It took nearly 40 years of waiting and it was well worth it. Sachin Tendulkar chose one of the better bowling attacks doing the rounds, to eclipse the record for the highest score, before bringing up the first double-hundred in ODI history. The spectators at the Captain Roop Singh Stadium became the envy of cricket fans as they witnessed one of the country's favourite sporting heroes play a breathtaking innings which not only set up a 153-run annihilation but also the series victory. He may have been run-out cheaply in the previous match, but nothing could deny him today - be it bowlers, fielders, mix-ups or cramps. Dinesh Karthik, Yusuf Pathan and MS Dhoni stood by and admired as the master unfurled all the shots in his repertoire.
At 36, Tendulkar hasn't shown signs of ageing, and his sparkling touch in both forms of the game has ruled out all possibilities of him checking out anytime soon. Fatigue, cramps and paucity of time have stood in the way of batsmen going that extra mile to get to the 200-mark. Tendulkar did cramp up after crossing 150, but he didn't opt for a runner. His experience of 20 years at the international level came into play in this historic innings, staying at the crease from the first ball to the last, never once losing focus. There were no chances offered, no dropped catches, making his innings absolutely flawless.
A swirl of emotions must have run through his mind as he approached one record after another but he ensured he was never lost in the moment. His running between the wickets remained just as swift as it had been at the start of the innings. The humidity in Gwalior was bound to test him but he stood above it all and played like he owned the game, toying with the bowling with a mix of nonchalance and brute power.
In the 46th over, with a flick for two past short fine-leg, Tendulkar broke the record for the highest ODI score, going past the 194 made by Zimbabwe's Charles Coventry and Pakistan's Saeed Anwar, and to say that he acknowledged his feat modestly would be an understatement. His muted celebration on going past 194, true to style, made his innings all the more endearing. He didn't raise his bat, merely shook hands with Mark Boucher and simply carried on batting amid the din. Coming from a man who is not known to showing too much emotion with the bat in hand, it wasn't surprising. He reserved his celebrations for the magic figure of 200, which he reached in the final over with a squirt off Charl Langeveldt past backward point. He raised his bat, took off his helmet and looked up at the skies and it was only fitting that one-day cricket's highest run-getter reached the landmark.
Tendulkar's innings featured strokes of the highest quality, but his true genius was exemplified by one particular shot which rendered even the best bowler in the world helpless. In the first over of the batting Powerplay - taken in the 35th over - Dale Steyn fired it in the block-hole for three deliveries outside off to keep him quiet. Tendulkar, feeling the need to improvise, walked right across his stumps and nonchalantly flicked him across the line, hopping in his crease on one leg to bisect the gap at midwicket. A helpless Steyn watched the ball speed away and merely shrugged his shoulders. There was no use searching for excuses or venting frustrations at the temerity of that shot. It was just that kind of afternoon for the bowlers.
It wasn't all just about the cheekiness of his shots. His timing and placement were the hallmarks at the start of his innings. On a road of a pitch which offered no margin of error for the bowlers, he squeezed out full deliveries past the covers and off his pads. With no seam movement on offer, Jacques Kallis took the slips off and placed them in catching positions within the 15-yard circle, hoping to induce a mistake. But Tendulkar outplayed all of them, making room to manoeuver it past a number of green shirts. There were a minimum of two runs on offer each time the ball was placed wide of them and the quick outfield did the rest.
Once he got his eye in, the short boundaries and the flat pitch were too inviting. Virender Sehwag's dismissal for 11, caught at third man, was just an aberration as Karthik, Pathan and Dhoni traded cricket bats for golf clubs. Driving and lofting through the line had never been this easy. Tendulkar could have driven them inside out in his sleep.
The two century stands, with Karthik and then with Dhoni, may well get lost in the scorecard but they were vital building blocks. Karthik rotated the strike well in their stand of 194, struck three clean sixes and helped himself to his career-best performance. That partnership sent out ominous signs to the South Africans that they were in for something massive. Add Dhoni's bludgeoning hits and scoops and you had a score in excess of 400.
Tendulkar reached his fifty off 37 balls and his century off 90. Ironically, he struck his first six - over long-on - when on 111. Pathan bashed it around at the other end, clubbing full tosses and short deliveries in his 23-ball 36, as India amassed 63 runs in the batting Powerplay. The South African seamers made the mistake of trying to bowl too fast and as a result, sent down too many full tosses and full deliveries. The unplayable yorkers remained elusive and Tendulkar, who was seeing it like a beach ball, picked the gaps, made room and improvised.
He reached his 150 by making room to Parnell and chipping him over midwicket with a simple bat twirl at the point of contact. The heartbreak of Hyderabad, when his scintillating 175 all but won India the match against Australia last year, must have lingered in his mind as he approached that score again. A towering six over long-on later, he not only eclipsed Kapil Dev's 175 but also looked set to wipe out his own record. He started clutching his thighs, indicating that cramps had set in, but even that could not stop him today.
He equalled his highest score of 186 by pulling a lollipop of a full toss off Kallis and broke his own and India's record with a single to square leg. Fortunately, he didn't have to do much running and played the spectator's role for a change as Dhoni bulldozed his way to a 35-ball 68, muscling four sixes. The Dhoni bottom-hand is the strongest in the business these days and the exhausted spectators had enough energy left in their vocal chords to cheer him on as well.
The record of 200, however, was yet to be attained and the crowd were desperate for Tendulkar to get the strike. Dhoni tore into Steyn for 17 off the 49th over and retained the strike for the 50th. After hammering the first ball of the 50th for six, he shoveled a full toss to deep midwicket where Hashim Amla made a brilliant save. Tendulkar settled for a single and the crowd were on their feet as they watched him make history. It was all the more fitting for another reason because it was on this very day, back in 1988, that he and Vinod Kambli added a mammoth 664 - then a world record - in a school match.
There was to be no repeat of the 434-chase at the Wanderers, when South Africa took guard, perhaps mentally and physically shaken after the assault, and with a partisan crowd to contend with. AB de Villiers' attacking ton got completely lost in the chase as South Africa merely went through the motions. It was all a question of how quickly India could wrap it up.
Herschelle Gibbs, Hashim Amla, Roelof van der Merwe and Jacques Kallis all got out cheaply within the first 15 overs. de Villiers motored along at more than a run-a-ball, and collected 13 fours and two sixes. South Africa had to rely on the services of nine men to muster 200 - for India one man sufficed.
Tendulkar's knock drew parallels with Brendon McCullum's frenetic 158 in the IPL opener in Bangalore two years ago. The match was all about individual brilliance but not a contest. While such games are good in small doses, for one-day cricket to survive on the whole, it needs more contests between bat and ball.