkar's 68 didn't compare with the rhapsody of Azhar, who made a scintillating 179. But he showed resolve and a nuanced strokeplay, which were to become the hallmarks of his batting over the next quarter of a century. His half-century also set up this second-innings opus that was to save the game for India.
On the last day, after another bout of batting mayhem by England, as we trudged into the Old Trafford press box the big question was whether India would lose this Test too and the series. Gooch's intentions became clear when he declared 20 minutes into the day, leaving India the improbable task of scoring 408 for victory - or the more excruciating one of surviving 85-95 overs for a draw.
After four days, the pitch was showing signs of wear and tear. Offspinner Hemmings would be a serious threat. But the early damage was done by the pacemen. Angus Fraser had Sidhu caught for a duck, Devon Malcolm got Shastri for 12, India were on the edge. Manjrekar and Vengsarkar steadied the innings, but after lunch Hemmings snaffled both on the same score (109).
I'll refrain from a Hitchcockian narrative, because the outcome is only too well known. But back then, every over, every minute was pulsating with twin-track suspense: could India save the Test, and would Tendulkar be able to score his maiden century?
Before writing this piece, I refreshed my memory of Tendulkar's century through a 20-minute clip on Youtube, and the marvel of that innings was revived. The gumption, technical certitude, joy, temerity and intelligence, given his young age and relative inexperience, make it even more extraordinary in hindsight.
Unlike in the first innings, he didn't adopt a dour approach. Rather, he attacked the bowlers - especially Hemmings - to hit them off their length and make them lose rhythm. Gooch set attacking fields that Tendulkar cleared with chipped shots. When the close-in field was reduced, he pushed for singles and twos to keep the runs coming, or pierced them with sizzling drives on either side.
Every now and then he would walk down the track to his doughty partner, Manoj Prabhakar (with whom he added 160 runs to draw the match) for a bout of animated discussion. Prabhakar was to say later that Tendulkar was advising him rather than the other way around.
He had a stroke of luck on 10 when Hemmings muffed a simple caught-and-bowled, but that apart, Tendulkar showed a masterly, dominant touch, the highlight being a series of breathtaking cover drives off the back foot, rising on his toes. One of these, off Fraser, about 40 minutes before the close, went past mid-off and took him to the coveted three-figure mark. He was all of 17 years and 112 days old.
Plaudits for Tendulkar - from team-mates, opponents, fans and critics - were profuse and generous. This boy is indeed special, seemed to be the consensus. Bishan Singh Bedi, the irrepressible Indian manager on tour, added a hyperbolic exuberance to this, saying every female in England, from 16 to 60, loved him.
Sachin Tendulkar, though, had clearly set his sights far beyond such distractions.
You knew that you were in the presence of something glorious but had no way of knowing that 99 more would follow. Twenty-four years later, as his career draws to a close, you realise that was the moment when the first brick in a historic era had been laid.