Sachin Tendulkar showed early on in his career that he could carry the team on his young shoulders. He curbed his natural attacking game to bat out the last day at Old Trafford and save a Test match for India which had seemed all but lost. It was an innings of rare maturity from a cherubic figure all of 17 years old, and signalled the arrival on the world stage of a prodigious talent. It was the first of many individual milestones too, but on this first occasion, the milestone was incidental.
The objective was to save the game, and the young Tendulkar never lost sight of that as he defended stoutly hour after hour even as some of his seniors at the other end succumbed to pressure and got out to loose shots. He was dropped on 10 but overcame the impetuosity of youth to do what was required. By the time dusk fell, the boy wonder had denied England a victory that was within their grasp when they had half the Indian side back in the pavilion for 127.
Tendulkar ended up with 119 not out, sharing an unbroken seventh wicket stand of 160 with all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, who made 67 not out. This was Tendulkar’s first Test century. Only Mushtaq Mohammed of Pakistan had got a Test century at a younger age.
A hundred too far
What a contrast that was to his hundredth international century 22 years later. Here, a man pushing 40, desperate to get to a milestone that had eluded him for more than a year, was making sure he closed it out against minnows Bangladesh on the easiest of batting wickets. In the process, he gave Bangladesh the opportunity to knock India out of the Asia Cup. If ever there was an example of a player batting for a milestone, this was it.
Normally, a well-set batsman would be expected to accelerate in a one-day match as the innings progressed, particularly when a side had wickets in hand. But Tendulkar took no chances, nurdling his way to the much-awaited milestone with singles, unmindful of the situation in the game.
It wasn’t just in the nervous nineties either; the safety play started much earlier. His second fifty took longer than the first, and had only three boundaries, compared to seven fours and a six in the first fifty.
Did the team require him to slow down and anchor a ship in trouble? Not in the least. India lost their second wicket in the 36th over, and were still only two down when Tendulkar finally reached his century off 138 balls in the 44th over. He took 13 balls to move single by single from 94 to 100 at a stage when the team needed to be going hell for leather with 8 wickets in hand.
A quickfire 50 at the other end from Suresh Raina was not enough to lift India past 300, which would have been no more than par for that flat course in Mirpur. After India lost the match, the bowlers were blamed for failing to defend 289 against a team like Bangladesh, while Tendulkar was feted for achieving his milestone. Nobody wanted to point out the elephant in the room – that India could easily have posted a much higher target on that ground, against that attack, had it not been for Tendulkar going along at a safe 4 runs an over between his 50 and 100 in a match where the average scoring rate was close to 6 an over. He got to a fifty in 63 balls, then took another 75 balls to reach his century; and this was on a pitch where Bangladesh chased down a target of 290 with four balls to spare and five wickets in hand. In the next match on that same pitch, India made short work of a target of 330 set by Pakistan. They did it with more than two overs to spare, thanks to 183 in 148 balls by Virat Kohli. Tendulkar’s slow 114 in 147 balls therefore had little to do with the conditions on the ground or state of the game, and more to do with the hype and obsession over his milestone.
Perhaps Tendulkar underestimated the Bangladeshis, and thought it would not matter if he just made sure he got his elusive hundredth century even at the cost of some runs for his team. But a spirited Bangladesh and perfect batting conditions put a much higher price tag on Tendulkar’s milestone, because it cost the team the game and eventually a place in the Asia Cup final.
What it did do for Tendulkar was to end the constant speculation before every match on whether he would reach the landmark, and acute embarrassment after each game over his inability to make it for so long. That he failed to add to his tally of centuries in three Test series at home over the course of the next year or so showed that he might have been on an endless hunt for that hundred if he hadn’t grabbed his opportunity to make it against Bangladesh. But really, Tendulkar would have been better off staying at a Bradmanesque 99 centuries instead of getting to a hundredth ton in such an inglorious fashion. Besides, it was only a milestone that had been drummed up for him by marketing mavens.