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New dawn for Tendulkar Town

Wisden India logo Wisden India 17-12-2016
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For the city of Chennai, recovering from a cyclone and the death of a much-loved Chief Minister, this Test match marks a new dawn in a cricketing sense as well. January 1988 – nearly a year before Virat Kohli was born, and almost three before Joe Root’s arrival. That’s how far back you have to go for the last Test that India played in Chennai without SR Tendulkar in the Indian squad.

He was recovering from a tennis-elbow problem in 2004, when India and Australia played out a thriller ruined by rain on the final day. Otherwise, starting with the Gooch-and-prawns Test of 1993, he played ten Tests at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Having had to endure comparisons with Sir Donald Bradman for most of his career, Chennai was one venue where his numbers were of Bradmanesque proportions. He scored five of his 51 centuries here, and averaged 88.18.

The last time England played at Chepauk, they dominated for three and a half days, only to then see India canter past a target of 387. “It was a masterclass in its conception – of what shots to play, and how often – and in its execution, especially of the sweep in all its forms,” said the Wisden Almanack’s report of the game. The reference was to Tendulkar’s unbeaten 103, which built on the damage done by Virender Sehwag’s devastating 68-ball 83.

In 1993, his 165 had helped thrash England by an innings. Half a decade later, after Shane Warne had him caught at slip in the first innings, he helped transform the match with a glorious unbeaten 155 (191 balls) in the second. In 2001, after having been a spectator to the VVS Laxman-Rahul Dravid heroics in Kolkata, he struck 126 in Chennai, an innings notable for the mastery with which he bunted leg breaks, that Warne pitched into the rough outside leg stump, over slip for fours.

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India won all three of those matches, but it was the one they lost in January 1999 that showcased what many still feel was Tendulkar’s finest innings on home soil. The numbers are overwhelming enough. Needing 271 for victory, India were 82 for 5 at one stage. He batted 405 minutes and faced 273 balls for his 136.

Struggling with back spasms and with just 17 needed, he looked to heave Saqlain Mushtaq over the rope. The leading edge went fell into the hands of Wasim Akram at mid-off. The last three wickets could add only four, as Pakistan won by 12 runs. Months later, Brian Lara led West Indies to a one-wicket victory in Bridgetown in similar circumstances. Tendulkar was then glibly characterised as the man who couldn’t finish the job.

He still talks of that match as one of his biggest regrets, and it might explain why the hundred in 2008 – just over a fortnight after the terror attacks in Mumbai – was cathartic in more ways than one.

After that, Chepauk wouldn’t host a Test for more than four years. Tendulkar’s last bow featured a superb innings of 81, which stabilised India’s reply after they had slipped to 12 for 2 in response to Australia’s 380. It took a magic ball from Nathan Lyon to deprive him of a sixth Chennai hundred – drift away and then sharp turn to beat bat and pad.

In the second innings, with India needing just 50 to win, he lofted the first two balls he faced, off Lyon, over long-on for six. Those in the stands who had been there for the heartbreak 14 years earlier were left to countenance a sliding-doors situation, and 12 runs that came a generation too late.

But for them, he will always be the master.

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