SACHIN TENDULKAR occasioned two ovations at the MCG yesterday. The first, minutes before the tea break, was for his entry. It was thunderous and did not subside until he reached the crease, sending shivers up spines in two countries.
Tendulkar has become as Don Bradman was. "We want him to do well, but not too well," wrote RC Robertson-Glasgow when Bradman arrived for his last tour of England. "We feel we have a share in him. He is more than Australian. He is a world batsman."
The second ovation was upon Tendulkar's departure after he was bowled by Peter Siddle for 73 in the long shadow of stumps. It was smaller, in a lower key, and tinged with sympathy for him, but also for the denial of posterity. Tendulkar had batted so superbly that it seemed he must surely return today to complete his 100th international century. Three more balls would have gained him overnight harbour.
Momentarily, the unfolding of the match – with India at 3/214 looking to overhaul Australia's first innings of 333 – became an aside. But the next threshold in cricket is only ever one ball away, and is apt to surprise even its masters. Bradman never did hit the four that would have made his average 100. For Tendulkar, a century of centuries is proving so near and impossibly far.
But for Sydney cricket fans, yesterday's last over dismissal leaves open the tantalising prospect of Tendulkar returning to the SCG next week, a ground on which he carries a Test average of 221.33, with the 100th century still begging to be hit.
Still, Australia could rejoice for itself yesterday. Upon Tendulkar's arrival, its prospects were gloomy. It was as if the already stringent terms of engagement had worsened. Previously, there was Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, the immovable obstacle and the irresistible force, but on the same side. Together, they had laid the foundation. Now the irresistible force had been replaced by the moral absolute, who in this most partisan of games enjoys universal favour. It brought together the two most prolific runmakers in Test history.
Where Tendulkar's peers – represented here by Dravid and Ricky Ponting – now sweat and strain, he still plays with balance, ease, flow and a projection of certainty. He carries the mantle of his greatness lightly. When not on strike, he does not so much lean on his bat as stand beside it. He and it are equals anyway, of a piece and of a mind.
The afternoon largely belonged to India. Tendulkar's 50 came in almost as few balls. Dravid and his force field acted as foil. Australia's attack was brought to heel. Michael Clarke turned to Mike Hussey, and then to Dave Warner, perhaps figuring that park bowling might lull Tendulkar into park batting. It almost worked.
Australia would not submit. India's runmaking slowed. The more assured Tendulkar grew, the streakier Dravid became.
Siddle searched out a crack in Dravid – aka The Wall – worried at it until it widened, then burst through it. To Australia's despair, a closer inspection revealed a no-ball. Three overs later, bowling more rapidly than at any earlier stage, he sheared through Tendulkar's fractionally lowered guard. This time, the paperwork was in order. So, at dusk, did a new day dawn.