Sachin Tendulkar finds himself in unfamiliar territory. If he fails, he raises the decibel level of the cries for his retirement; if he scores runs, he gets the other side excited. It is a head versus heart debate that has been exercising cricket fans in India for a while now. His 76 at Eden Gardens will probably preserve the status quo since it has given both sides of the divide equal ammunition.
Just as great poets do not always write great poetry, great batsmen do not always play great knocks. Tendulkar's 318th Test innings spoke of struggle and pressure rather than fluency and dominance, but in the context of the day's play, it was crucial. It was only his second fifty this year, coming 10 innings after his 80 at Sydney.
Tendulkar was past 50 before he gave the first glimpse of the batsman with over 15,000 runs in Tests; for the most part he was the Tendulkar of more recent vintage, edging intended drives and occasionally misreading length. He could have been out to Monty Panesar a few times, or James Anderson, but luck formed a good partnership with his own resilience.
On an earlier tour, Tendulkar had been Panesar's first Test wicket. The bowler later got the batsman to autograph the ball for him. Tendulkar signed, and wrote "Never again". Yet in the last Test at Mumbai Panesar got him twice and, here in Kolkata, might have had him early because Tendulkar rarely presented the full face of the bat to the ball. It could have either taken the edge or sneaked through to bowl him, a manner of dismissal Tendulkar has made his own of late. At one point Panesar bowled to him with a silly mid-on and a silly mid-off.
Part of Tendulkar's relative success today could be put down to his refusal to let his ego decide. Asked years ago how he would bowl to Barry Richards, the great Indian left-arm spinner Bishan Bedi said, "I will attack him. I will play on his ego."
Panesar has spent enough time with Bedi to imbibe that lesson, but Tendulkar was not biting. He saw the close-in fielders off not by attacking them but by giving them nothing to do. In the end he scored only 20 runs off Panesar's 83 deliveries, an exercise in self-denial that was both subtle and effective.
Tendulkar glanced for four the first ball after tea from Steve Finn to complete his first fifty since January this year, 10 innings after his last one in Sydney. Relief and celebration followed next ball when he got up to his full height, met the ball on the top of its bounce and fired an uppish drive past cover point.
It was not the strokes he played but the ones he didn't that best describes his innings. A crashing straight drive off a medium-pacer and the rousing square-cut which leaves cover point wondering whether he should chase the ball or simply stand and applaud are the strokes that usually indicate he is in form. Neither was on show, but the 25,000 or so spectators (there are no official figures) would rather have had a scratchy 76 than a brilliant nine or 10.
At the end of the day, James Anderson, who became the bowler to dismiss Tendulkar the most number of times (eight), said his wicket was the big one. It is a long time since an international bowler has said that.
The Tendulkar conundrum, however, continues. For decades he was the man who united a nation, making irrelevant such markers as caste, custom, political leanings, gender and age. Now, strangely, he seems to be dividing the nation – the darling of millions faced with the gathering discontent of those same millions. Most of us, as we grow older discover how friends sometimes turn against us – but not on this scale and with such force.
Suresh Menon is editor of 'Wisden India Almanack'Reuse content