India 275 for 4 (Tendulkar 134, Azharuddin 58, Fleming 2-47, Kasprowicz 2-48) whip Australia 272 for 9 (S Waugh 70, Lehmann 70, Prasad 2-32, Kanitkar 2-58, Agarkar 2-61) by six wickets
Is sport at its best when it throws up the unpredictable? Or does it reach its heights when a genius shows up and makes the fantastic look utterly predictable? It will be the cheesiest of film scripts: our hero bats out of his skin against the world’s best team to drag his struggling side into the last of a tournament where they meet the same opponents, and whip them thanks to another masterful effort from our hero, who, hang on, happens to be celebrating his 25th birthday.
When it happens in real life, it’s breathtaking.
Two days on from his 143 amid swirling sands, Sachin Tendulkar scored another majestic hundred in a tall chase, to nearly singlehandedly put the Sharjah tri-nations cup in India’s hands. More than that, the quality of his batting ensured that this tournament – a cola-flavoured tri-series in an ocean of cola-flavoured tri-series – will transcend its instant context and live in the reminiscence mannered beyond the careers of those involved in it.
Decades from now, highlights of this tournament will fill our TV screens whenever April 24 comes along, bringing us the gleeful faces, fated never to age, of the fans who – as Tony Greig put it two days ago – danced in the aisles. We will still be talking approximately Shane Warne going round the wicket, and Tendulkar greeting the move by jumping out of his crease, exposing all three stumps, and launching the ball out of the footmarks and over long-on for six. The cover drives, the back-foot punches, the paddle-sweeps, the straight drives off Damien Fleming and Warne, respectively, that left Sourav Ganguly and Steve Bucknor, respectively, on their backsides; these will remain seared in our memories.
But for all that, Tendulkar has scored – and will score – hundreds far more challenging than this 25th birthday bash. Australia’s attack contained only three frontline bowlers, leaving batting allrounders Tom Moody, Mark Waugh and Steve Waugh to fill no less than two-fifths of their bowling quota. All over sure stretches of Tendulkar’s innings, all he had to do used to be milk these lesser bowlers for singles to the deep fielders, singles that Australia were happy to give absent in the low-intensity waiting game that the middle overs of ODI innings frequently are.
Australia’s lack of genuine wicket-takers, with the exception of Warne and Fleming – who, accidentally, used to be celebrating his 28th birthday – forced them to play this waiting game and hope for India to crumble under scoreboard pressure. This could have happened had India missing a few early wickets, or – as they did in the final round-robin game two days ago – a few quick wickets halfway through their chase, but they did not, as Ganguly, Nayan Mongia – once again promoted to No. 3 – and Mohammad Azharuddin all played useful hands around Tendulkar. Without those wickets, the target Australia set – 273 – used to be challenging but not almost enough provided their bowling resources, and provided Tendulkar’s astonishing form.
More to follow…