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By Suresh Menon
It was said of the great Ranji as he charmed English crowds with Oriental magic that he “never played a Christian stroke in his life.” In Gwalior, Tendulkar never played an un-Christian stroke as he made 200, and that is nearly as significant as the record itself.
A double century in a one-day international was a milestone whose time had come. The possibilities of attacking batsmanship in a limited overs game had been demonstrated in two Twenty20 World Cups and the annual IPL tournaments. There were enough centuries in 20-over games to suggest that a double in a 50-over match was just round the corner.
The favourites to get there first were Adam Gilchrist and Virender Sehwag. A decade ago, it was Sachin Tendulkar. It needed to be an opening batsman (or a number three) guaranteed to last 50 overs and with a range of unorthodox strokes that would enable him to score consistently.
And yet, when it came, the double was a triumph of traditional cricket and the coaching manual rather than a paean to the somewhat manic hitting of the shorter formats. Tendulkar, who has sanctified a few unorthodox shots of his own, hardly played any of the manufactured shots of today – the reverse sweep, the switch hit, the upper cut, the Dilshan scoop. The cover drive, the on drive, the flick, the leg glance, the square cut – it was all classical batsmanship.
In a few weeks, Tendulkar will be 37. Over the years various parts of his body have protested in various ways, and he has had to adapt his game so the pain would be bearable. He has had to return to the shelf some of the innovative shots that put excessive pressure on his back. Yet here he was, against one of the best bowling attacks in the game, hitting with a ferocity and a consistency that make grown men weep. And running singles with the enthusiasm of a fresher. If this is the twilight of a great career, then nighttime is a long way off.
What is his secret? Sehwag put his finger on it. “Sachin still practises more than anybody else,” he told an interviewer. After 166 Tests, 442 one-dayers, 93 centuries and 30,000 runs? Even those kissed by the gods have to train like humans.
There is a symmetry about the best batsman making the highest score that is not very difficult to understand. It satisfies our craving for harmony, it caters to our need for seeing things put in their right places. It stills the discomfort of seeing a journeyman rule over all-time greats. That is one reason that Tendulkar’s double is so befitting. He is the greatest to have played the game.
One-day cricket has often failed to put the best batsman at the top. Before Tendulkar, there was Viv Richards; his 189 not out was scored a quarter century ago. Previous record-holders include Dennis Amiss, David Lloyd and Glenn Turner, hardly the first names to come to mind when one-day cricket is discussed. Tendulkar restores appropriateness to an important record.
It has taken 40 years for the first double century. But the curious thing in sport is that once a barrier is crossed, then it is done by more people more often, leaving everyone to wonder what the fuss was all about.
Tendulkar has shown that the one-day 200 is no longer a dream. Cricket’s conceit is that it does not chase records, such things are merely by-products. Yet batsmen know they can do it now. The record will be broken, but Tendulkar, like Edmund Hillary in another context, will always be remembered as the man who got there first.