Sachin Tendulkar's 134 in Sharjah in 1998 set the bar for his centuries in one-day finals, but damned if today's effort doesn't at least nip at its skirts. The biggest performers - and few come any bigger than Tendulkar - invariably deliver on the big occasion and today, with India looking to snap a run of five straight completed finals defeats to Sri Lanka, Tendulkar dazzled. When Tendulkar bats like he did today, he is as irresistible as he is artistic, and you can only sit back and enjoy it.
He had got starts in the previous two games, but India's decision to send Dinesh Karthik to open meant Tendulkar was under pressure from ball one. When Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid walked out today, there was a tinge of the 1990s solidity. As it panned out, the innings that followed harked back to the Tendulkar of yore. Dravid, for long India's most technically sound batsman, allowed Tendulkar to play his game. They did their job efficiently, taking the shine off the new ball, wearing down the quick bowlers, denying Ajantha Mendis a wicket, and paving the way for the batsmen to follow.
From the first ball Tendulkar faced, when he stood tall and punched Thilan Thushara wide of mid-off, he oozed confidence. Batting wasn't too difficult in the first ten overs against a tidy bowling attack on a flat track, but he was intent on sticking around. This wasn't the kind of pitch to chase the ball and apart from one delivery that he flashed at and edged for four, Tendulkar was patient. A couple of deliveries beat the outside edge; he bided his time and then pushed Nuwan Kulasekara superbly through the covers for four. It helped that the opening bowlers didn't pitch the ball up enough, and when Kulasekara did, Tendulkar drove past extra cover and clipped past midwicket.
Between overs, Tendulkar twirled his left arm and tapped the track. These were the moments needed to gather his thoughts. Significantly, he drew on all his experience to upset the bowlers, especially when they tried something different. Thilan Thushara veered his line to just outside off stump, and Tendulkar forced the ball through the off side for four. Lasith Malinga bowled a couple of testing deliveries, but when he held back the length marginally, Tendulkar glided back and forced the ball through the covers. Tendulkar judged the line flawlessly and was lissome with his footwork as he turned length deliveries away at precisely the right moment. His cover and square-driving were of the highest quality: the balance was perfect, the weight transfer faultless and the ball seldom hit in the air.
On a surface where other batsmen often failed to work the ball off the square, Tendulkar's fluency was astounding. He struck the ball with grace, either when going back or working it across the line. Deliveries pitched on a length were turned through midwicket and square leg, others back of a length were crisply steered between cover and point.
As the ball got old in the middle overs, Tendulkar and MS Dhoni found the gaps and rotated the strike. Dhoni complemented Tendulkar beautifully, and the two denied Sri Lanka any wriggle room. On 87, Tendulkar waltzed out and drove Mendis over extra cover for four. A punch off Mendis past mid-off took him to 99, and a single pinched through cover took Tendulkar to three figures for the 44th time. A raise of the arms, a wave of the bat to the dressing room, a lingering look at the heavens and a hug from Dhoni followed, and then he marked his guard again.
Dhoni tried to up the tempo in the batting Powerplay and fell for 56. Here Tendulkar's batting shifted down a gear as he batted with cramps, using Dravid as a runner, but he was no less determined. His strike-rate slowed down as he worked the ball around to get Yuvraj Singh on strike, yet the shot selection was impeccable. Seemingly invigorated by not having to run, Tendulkar launched an onslaught against Mendis in the 45th over, when in three successive deliveries he smote a six over extra cover - the high elbow said much about the strength needed to execute the shot - and reverse-swept fours. He fell attempting another, but his work allowed Yuvraj to smack a belligerent half-century that helped India set an unachievable target at this venue under lights, despite Thilina Kandamby's bravado.
The last time India played a final here it appeared they had forgotten how to play like a half-decent team. Today they took a massive step toward, freeing themselves from a spectre that had haunted them for too long. In Tendulkar - who has now scored nine international centuries and seven 90s since May 2007 - India have a batsman showing no signs of slowing down. With the Champions Trophy next week and the World Cup in 2011, this becomes especially relevant.