By now "good old Chepauk" must be Sachin Tendulkar's favourite ground. he has not let down thousands of cricket aficionados who flock to the hallowed cricketing pretinct at Triplicane to spur and cheer the home team and even its adversary. After all there is no greater show of spirit than exulting in others' excellence and victory. Tendulkar's tryst with the famous venue in Chennai has been unmistakable; the proof of it being a half century against New Zealand, a century against Graham Gooch's England, another rip-roaring one against the likes of Shane Warne last March and now the great hundred against Wasim Akram's Pakistan.
On a balmy last Sunday of January 31, Sir Don Bradman's "What a lovely bonzer of a chap" persevered, accomplished and lifted his prowess to heights not seen before at the Chepauk, or for that matter in any ground in the world. Tendulkar saw the Test akin to a prizefighter's contest, batted with all his heart and soul, with a fizity of purpose and attempted to pilot India to a win in the historic Test against Pakistan played after an eon of a time.
Tendulkar batted for 405 minutes, faced 273 balls, struck 21 fours, made his eighteenth century that left the 40,000 plus fans amazed, not only because they got to see the little champion's third century at Chepauk, but the manner in which he made most of his 136 runs after the Pakistanis took five wickets to put the Indians' second innings in jeopardy. They were all set to tighten the knot.
But Tendulkar baulked the men in green caps. There was a typical roar that marked his arrival to the scene of action after Waqar Younis had trapped V V S Laxman in front for a duck. At siz for two, the situation looked ominous for India. tendulkar had gone for zero in the first innings and tounges wagged about the prospect of him bagging a "Pair". People criticised his on-side heave in the first innings that resulted in the ball swirling into the hands of Salim Malik at backward point.
In the first innings Tendulkar challenged the very second ball he faced from the crafty off-spinner, Saqlain Mushtaq, trying to show his bag of tricks. First he saw Wasim Akram's delivery leaving him outside the leg stump and then defended Saqlain's first ball. Tendulkar decided to waylay Saqlain. Perhaps it was a rush of blood and it spelt doom for himself and India. And then Saqlain continued to bowl on the trot till southpaw Saurav Ganguly came down the pitch to put the ball over the long-off rope.
Did Tendulkar see Saqlain's sleight of hand? Or was his decision to take on the off-spinner, a result of his impulse to confront him starightaway, upset his line, length and rhythm? Well, Saqlain's delivery, drifter or not, cracked the toughest nut in the Indian team. Tendulkar's early dismissal helped Pakistan flex its bowling muscle at the remaining Indian batsmen, and by the second day of the Test, Pakistan was back in the hunt, contrary to what the home spectators had expected. The Pakistan first innings had capitulated to 238 in under siz hours on the first day. The Indian's fared only slightly better.
But when Tendulkar took guard for the second time in two days from umpire Steve Dunne and marked his block on the crease, therew as tremendous hope and excitement all around. Tendulkar's mere presence in the middle gives the kick. "Its just the way he bats. Theres nothing like pressure for him" said coach Anshuman Gaekwad dismissing references that spoke ill about Tendulkar's devil-may-care approach in the first innings. Gaekwad and every man in the team was aware as to how Tendulkar has reacted in similar situations in the past.
There was just the hunch that Tendulkar would get even with Saqlain at the second oppurtunity. It happened. Ranged against him were eleven Pakistani players, all buoyed up after the dismissals of Dravid, Azhar and Ganguly. And in the vanguard of Pakistan's attack were Akram, Saqlain and Younis - all match winning bowlers. Saqlain had given the Indians a chance to have a good look at his off-breaks, floaters and the ones that hastened off the pitch and turned the other way.
At the outset Tendulkar - who had driven Younis through cover, playing the line and had handed out similar treatment to Akram the previous evening - looked calm and composed. He had planned the way he would defy Saqlain. He took his time to face every ball, and knew the position of every player around him, and on the fringe of the square. Most importantly, he showed that he would not come down the pitch to attempt to hit the ball in the air and clear the field.
A glance off Akram, shifting from side-on to open shouldered position, helped him get his first boundary. Then he pulled Saqlain - turning his wrist after going back to shorten the length. These two precise shots were made in the space of fifteen minutes, the second one coming at sixteen minutes past ten on the fourth day. He hit his third big scoring stroke of the day, more than three quarters of an hour after lunch.
It was an endeavour that made implicit his monumental patience for two and a half hours. His phlegmatic approach sent a clear message to Pakistan. Akram knew Tendulkar would be the man to beat in order to beat India and save himself and the team from being humbled. Pakistan had a task in its hands. And Tendulkar's aim - along with the stoical looking Mongia - was to keep the rival offensive at bay.
Tendulkar made just 24 runs between the start of play and lunch - which made his presence rather unspectacular. Twice he moved his right foot across to cut Shahid Afridi's fastish leg breaks like a headman's axe would, but only to find point and backward point standing a few metres apart throwing their hands and body to stop the firm shots. Itw as quite extraordinary that he was not tempted to even repeat the same shots.
When Afridi pitched around and outside the off-stump, Tendulkar just left the ball for wicket-keeper Moin Khan to gather. Two overs like this and Afridi was off thr firing line.
Tendulkar reached his half-century in one-minute short of two and a half hours, 136 balls and with half a dozen fours; the sixth boundary shot was scored off Saqlain after he rocked back and forced the ball through cover. It was after being in the middle for nearly four hours that he attempted his first horizontal bat shot off Saqlain. Akram had four men and the wicketkeeper for other batsmen, but not the leg gully. He kept it open for Tendulkar to nudge or glance and was ready to concede a single.
It was about half-an-hour before tea that he managed to beat the strong off-side field, cutting Afridi for a four. This also took India to an exact 135 for five wickets. Akram spread the field now for Tendulkar after a quick one-minute team meeting on the ground. Tendulkar moved from 44 to 81 in two hours. It was a fascinating duel, with Tendulkar maintaining his bat as the first line of defence and exhorting Mongia to defend and stay put in the middle.
Two on-side strokes - a pull and a sweep - off Saqlain immediately after tea saw Tendulkar in an aggressive mood. He was ten short of his century when Moin Khan flunked a stumping. The over from Saqlain was not finished yet. Tendulkar swept and placed him forward of square to pick two more boundaries. Sixteen runs from a single over took him to 98. his eighteenth century was there for the asking. He completed it in 339 minutes, 235 balls and with 13 fours. This was perhaps the second instance when he defied himself and the rival bowling, showing a strong mind and exceptional skills to deal with Saqlain.
Akram took the second new ball as and when it was available to him. Now, Tendulkar's bat boomed shots all over Chepauk. "I saw Gundappa Vishwanath make an undefeated 97 in a score of 191 at Chepauk against the West Indies. I would rate Tendulkar's innings in adverse circumstances above that. Because we know Tendulkar as an attacking batsman. It is ingrained in him. Today he showed us all a different facet which should make Capt Hazare, Vishwanath and Sunil Gavasker proud.". said Raj Singh Dungarpur, President of the BCCI.
Tendulkar was under tremendous pain, his back and side strain were not allowing him to bat freely. Yet, he made most of the 36 runs he added with SUnil Joshi. When everything pointed to an Indian celebration, Pakistan finally struck, managing to remove Tendulkar, who was keen and eager to finish the match. But fate authored another story. Akram gave all his life to come under the skier and held the catch that eventually won the first Test for him by 12 runs.
The Indian batting maestro finally left the scene receiving a standing ovation after making a great century(136, 405 minutes, 273 balls, 21 X 4s) in which was manifest Tendulkar's capacity to stay, bat like a technician, wear down the rival attack and dominate it.
In 10 summers in the rough and tumble of international cricket, we have seen Tendulkar grow from a skinny little lad in Shardashram School to a successful and great batsman.
At Chepauk he gave full meaning to his greatness and lofty stature. Ten years ago, he took a blow on his nose in biting cold climate in Pakistan. Ten years later, he made the Pakistanis shiver in broad daylight.