The greatest performances in cricket are usually remembered for what the protagonists DID. VVS Laxman played the on-drive impeccably during his 281 against Australia at Eden Gardens. Ricky Ponting was so severe against Zaheer Khan and Co in the 2003 World Cup final, that the massive sixes he hit on the legside still give Indian fans nightmares. Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171* against Australia in 2017 World Cup semi-final will forever be remembered for her bat-swing. You get the drift.
But there is one cricketing epic that stands out in this regard. There is an innings that is fondly remembered and revered for what the protagonist DID NOT: when Sachin Tendulkar made his third Test double century, without hitting a single cover drive for four.
Coming into the final match of what was turning out to be an epic series, India and Australia were tied at one win apiece. Rahul Dravid and Ajit Agarkar had helped India create history in Adelaide but Australia, the champion side they were, bounced back in Melbourne during the Boxing Day Test.
And all this while, Tendulkar had struggled. The rest of the batting line-up was chipping in, but for a man who had carried the team single-handedly in the past (especially in Australia), Tendulkar was largely a bystander as Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly did the heavy lifting while even the unheralded Aakash Chopra was performing the role he was assigned to perfection.
When the calendar year 2003 came to an end, Tendulkar had made a total of 82 runs in the series so far, getting out caught behind thrice (once down the leg side), LBW twice and registering two ducks.
The New Year could not have come sooner for the Master Blaster.
Sachin Tendulkar's tour of Australia 2003/04
|1st Test||0||lbw||2||Brisbane||4 Dec 2003|
|DNB||-||4||Brisbane||4 Dec 2003|
|2nd Test||1||caught (WK)||2||Adelaide||12 Dec 2003|
|37||lbw||4||Adelaide||12 Dec 2003|
|3rd Test||0||caught (WK)||1||Melbourne||26 Dec 2003|
|44||caught (WK)||3||Melbourne||26 Dec 2003|
|4th Test||241*||NOT OUT||1||Sydney||02 Jan 2004|
|60*||NOT OUT||3||Sydney||02 Jan 2004|
And then, to kick things off in 2004, Tendulkar scored 241* off 436 balls in the first innings of the Sydney Test as he and Laxman helped India post a mammoth score of 705/7.
As the now-famous wagon wheel will tell you, Tendulkar hit boundaries galore in his marathon innings but not one of those was a cover drive. That was the shot that used to be his bread and butter when he got going. A shot that he had played thousands of times before that match and continued playing afterwards, but not during those three days: because, simply, he decided he would not get out.
For 436 balls, 613 minutes, he soldiered on. Cautiously at first, getting into the groove later, but still not playing an expansive cover drive, not even to make a point when he was well set. There wasn’t a six; just 33 fours, most of them along the ground.
He had a game plan, he executed it as well as he could have hoped for:
“I had got out a couple of times to balls bowled outside the off stump,” he said, “so I decided not to play that stroke (the cover-drive). They were bowling consistently outside the off stump, and I decided to leave all those balls. Then they had to bowl to me and I used the pace of the ball.
I would put this innings right at the top of my hundreds. I had a plan and I am happy I could execute it well. I am happy that I was able to maintain the discipline throughout the innings.”— Tendulkar via ESPNCricinfo
That innings also marked a turnaround in Tendulkar’s Test fortunes as he went from having his worst year (in terms of average) to his best.
Sachin Tendulkar's contrasting years
|Tests (Inns)||Runs||Highest||Ave||100s / 50s|
|year 2003||5 (9)||153||55||17.00 (Worst in his career)||0 / 1|
|year 2004||10 (15)||915||248*||91.50 (Best in his career)||3 / 2|
At the end of the series, Ganguly was a proud captain even though the Test ended in a draw and described the Tendulkar innings saying,
“In Sydney, during the last Test match of the series Tendulkar returned to form. He then went on to produce a masterclass which will be talked about for generations to come. His massive double hundred and the marathon partnership with VVS left the Aussie crowd on tenterhooks. We consolidated Sachin’s superb batting with a bowling attack which had the Aussies reeling. It was supremely satisfying to see the mighty Australian side fighting for survival on their own turf.”— Sourav Ganguly via 'A Century is Not Enough'
For Brian Charles Lara, who knows a thing or two about playing marathon knocks, Tendulkar’s penance at SCG remains one of his favourites:
“Can you imagine playing Test cricket at the age of 16 until the next 24 years. That is just unbelievable. Sachin has played some amazing innings throughout his career but none with more discipline and determination like his 241* against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground,” Lara said in a voiceover for the video below.
He also wrote: “We can all learn the discipline [from Tendulkar] needed to combat anything in life.”
In his autobiography Playing it My Way, Tendulkar revealed how he went to the same restaurant in Sydney as he did on the eve of the match because he wanted his luck to continue. And there is another backstory to the Tendulkar masterclass in Sydney: a bet with his brother:
“I was playing well in that series but not getting big scores. I would make 30-40 runs and then throw my wicket away by attempting a big shot. I remember having a conversation with my brother [Ajit Tendulkar] and he told me that my shot selection was letting me down.
“So before the fourth Test in Sydney, I told my brother that I wouldn’t get out in the match. When I walked out to bat, I realised that the Australians had planned to bowl in that channel outside the off stump to frustrate me. So I decided there and then that I would leave the deliveries outside off stump and wait for them to bowl straight at me.
“I ended up scoring 241 runs without hitting a single cover-drive. I was determined that no matter how many runs I scored, I wouldn’t attempt that shot. I went on to remain not-out in the second innings as well and was happy to win the challenge I had taken up with my brother.”— via Tendulkar's 100MB Youtube channel
Having struggled so badly before that match, Tendulkar turned things around with the determination of a monk who had sworn not to play the shot that was getting him into trouble. And the Australian captain Steve Waugh, who himself showed great grit to save that match for Australia before retiring from the game, summed it up perfectly:
“We had been getting him out edging to the cordon in the previous Tests. And he didn’t play the cover drive at all in the final Test. To me that showed incredible fortitude, mental strength and discipline. To me, that was a lesson even in my last match. I was still learning from other players around me.”— Steve Waugh via cricket.com.au
He still played some gorgeous cuts, elegant flicks and trademark straight drives. All skilful strokes. But on his way to scaling another peak, Tendulkar showed in Sydney that sometimes will should overshadow skill.
You can relive that masterclass in the videos below:
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