A battle most spectacular

It finally ended five minutes before noon, what could possibly have been Sachin Tendulkar's final masterpiece in the land that has adopted him as a beloved hero, and the passage of play that preceded the dismissal was stirring, featuring another compelling battle between the best bowler and the best batsman of the series.

Tendulkar had come out with intent written on his blade, and Lee with fire in the belly. The first half hour went to the batsmen - Tendulkar clipped Lee's first ball to the square-leg boundary - and he and Mahendra Singh Dhoni ran so aggressively that it drove the Australians to distraction. Tendulkar survived a run-out, benefited from an overthrow and Dhoni cracked a couple of crunching shots. In three overs, the Indian total had swelled by 24 runs. It was then that the Australians decided to change their line of attack - rather, their length.

The fielder at point had been put back at the ropes from the first over but now square leg went back and, after Tendulkar steered one above the slip cordon, a third man materialised. Dhoni fell first, slapping a long hop from Mitchell Johnson to deep point. It was now left to Lee to resume hostilities.

One ball went whistling past the off stump; Tendulkar cut another so hard it screamed through Mike Hussey's hands to the boundary; an attempted upper cut didn't connect; and another well-targeted bouncer had Tendulkar hopping. The 150 came up with a picture-perfect cover drive that reduced the slip cordon to one as Ricky Ponting went to man the cover region. It was inevitable that the next ball would be short, and Tendulkar was ready. However, the pull is the only stroke in his repertoire that betrays the ravages of time, and the ball sliced off his inner-edge for a painful blow to inner part of his knees, which required medical attention.

Lee repeated the ball after the interruption, and Tendulkar repeated the stroke, aiming to clear midwicket, but only managed a miscue that ballooned up to deep square leg, where Brad Hogg missed a step but secured the catch. The home crowd cheered with joy at the prized wicket, but moments later all that turned to prolonged appreciation as Tendulkar began his slow retreat. Lee, meanwhile, had found time to put an affectionate and admiring hand on Tendulkar's helmet. It was a lovely, human touch to what has been the contest within a contest.

There have been several others in the series, but Harbhajan Singh v Ricky Ponting has hardly been a contest so far, the bowler coming up trumps every time. There is another brewing between Ponting and young Ishant Sharma. Between Sourav Ganguly and Hogg it has been a feisty one. Hogg has hardly been able to buy a wicket this series, but when it comes to Ganguly it seems he just has to roll his arm over. But between Tendulkar and Lee has been the grandest one: it has brought out the gladiatorial edge between two fierce and supremely skilful competitors, and it has been played out over the full spectrum.

Numbers might say that Lee has had the edge, dismissing Tendulkar four times, but Tendulkar's average against Lee in the series doesn't tell the full picture. That is, both the players have managed to raise their game when playing each other. Lee's spells to Tendulkar were exceptional in both innings in Perth, but Tendulkar counter-punched his way to 71 before he was adjudged lbw. It was a harsh decision: he was hit on the flap, while on the hop, and the ball would have sailed over the stumps. However, Tendulkar had been reprieved early in Sydney and it was the third time in that over Lee had beaten his bat. In the second innings, Lee nailed him early, this time plumb in front.

And on a flat pitch in Adelaide yesterday, Lee produced the spell of the match, reverse-swinging the old ball at pace, taking one out, bending another back. VVS Laxman's wicket was his reward, but Tendulkar played him out, watching the ball close and till late, and attempting no extravagant strokes. And having survived, he was fulsome in praise. "It was the toughest spell," he said, " Lee has been the top bowler throughout the series ... he has not given us any breathing space at all."
The admiration is hardly one-sided. Lee was asked for his thoughts on Tendulkar after his Sydney hundred. His answer was brief, but it came instantly: No 1, he said, without batting an eyelid. It said it all.

Between Tendulkar and Lee, they have showcased what we really cherish about Test cricket. It has been a high-intensity combat between a master batsman who has rediscovered his zest and rolled back the years and a fast bowler who has reached his prime. It has been full of spark, grit and grace. It's been a privilege to watch.