We look for various things in sport. Sometimes it is human will against the elements, sometimes it is a player's will against his own ability, sometimes it is athleticism, sometimes it is power, sometimes it is skill. One of the more ambitious pursuits of a fan is perfection everywhere. The rare instance when the conditions are perfect, and both opponents are perfect, performing to the best of their ability, in a mental and physical space that allows them to perform to the best of their ability. Many sporting contests are won because one of the opponents doesn't bring his best to a certain situation. We spend years, decades, eras waiting for that day of perfection. January 4, 2011 was one such in cricket.
It was sunny in Cape Town. There was no tablecloth on Table Mountain. It wasn't too hot either, allowing bowlers to bowl long spells. The ball swung, the pitch allowed seam, but the bounce was true and the outfield quick. Newlands had rolled out a really good pitch for the really good batsmen and bowlers. Lesser bowlers would go for easy runs, lesser batsmen would be easily consumed. On that day, the best bowler and best batsman in the world - at that time, at any rate - brought it.
Dale Steyn can go through spells of swing bowling operating within himself, in terms of pace, and then something suddenly clicks, and he suddenly starts producing vicious swing at high pace. That something had clicked before Steyn walked out on the field on that day. He began the first two sessions with two spells of perfect and accurate outswing, repeatedly carving out an inverted comma on the pitch with late swing, often pitching leg and missing off.
However, Steyn got just two wickets in those ten overs, even though he went for only 13. Later that day Steyn said he didn't have much to complain about what happened in those two spells. Inside 12 balls that first spell he trapped Cheteshwar Pujara lbw with a late swinger that pitched leg and would have taken off, got MS Dhoni to edge one just outside off, and got one to pitch outside Harbhajan Singh's leg stump before hitting off, only for the bail to not come off.
The other 48, he said, were nearly a write-off. They were faced by Tendulkar at the top of his game.
Determination, discipline and technique came together perfectly that day. Tendulkar stood outside his crease, played with soft hands when he did, and most importantly didn't push his bat outside the line of his head.
Tendulkar was bull-headed that day. Some batsmen counterattack at such times, and on occasion get away with it, ending up with charming innings. Tendulkar has done that himself in the past, but on this day he took the harder route. He changed the terms of play. He didn't want to take the risk that came with counterattacking. This was his last chance of winning a series in South Africa. He knew he couldn't possibly cover the swing of every ball. He just kept getting a stride in, eliminating lbws as far as possible, and playing at balls only if they ended up under the line of his eyes.
Once, Steyn pitched too full; Tendulkar drove him for four. Another time Tendulkar committed to a defensive shot well outside the line of off, and decided to withdraw the bat too late, getting a streaky four through the cordon. Apart from that it was almost impossible to break his discipline. It is one thing to tell yourself you are not going to play a defensive shot outside the line of your head, quite another to not be lured by the prolific and late swing. Tendulkar was in the zone that day.
Countering those two Steyn spells - shielding Harbhajan during the second, with the new ball - was just part of the job, though. Runs needed to be scored too. Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe weren't exactly bowling pies. However, they were not as consistent as Steyn. Tendulkar targeted them with regularity. Severe on any error in length, he pulled and cut with a measure of finality, drove with grace, late-cut delicately, and also played a shot that has seamlessly become a part of his repertoire, the upper-cut.
The hundred, though, came up with a top-edged six. You needed a little luck to survive Steyn and Morkel that day. Tendulkar had spent 14 balls on 94 before that, without showing any edginess. His strike rate, though it seemed like he increased the pace after reaching the hundred, was 46.49. These are numbers for those who start to suggest Tendulkar doesn't know what he is doing when he gets into defensive mode.
It was a special match. Steyn finished with 5 for 75 in that innings. Tendulkar 146 off 314, to help India take a two-run lead. Apart from that, Jacques Kallis scored two special centuries, the second of them through crippling pain ("Someone cutting their own rib", the doctor described it as being). Yet it remained a match ruined by two defensive captains. Dhoni's passive leadership allowed South Africa to get away in the third innings, and Graeme Smith's refusal to declare the third innings closed left no carrot dangling. India salvaged the draw with relative ease on the final day.
What happened on days four and five notwithstanding, the satisfaction on the faces of those leaving Newlands on January 4 told you they had seen something close to perfection.