By Oliver Brett
And so it continues. Sachin Tendulkar remains rooted on 99 international centuries, as inwardly frustrated as any of his billion-plus fans and seemingly as mortal as any of them.
It’s as though the cruel cricketing gods rather liked the site of Don Bradman ending with a Test average of 99.94 and thought they’d keep the nearest thing the modern game has to Bradman with a 99 of his own to hang around his neck.
Yet, had he got there on this final day of a bruising series in which India have been torn to shreds by England’s attack dogs, luck would most certainly have been a factor.
Stumped on Sunday evening when England did not even appeal, Tendulkar had nevertheless played placidly and confidently either side of that let-off. With the home side’s formidable attack not even able to remove Amit Mishra, let alone Tendulkar himself, the crowd was readying itself to salute a statistical miracle from one ingenious little player.
It all changed in the fourth over before lunch.
Suddenly, on 70, as close to this unique landmark as he had been all series, Tendulkar’s internal computer began churning out error messages and that trusty blade of willow he has guided with a surety of touch for decades began to jab at the ball with alarming uncertainty.
Four over before lunch, a Graeme Swann off-break was edged onto his pads and went straight to Alastair Cook, who dropped the chance. The next ball he almost nicked to Matt Prior.
In the following over there was a third escape – as a flicked drive off Tim Brenan bounced close to the fielder at short midwicket.
Would lunch bring a note of calm? Not a bit of it. Soon, Stuart Broad had him edging a delivery that dropped a yard short of the slips, while Swann provided further torment.
At the other end, Mishra, selected only for his bowling, looked easily the more proficient of the two while Tendulkar played Swann off the pitch, refusing to trust his instincts.
Then came some assistance from umpire Simon Taufel, who turned down one lbw shout by Swann that really should have been out and another that could also have, legitimately, gone against the batsman.
Tendulkar battled on and briefly found an ally in Andrew Strauss, who helped him out in his quest for the holy grail by putting on the world’s most inconsistent Test bowler, Kevin Pietersen.
A couple of easy boundaries got Tendulkar to 91 before Strauss ended the KP experiment. Then Bresnan angled a straight one at his pads and that was that. Job done for England, you could say, though the sentiment was clouded even with the series whitewash deliciously imminent. It was like watching a pack of hunters killing the noblest lion in the pride.
The Oval had sold its final tickets for the last day of the series before midnight on Sunday, and even those fans supporting England had wanted Sachin to do it. They also wanted England to win the match, mind you, and you don’t tend to get everything you want in life.
For the Indian supporters, whose conduct has been admirable in this bleakest of periods for them, Tendulkar’s 100th century might have served as the sweetest of tonics following weeks of unpalatable medicine.
Tendulkar remains a refreshingly humble person. One of his main mantras is a simple one: ‘always respect your opponent’, and it would have meant a lot to him for the landmark to come in London.
He often uses the UK capital as a holiday base since he can escape the constant intrusion and adulation which is unavoidable in India. His family enjoy spending time in the city and he often whisks himself off to the tennis at Wimbledon or a Test match at Lord’s when he can.
It wasn’t to be, however, and the next question is this: what on earth happens now? Perhaps Tendulkar’s Atlas-like burden will finally be shed in one of the 10 fairly pointless one-day internationals between India and England, home and away, between now and late October.
It would be a bigger deal if his century of centuries came instead in the first Test against Australia in Melbourne at the end of the year. But really, nobody will care as long as he finally does get there one day.
Because only then will we see Tendulkar’s frowns evaporate, and his million-watt smile return. Only then will he begin to be able to plan properly for the future, retiring, perhaps, from Tests or ODIs and spending a bit more time enjoying a different type of lifestyle.
Only then will the e-mailed statements of goodwill from cricket’s mandarins, honed into shape for months and months, be unleashed.
And only then will we all be able to breathe freely once again.