Nobody does solos better than Sachin Tendulkar, nor, perhaps, has anyone endured as much heartbreak during those solos. It was India of the 90s all over again: Tendulkar almost chased 351 on his own but, with the target in sight, he got out and the rest choked, falling short by three runs with two balls still to go. In Chennai in 1998-99, Tendulkar, having played an innings as incredible as this, left the last three wickets 17 to get; tonight he left them 19 off 17.
With Praveen Kumar hitting a six over long-off and then taking sensible singles, it seemed things would finally change for Tendulkar. With five required off the last three, Praveen - batting with No. 11 Munaf Patel - hit to wide of long-off, came back for a second, and was run out by a split frame. Had Praveen dived, or had the throw from Nathan Hauritz been even six inches off, he would probably have made it. That's how fine the margins were.
Had it been any other team, though, they would have given up long ago and just stood and admired Tendulkar's work. Not Australia. The bowler of that last over, Shane Watson, will not grudge Tendulkar his Man-of-the-Match award. Watson's whirlwind 93 set up the total and he then bowled a tight spell in the middle overs that claimed Yuvraj Singh. Coming back at the endgame, he took out Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh in one over when the chase seemed a cakewalk with 52 required off eight overs and six wickets in hand. Watson's effort, however, was almost a footnote on the night. Such was Tendulkar's innings.
Wickets kept falling around him but Tendulkar gave the bowlers only one half chance before he got out. All night they couldn't get an uncouth shot out of him. He came out of a relatively lean patch, kept the pace up without taking undue risks and playing mostly cricketing shots, struggling for support from the other end, but counterattacking every time a wicket fell. Virender Sehwag may have dominated the first-wicket partnership but Tendulkar got 18 out of 26, 24 out of 34, 29 out of 36, and 73 out of 137 for the subsequent stands.
Tendulkar started scratchily, as the series so far has been for him, and then shifted gears seamlessly. The flicks made the jaw drop for the bat seemed to came down later than usual, and hence the carry the ball finer than usual. Check the 38 runs he got behind square on the leg side. The aerial shots were all hit in vacant areas, many of them straight down the ground, some of them with the spin, to midwicket. Towards the end, late-cuts came out too, cheekily.
The acceleration was acute: from 10 off 19 he went to 50 off 47. But by then he had lost Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh. MS Dhoni would soon go. But Tendulkar found support in Raina, at 162 for 4. It was a perfect partnership while it lasted. Every time the required run-rate would jump up, one of them would pull off a breathtaking shot. Australia started to fumble, Australia started to drop catches. Raina was dropped for 0 and for 22, Tendulkar given a half life when Michael Hussey couldn't hold on to an improbable return catch. Tendulkar started looking surer and surer, and even without taking the Powerplay India brought it down to 52 off 48.
Then Australia were let to get their foot in. Them opportunistic Aussies. Raina top-edged and Graham Manou took a special catch running behind. Harbhajan went in the same over. Tendulkar and Ravindra Jadeja added 32 for seventh wicket, and with the Powerplay going on it seemed a matter of Tendulkar's staying there till the end. But with Australia, it always seemed a matter of getting Tendulkar out. There seemed more men around than there were before, more attempts at stumps ensued, Tendulkar started misjudging singles.
On came Clint McKay, the Victorian debutant, to bowl the 48th over with just 19 required. Tendulkar went to clear short fine leg. It was a slower delivery. He found Hauritz. It was all over. Jadeja ran himself out, Ashish Nehra holed out to long-on, and Praveen was run out in the final over.
The way he batted in the afternoon, Watson wouldn't have known he'd be bowling the last over to save Australia. Watson provided the early impetus, converting a conservative start into a boundary-fest, and Shaun Marsh assumed the perfect anchorman role to take Australia to 350. Fifty-four of Watson's 93 runs came in fours and sixes, Marsh ran 68 of his 112.
Watson made India's bowlers pay dearly for every small error they made in length. Sixty-five of his runs came through midwicket and behind square on the off side, suggesting too many balls on the shorter side. But it was as much about Watson creating the length with his quick eye and footwork, thus putting the bowlers off their plan.
Marsh did his job, letting Watson take most of the strike. He was helped by two dropped catches too. Slyly, like an anchorman should, he went from 12 off 19 to 51 off 66 by the time the second drop came about.
After Watson's dismissal, Australia slowed down a bit, but picked off again in the 34th over. Australia didn't go wild slogging, yet managed at least a boundary hit each in the Powerplay overs, taken in the 35th. Forty-four came in those five, Marsh soon reached his maiden century, his strike-rate crossed 100 as he did so, suggesting a smartly paced innings.
For the innings as a whole to be considered smartly paced, Cameron White and Hussey added 79 in the last seven overs. And as it turned out, they needed every single one of them to survive Tendulkar.