ENTURION: In a year when adjectives like 'biggest' and 'unprecedented' were mostly used to describe scams, it was left to India's sportspersons to provide cheer to the nation with their stirring feats.
It is fitting, therefore, for 2010 to draw to a close with a stupendous achievement by a hero who has epitomized sporting perfection for over two decades and given millions of Indians countless moments of pride and joy.
Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar went where no cricketer ever had before - and no else may ever venture - when he scored his 50th Test ton on Sunday. It's a staggering achievement that reopens the debate about whether he's the greatest batsman ever, surpassing even the legendary Sir Don Bradman, who was famously reminded of himself while watching the Indian genius in action.
It was a fitting moment in many ways. After three disappointing home Tests against New Zealand when the master failed to reach the three-figure mark, it came on a bigger stage - against South Africa in South Africa, as Team India battled to avoid an innings defeat in a match-up between the world's two top Test teams.
MS Dhoni, the man who was at the other end when Sachin became the first batsman to hit 200 in an ODI, was again at the non-striker's end on Sunday. In both cases, the landmark was achieved off a speed merchant who's probably the most lethal in the business right now - Dale Steyn. They would have been special moments even if they'd come against lesser bowlers, but it was appropriate that they should come against another champion.
A gentle push to cover, a few quick steps towards the non-striker's end and history was made at the SuperSport Park, at a venue aptly called Centurion. Almost from the day he made his debut some 21 years ago, Sachin had seemed destined to get 50 Test centuries. Still, when the moment arrived, it prompted goosebumps, tears and loud cheering across the world.
As Sachin took off his helmet and looked skywards before throwing his arms up in his now trademark gesture, the stadium stood up as one to clap. Suddenly, tricolours were proudly fluttering in different parts of the ground.
It was another great knock in a year that has seen Tendulkar harvest over 1,500 runs with seven centuries and an average in excess of 85 from 13 Tests. But for the man himself, the century was but a brief stop in a long journey as he strove to pull off a miracle for India - a most unlikely draw in the first Test against South Africa. Or, at least, some honour in defeat.
While India are more or less finished, 30 runs behind with two wickets standing at 454/8 as a snap shower ended the day's play, Tendulkar was still not done. He is there, unconquered on 107 (226 balls, 13 fours, 1 six).
For a major part of the day, Tendulkar had to wage a lonely battle as a humiliating defeat loomed. India, shot out for 136 runs in the first innings, began the day at 190/2. When Tendulkar came to the middle after night watchman Ishant Sharma's dismissal about 45 minutes into play, India still needed 270 to avoid a loss by an innings. The little master battled on even though Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Suresh Raina left without any substantial contribution.
Finally, skipper MS Dhoni stepped up and lent the support Sachin was looking for. With Dhoni looking assured at the other end, a relaxed Tendulkar worked his way towards the landmark.
There is a sense of timelessness when Tendulkar bats. He seems to be in the zone, as if what is happening around him does not affect him. He does not bat, he meditates. Sunday was no different. He did survive a close LBW appeal by Harris when at 57. Other than that, he had an answer for everything South Africa threw at him.
While the pitch played well, the home attack was still testing. Steyn and Morne Morkel were unrelenting in their aggression and Tendulkar had to weave in and weave out of many searing bouncers. In fact, he took a painful blow on the left shoulder in the final minutes of the day as he tried to avoid a Steyn bouncer.
In between, there were the superb drives, delicate glances and fierce cuts drawing big applause from even home fans.
Anticipation at the stadium grew more intense with every run he scored. And it was an uneasy tea break when Tendulkar went in at 80.
But the maestro soothed nerves when play resumed with two crisp fours to move to 88. At 89, he launched Paul Harris into the stands to jump to 95. A couple of nudges here and there, and a two off Steyn got him to 99. History was made off the next ball.
Tons scored against: Australia (11), Sri Lanka (9), Eng (7), S Africa (6), B'desh (5), NZ (4), W Indies & Zimbabwe (3), Pak (2). Only Jack Hobbs (12) has more tons against Aus. Sachin's 9 are also the most centuries by any batsman against Lanka.
Favourite Grounds: MAC Stadium (Chennai), VCA Ground (Nagpur) - 5 tons each, SSC (Colombo) 4, Sydney 3.
28 tons scored on foreign grounds (a world record. But he doesn't have even one at Lord's), 22 centuries at home.
- When Sachin has scored a ton, India has won 20 Tests, lost 10 and drawn 19 (the 50th may well be in a losing cause)
- He has scored 20 tons in the first innings of a match, 17 in 2nd, 10 in 3rd & 3 in 4th
- Only player with 20 knocks of 150-plus
- Only batsman in world to complete a ton with a six five times.
He's achieved almost every landmark in cricket, but here are 3 more that we'd love to see:
1. A hundred international 100s: Has 46 tons in ODIs, needs 4 more
2. Test triple: Still hasn't scored 300 in an innings, done by many lesser batsmen
3. A World Cup win: The one prize to elude him so far.
Six of his best in Tests:
114 vs Aus, Perth; Feb 3, 1992: Barely 19, he hit a superb ton on a wicked wicket.
136 vs Pak, Chennai; Jan 31, 1999: Battling back spasms, Sachin guided a chase of 271 but fell with victory in sight. India lost by 12 runs. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
155 n.o vs Aus, Chennai; March 9, 1998: The one which had Warne admitting to nightmares. The leggie kept bowling into the rough, Sachin kept hitting him against the turn.
241 n.o. vs Aus, Sydney; Jan 4, 2004: His first double ton abroad came as he cut out the cover drive. Marked his transition from dasher to gritty accumulator.
111 vs South Africa at Wanderers; Nov 28, 1992: Sachin himself rates this as one of his finest, against an attack of Allan Donald, Brian McMillan and Craig Matthews.
103 vs England, Chennai; Dec 15, 2008: Silenced critics who accused him of not playing match-winning knocks in India's first Test after 26/11.