Legends never cease to amaze us. You believe you have seen it all and then they pull out another bunny from their hat. And while the world has its eyes on the benchmarks set by these extraordinary human beings, they raise the bar again. It becomes a spectacle for millions to witness when these immortals, possessed by the hunger and drive to scale new peaks, set their foot on the ground. You wonder if it was always these “targets” that drove them or whether they accomplished those in their pursuit towards excellence.
India is a nation obsessed with numbers. Any field, any business, any sport, it’s always been a numbers game here. Cricket was no exception. Gavaskar and Kapil Dev’s achievements in test cricket were part of the folklore. But while the Indians held the bragging rights of these glorious records, there was a void when it came to ODIs. Then Tendulkar happened. As the years passed, expectations rose. And he didn’t fail them. By 2001, Tendulkar held almost every possible record worth mentioning in ODIs. Fans used to wonder – what next. What more does he have in store?
Saeed Anwar, in 1997, had set the ball rolling for the next big milestone in cricket. He got dismissed at six runs short of what would have been a marvelous double-hundred on a hot and humid day in unplayable conditions at Chennai. That it was a batsman from across the border at the helm was enough to fuel the Indian fans to set a new target for Sachin – To become the first player to score 200 in a One Day International match. 13 years later, and much after the calls for his retirement had died down after a dismal ’06-07 season, he didn’t disappoint his fans yet again.
24th February 2010 could have been any other day in the calendar. Sachin Tendulkar though had different ideas. He scored that elusive double-hundred in ODIs. As simple as it may sound, in 39 years since the inception of the format, no one had quite crossed that barrier till then. Many fine cricketers came agonizingly close but fell short of the last mile. A few others have since scored much more than that. None, though, quite had the audiences at the edge of the seat as Sachin’s knock had.
South Africa was the team at the receiving end. You do expect geniuses to rise to the occasion but that a new chapter in history would be scripted at your expense; there would be few takers for such an offer. Talk about being “in zone” and Tendulkar was in one when he took guard against Dale Steyn & Co. Scoring big 100’s wasn’t an unfamiliar territory for Sachin. He had large numbers to his credit. But that he was nearing 37, when most cricketers are gearing up to hang their boots, thoughts of witnessing him reaching the landmark were being put down to rest. The onus of scoring a double century in an ODI was now being put on the likes of Sehwag, Gayle, DeVilliers etc. Tendulkar though, as he displayed his genius that day, looked far from finished.
He cut, drove, pulled, hooked, and flicked for the three hours he spent on the field. Every bowler was treated with equal disdain. Battling cramps and verbal volleys from skipper Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn, Tendulkar nevertheless had set off for this journey. The first 50 runs happened, then the next and then the next. By now, it was clear that Tendulkar was all set to become the first batsman to reach 200. Switch to 2009, a year back he got retired hurt en route to his 163, looking all set then too, against New Zealand at Christchurch. He had said to his partner in crime, Virender Sehwag, after the match, “agar kismat mein hogi to aa jayegi”.
What stood out was not only the flow of runs from the bat but the manner in which he controlled the proceedings during his knock. He hit that odd boundary whenever he felt like, didn’t shy away from hitting fast bowlers for the maximum, took on the fielders to steal that extra run, rotated the strike to let others make hay too while the going was strong for India. Dinesh Karthik and Yusuf Pathan too plundered the hapless bowling attack, albeit with star-studded names, while the master was at his best at the other end. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the innings had it all. Records continued to tumble. He crossed his previous personal best score of 186 and later surpassed Saeed Anwar as highest scorer. Customary handshakes followed but it was business as usual for Sachin. Not looking affected by the frenzy. These were not nervous 90s but nervous 190s. Will he, won’t he. The wait seemed endless.
Skipper M S Dhoni, however, delayed the proceedings. He joined the party towards the last few overs and kept most of the strike. Tendulkar was out of steam by then and Dhoni took the charge. As if the damage was done was not enough, he accelerated the scoring rate to give India a formidable target to defend while teasing the audiences and keeping them at the wait. Sachin’ continued his march towards the goal by cutting down the risky shots and dealing only in singles and twos. It all came down to the last over. It was not until the third delivery, bowled by Charles Langeveldt, that Tendulkar reached out and deflected the ball towards point to take what we could easily call, the most important single in the ODI cricket history. The decibels reached a new high. It was madness all around. Social media was berserk. The Master had accomplished another one of the ‘firsts’. Though like any other knock of his, this gem too didn’t get any special treatment. There were no over-the-top celebrations, no pumping of fists, and no hurling of cuss words. That was just not him. It had never been like that with him. Spread your arms, look towards the sky, thank the heavens, acknowledge the applause and savour the moment. This was what Tendulkar was, two decades back and he was still the same. Dhoni finished off with the formalities by making India cross 400. 50% of those runs had come from one man’s bat alone that day. Fittingly Sachin led the teams off from the ground after the innings got over. The spectators would savor the moment for years to come. No other innings had stamped itself on the front page of Indian journals, while eclipsing the Rail Budget too, like this one.
Six years later as I write this piece, the image of Sachin waving his bat from behind his back, pointing towards the dressing room, flashes in front of me – showing how unaffected he was amongst all the drama that just unfolded. His greatness was never in question. But that night, Tendulkar raised the bar again, like he did severally in the past, for others to follow.