What’s in a century?

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The subdued sense of achievement displayed by the Little Master is the mark of a true sportsman, writes RITAM MITRA

He’s finally got it. Sachin Tendulkar recently became the first batsman in history to score 100 international centuries, ending a 33 innings drought that had followed his 99th. The story of the last 13 months has been one of diminishing anticipation and fading aura; of a helpless hero and an unsettled team. However, it’s also been a case of ungrateful fans and unforgiving critics – without whom this drought would simply not have been.

Tendulkar brought up the milestone against Bangladesh in India’s second game of the Asia Cup tournament. He helped set up a total of 289/5, yet India still failed to defend the total, continuing a worrying trend in India’s incapability to field a truly threatening bowling side. Tendulkar was, however, unusually slow – indeed, out of all his ODI hundreds, this one came at the second-lowest strike rate (77.55), and the lowest in the last ten years. He slowed down as he reached his milestone, but after he turned a ball from man-of-the-match Shakib Al Hasan through square for the single that gave him the historic century, Tendulkar attempted to cut loose, hitting consecutive boundaries before being dismissed for 114.

Of all the sports on this planet, no fans are as obsessive-compulsive statistics buffs as cricket fans – and it is, without a doubt, this inherent number-loving nature that resulted in the creation of the “100th international century” hype. For, as significant as the milestone is, and as pleasing as “hundredth hundred” sounds to the ear, it is just that – a nice statistic, the triple figure bringing with it an aesthetically satisfying air.

Indeed, as endearing as it might seem to Tendulkar for the media to follow his every run and prepare reports on his milestones long before he reaches them, some of the more outspoken journalists and television presenters can give themselves half a dozen pats on the back – one for each of the centuries they have probably cost Tendulkar in the past year.

The problem lies herein: Tendulkar was not only the first to 100 international centuries – he was the first to 50, 60 and 70 international tons as well. In fact, he’s the only one to have made over 71. Which means that on at least 50 occasions prior to this, Tendulkar was on the verge of a record-breaking century. Indeed, every time he scores a run, he’s creating history, given that he also has the most international runs. Every time he comes out to bat, he’s creating history, since he’s played more innings than any other. It gets even better; every time he is even named on a team list, he’s making history, since he’s played more Tests and ODIs than any other player.

The emotion in his face upon taking off his helmet and saluting the supportive Mirpur crowd was subtle, but revealing; and the relief in his voice following the knock was palpable. Tendulkar remarked that he felt 50 kilos lighter, and after remaining silent through the entire Australian tour and much of the England debacle, he finally conceded that it had been a very tough period for him, and there was more than a hint of resentment at the attitude that had been cast his way. “Yes, I have to be honest. I am human and I have emotions so I was frustrated. It does play on your mind…nobody talked about my 99 hundreds,” he said with more than a hint of veiled criticism at his detractors.

Indeed, in his first official interview following the achievement, Tendulkar was similarly, and unnaturally stoic in his responses, perhaps finally giving the world a glimpse of the immense mental pressure he has been forced to endure for much of the past 20 years – a pressure which has been intensified further in the past 12 months.

“There are certain people I respect and there are certain people I don’t respect. I don’t get affected by the ones I don’t respect. I don’t bother much about them. Let them be where they are. I’ve got a bigger job of playing for India, scoring runs and winning matches for India, and I focus on that job instead of reacting to what they are saying,” he retorted.

Following his withdrawal from the West Indies tour, there was speculation that Tendulkar wanted to save his 100th century for Lord’s during the England tour. It appears absurd in hindsight, but there were many who were caught up in the hype during the time – to many, Tendulkar could always control his destiny with the bat. As he pointed out in his interview though, “A hundred doesn’t come as and when you want.”

Calls for his retirement have been rife in the past few months – former teammates have themselves been divided over the issue. Sourav Ganguly, India’s most successful Test captain, famously remarked that no one had the right to call for Sachin’s head and it was purely his decision to make. Ravi Shastri, meanwhile, has been extremely vocal about his view that Tendulkar should have retired on a high after the World Cup.

Tendulkar’s views were perfectly clear. “When you are at the top, you should serve the nation. When I feel I am not in a frame of mind to contribute to the nation, that’s when I should retire, not when somebody says. That’s a selfish statement (saying that) one should retire when on top,” he said emphatically.

Tendulkar’s, though, is a life that is shared with a nation. For two decades he has been India’s perennial wonder boy, still every bit the prodigy he was when he came onto the scene as a quiet, fresh-faced youngster. No sportsperson, let alone cricketer, carries with them the good wishes of a billion hopes in quite the same way Sachin Tendulkar does. It makes it all the more remarkable when, all things considered, batting is one of the toughest mental propositions in professional sport – one mistake can end your match, and two or three can end your career.

Tendulkar spoke about the wait for his 100th ton with remarkable perspective. “I am glad about the journey. It has tested my patience, my character. So many people have had questions, but I don’t read any of them. Somebody who has not gone through this will have only questions, not answers”.

“When I consider retirement, don’t worry, I will not hide it from anyone. I will play as long as I am enjoying it and as long as I can contribute to the team. I don’t play for milestones; that is a perception created by a few members of the media. I play cricket because I enjoy it,” he added.

It will be pleasant to watch a cricket match without reference to Tendulkar’s 100th ton. Tendulkar himself will be pleased to see no more banners wishing him luck in making this particular achievement. It might be an agonising wait until he next makes this kind of poetic history, but try to remember that every time he walks out to bat, he’s on uncharted territory. The cheers when he walks out of the dressing room should be as loud as they are for his centuries – for then perhaps Tendulkar will be able to remember that the applause is for him, and not for a statistic. The great man himself is, as ever, focused on his country – and the rest of us would do very well to follow suit.

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