England bow to Sachin Tendulkar genius

Urged on by the local paper to bunk off work and watch history in the making, they did so in their thousands. They came with their whistles, hooters and horns, with their faces painted orange, white and green and waving their flags of India. And what a day they had: Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest players in history, played one of his greatest innings, signing off a script that could have been written for him with a four to end the match, bring up his hundred and win a Test for his country.

This was no ordinary match and no ordinary victory. The scorebook will record that India won at a canter, with six wickets and 20 overs to spare. The statisticians will trot out the necessaries – that this was the highest successful run chase on the sub-continent and the fourth highest in history. But that is the least of it. As Tendulkar dedicated his 41st Test hundred to the damaged city of Mumbai and as 30,000 people stayed and cheered both teams for their efforts with almost equal zeal, it was clear that something special had happened in this old, dilapidated stadium.

Nationalism is never far from the surface in India and after the horrors of Mumbai, its intensity has been more apparent. Tendulkar has always been India’s equivalent of the late Ken Barrington, of whom it was said that every time he walked to the crease he did so as if the Union Jack was draped around his shoulders. These feelings would have been magnified this week, as Tendulkar revealed in a television address when he reaffirmed publicly why he played the game: ‘I play for India, now more than ever.’ Yesterday he was as good as his word.

He gave a masterclass in batsmanship: how to pace a fourth-innings run chase, how to play spin on a wearing pitch, how to tailor an innings to the demands of the situation. He went to the crease in the third over of the day after Andrew Flintoff had given England an early tonic with the wicket of Rahul Dravid, searching for form but finding only a thin edge to the wicket-keeper, and he was still there at the end, caked in sweat and dust, now with Yuvraj Singh, a young thruster, for company. He hit nine boundaries in all, but more to the point were the countless singles, which formed the bedrock of his innings, each one manoeuvred expertly into the gaps as if his blade possessed a sat-nav.

England, who had dominated this game until lunchtime on the fourth day, when they led by 319 runs with seven second-innings wickets intact, will wonder how they lost. They would do well to reflect on the three hours after lunch on Sunday, when the run-rate stalled, they lost all sense of purpose and were complicit in allowing Virender Sehwag to blaze India back into contention. Not for nothing was Sehwag made man of the match.

Even so, England began the last day as worthy favourites, needing nine wickets on a pitch that resembled a palaeontologist’s excavation site. They took only three. They might have had more; crucially, Tendulkar, pushing forward on ten to the off-spin of Graeme Swann, was dropped at silly point by Alastair Cook. It was a tough chance, as was Matt Prior’s missed stumping down the leg side off Yuvraj when the left-hander had scored 80. But this was a day when we expected the bowlers and close fielders to come off the field hoarse from appealing, so promising were the conditions. Three wickets and a couple of missed opportunities represented slim pickings.

Much was expected of England’s spinners on this final day and, although they occasionally found some sharp turn and bounce, they disappointed. Allowing the India batsmen to play on the back foot too often and setting fielders deep as if in fear of leaking boundaries, they could never pin them down and create enough pressure. Monty Panesar, in particular, looked short of form, match practice and confidence. He finished wicketless and dispirited from 27 repetitive and unimaginative overs, his trademark enthusiasm buried under brilliant Indian batsmanship.

Gautam Gambhir, who had helped send India on their way with Sehwag, played beautifully until he poked a ball from James Anderson to gully and V.V.S.Laxman showed glimpses of his wristy genius before prodding Swann to short leg. So it was left to Yuvraj to accompany Tendulkar home. He did so, uncertainly at first and then with growing assurance, finishing on 85 and having the played the kind of innings of substance that could be the making of him as a Test batsman.

Yuvraj’s success will have irritated England, since they regard him as a show pony. As in the first innings, they raised the decibel levels when he came in and they tried to get under his skin. This time, wisely, he did not take the bait and turned his back on them. With his languid swing of the blade, cocky manner and locker full of strokes, he will always score quickly and, as victory loomed, he threatened to overtake his partner.

By now, Tendulkar was batting not only for his country and himself but for Yuvraj, too, because every time the left-hander played a loose shot or made a grand gesture, Tendulkar admonished him and reminded him of his responsibilities. This was no time for flightiness; there was a match to win. No doubt Tendulkar was reminded of his own century in a losing cause on this ground against Pakistan a decade ago. He had a ghost to exorcise.

Had Yuvraj been batting with anyone else, he would have hogged the limelight and taken India to victory in a blaze of boundaries. But now he had to tread a fine line because the crowd wanted a Tendulkar hundred as well as victory. Such is Tendulkar’s standing that Yuvraj retreated from centre stage, gave up the strike and allowed Tendulkar his moment.

Swann served up something juicy on leg stump and Tendulkar, down on one knee and watching the ball like a hawk, paddle-swept it for four. Yuvraj, bad back and all, hoisted Tendulkar into the air, the little maestro clenched a fist in salute and the noise from the M.A.Chidambaram Stadium echoed all the way to Mumbai. The Times, 16 December 2008