A full house at The Oval rose to Sachin Tendulkar. Not when he reached his half-century, or when he was out. Tendulkar got a standing ovation when walked in to bat.
At 29, he has already scored 30 Test centuries, and the crowd was acknowledging the world's greatest batsman in his 100th Test. What would the crowd do if he were to make his farewell appearance here? In 1948, the reverence of the audience and the players brought a tear to Sir Donald Bradman's eye and Eric Hollies bowled him second ball. Would a similar mist descend on Tendulkar? Probably not.
You can experience the Tendulkar phenomenon as he leaves the ground at close of play. He wears shorts, looks not much more than a lad, and stares straight ahead, creating his own space by listening to music in his earpieces. Outside the players' entrance, orange-coated stewards stand shoulder to shoulder to create a corridor to the team bus.
When Tendulkar exits, he is surrounded by three more security guards, who escort him every step of the way. He told Mark Nicholas on Channel 4 at lunch that he can't live like a normal person in India, but he can't even leave an English cricket ground like an ordinary cricketer.
He is burdened by expectation. "I try not to think of that too much," he says. But yesterday the crowd was expecting Tendulkar to score a hundred, just as Geoff Boycott and Alec Stewart did in their 100th Tests. There is no weakening of his desire to dominate. "With Sachin, the hunger remains strong," says the excellent Rahul Dravid in a commemorative issue of Wisden Cricket Asia.
Tendulkar came in to bat at 11.45am and was off the mark in the first over with a neat flick to the fine-leg boundary. There followed a half-hour in which the master looked almost human. Perhaps he was feeling a little nervous, though later his partner Dravid said: "If he was, he didn't show it." He played and missed at Andrew Caddick, and proceeded cautiously, almost to the point of anonymity.
After 30 minutes, he finally moved on with a stroked single to point before Caddick had him playing and missing again. As an act of penance, he sent the next ball to the boundary with a flashing square cut.
When Dominic Cork came on, Tendulkar punished a lax line outside the off stump with two fine late cuts for four. After the second, Caddick was sent from deep square leg to third man. Tendulkar immediately ignored the third-man boundary.
He did play and miss to Alex Tudor, though to compensate he placed his foot firmly down the pitch and straight-drove him to mid off. Another uncharacteristic swish at Tudor was followed by a powerful, front-foot square drive, followed by a straight one. Of his first 29 runs, 28 came in boundaries.
He had not played one shot in the air; he had pierced the field in all directions; and, because he was beginning to play in his pomp, Nasser Hussain tried to apply the brake with defensive fields and negative bowling.
In his conversation with Nicholas, Tendulkar said: "I try to keep everything simple. The state of mind should be good and then you let the instinct take over." After lunch his instinct reacquainted itself with the third-man boundary, and he drove Ashley Giles to the extra-cover boundary for four. A single square of the wicket brought up his half-century, and at that stage he looked invulnerable.
When he missed a Caddick yorker that hit his boot and he was given out lbw for 54 it was as if the natural order had been upset. He had hit 10 fours in his 89-ball innings. There were rumbles in the press box about it going down leg, but Hawkeye's cameras gave him out. If he was upset, he did not show it. That would be undignified. "It was a gem of an innings and he was unlucky to get out. He would have loved to have got a hundred in his 100th Test," said Dravid.
It was a perfectly sound innings. India were 178 when his wicket fell; they had every right to feel confident of saving the follow-on and most likely drawing the series. The only mild negative is that a score of 54 lowers his Test average from 57.99 to 57.97.
Tendulkar is flattered to be spoken of in the same breath as Bradman, but he thinks it is an exaggeration to compare himself with a man who scored a hundred every third time he batted. True enough, but there is a quality about him that makes his performances memorable, even if he gets 54 when he was expected to score a hundred.
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