Sachin Tendulkar fell short of a hundred, yet again © AFP

Sachin Tendulkar has got close twice in this series, and six times this year, but that 42nd one-day hundred - his answer to life, the universe and everything - still eludes him. It should not have, for during the majority of his innings against Pakistan in Gwalior, Tendulkar - on the 18th anniversary of his international debut - turned back the clock to a time when scoring hundreds was a matter of habit. However, as his century approached today, the pace slowed down, the nerves showed up. When play was held up by dew in the 29th over, the electronic scoreboard flashed "Sachin Tendulkar on 97". And there the story ended.

Later, with the match won, Tendulkar put his usual philosophical spin on it. "These things are part and parcel of the game," he said as he came up to collect his 56th Man-of-the-Match award. "I've got in to a bad habit of getting out in the nineties but the more I think of it, the bigger the problem will become.

"The most satisfying thing was that we've won the series and I'm happy I was able to contribute."

His contribution was certainly the bedrock of the Indian innings. The confidence with which Tendulkar attacked the Pakistan fast bowlers set the tone for the run-chase. After the game his captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, said the way Tendulkar had taken responsibility and led the battle from the front had made a huge difference, taking the pressure off the other batsmen - especially Virender Sehwag - who were then able to bat around him.

Yet India's innings was really about Tendulkar. It was special because Tendulkar held the crowd in rapt attention by batting with freedom and aggression, yet never putting a foot wrong. His body language exuded urgency from the manner in which he charged between the wickets and backed up a long way at the non-striker's end, looking for the strike.

He gauged the pace of the pitch early and had ample time to decide whether to play a particular ball off the front or back foot. When Shoaib Akhtar strayed on to his pads, Tendulkar clipped him through midwicket; when Umar Gul or Rao Iftikhar Anjum gave him room he stood imperiously on the back foot and peppered the cover boundary.

The switch in atmosphere at the Captain Roop Singh Stadium from cheering India's dominance to counting down to Tendulkar's century happened in a matter of moments. He gave the crowds little notice, taking a hat-trick of fours off Shahid Afridi to move from 65 to 77. They were confident strokes, the first was an inside-out loft over extra cover, the second a square drive and the last a scorching cover drive. In the next Afridi over, Tendulkar collected his 15th four through an inside edge to fine leg. It was his first nervy shot.

He was determined to move on and a four - an upper cut off Shoaib Akhtar - took him to 93. The edginess began to show against Gul, who had dismissed Tendulkar for 99 in Mohali. He got beaten by one that lifted outside the off stump and a few balls later played a checked drive perilously close to the fielder at cover.

As he made his way through the nineties there were a couple of delays, which didn't help his concentration. The first was Sehwag's run-out, going for a quick single with Tendulkar on 95 and the second was caused by the ground staff mopping up the dew from the outfield. As they went around the ground with their sheets and ropes, Yuvraj had a chat with Shahid Afridi and the other Pakistan players milled around. Tendulkar, however, remained focused and was waiting at the striker's end, ready to resume his innings. That intensity, however, did not last and the silence was deafening as the crowd realised that Gul had dislodged Tendulkar's bails with the first ball after the break.

Perhaps the shot of the day was when Tendulkar leaned outside the off stump, used the angle into him from Sohail Tanvir, and flicked him through midwicket for four. It was a shot that Tendulkar might not have been able to play on November 15, 1989 when he made his debut against Pakistan. The fact that he missed his 42nd one-day century once again will rankle, but if he continues to bat like he did today, it will be only a matter of time.

George Binoy is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo