A banner at the ground summed up Australia's affection for Sachin Tendulkar. "Commit all your crimes when Sachin is batting," it read. "They will go unnoticed because even the Lord is watching." Great players have a feel for the big stage and Tendulkar couldn't have chosen a better moment to turn in such a regal performance. Efficient and authoritative, this was a flawless innings.
He had a royal audience. Neil Harvey and Arthur Morris, two Invincibles, were here. Steve Waugh had come in, as had the prime minister. Morris couldn't stop gushing about the 'little' batsman. "The Don and me were right," he smiled. "Little men like batting on this ground." A nonagenarian on a wheelchair entered the ground at lunch with only one question on his lips, "Is he still there?" The adulation reserved for Tendulkar often make him appear like an Australian hero.
When a bunch of school boys, sitting in the Monty Noble stand, were being noisy after lunch the teacher who had accompanied them screamed, "Nobody talks when Tendulkar is on strike". Soon the boys started chanting: "Nobody talks when Sachin strikes". The heartfelt applause when he reached hundred carried on for close to two minutes. First there was a cheer for the couple, then an even bigger one for the celebration. Sydneysiders knew they were witnessing something special; importantly they knew they may never see him again.
Here was an expert innings from a batsman in control, someone who knew what the situation demanded. Tendulkar's dazzling array of strokes make him the icon that he is but it's his consolidation skills that make him revered. Some batsmen give you a chance, Tendulkar, in this mood, gives you no hope.
It was an innings reminiscent of his 194 in Multan four years ago. Virender Sehwag had pummelled the Pakistan attack before India needed someone to build the advantage. It's ideal for Tendulkar, a master at knowing how to make use of an advantage. VVS Laxman's innings pushed Australia back but it took Tendulkar's masterclass to open up the Test. Ignition is vital but it means nothing if there's nobody to switch on cruise control.
If Laxman loves batting at Sydney, Tendulkar seems obsessed with it. In four Tests here he's rattled 148 not out, 45, 4, 241 not out, 60 not out and 154 not out. His average here is a staggering 326. Add a couple of fine one-day innings here, including a 54 not out in the 1992 World Cup match against Pakistan, and you have someone turned on by the SCG. "Sachin Cricket Ground," said a banner fittingly.
He ran hard, both for himself and his partners. He trusted the tailenders, a tactic which Brett Lee was to later term "brilliant". Bowling to a great batsman is bad enough, knowing he trusts his allies more so. He refused to farm the strike and saw his tactic pay off with Nos. 9, 10 and 11.
Amid this run-accumulation were sparks of brilliance. Anil Kumble's wicket perked him up: two fours dripped off his bat. Lee had trapped him with the wide one in Melbourne and he chose to slash more judiciously. Rarely did he flash awkwardly and, even when it was airy, it was well over. The second fifty came up in exactly two hours, a precision Tendulkar displayed through his innings, knowing when to score and when to leave.
He chugged along with a bit of help from his friends. Sourav Ganguly conjured up some magical strokes to provide the impetus early on before Harbhajan Singh joined in the fun. "I've always believed that Harbhajan can bat," said Tendulkar before cheekily adding, "and Harbhajan has believed in that more than I do." Close friends who love to play pranks on team-mates, the duo thwarted the Australian attack - Harbhajan with unconventional shots, Tendulkar with mathematical exactitude.
Tendulkar's childhood coach loved to take him from one game to another, fitting in three or four matches in a day. When he was out in one game, he would be put in the back seat of the scooter and taken straight to another. Tendulkar has spoken about how that shaped him as a cricketer. It was fitting to see him walk into the press conference with the bat in hand. Nobody could get him out on the field and he was ready for more at the end of the day.