There is something about 36-year old Champions
There is sometimes a deep connection between two champion sportsmen even if they don’t play the sport the other excels in. It starts from a single thread of mutual respect and then strengthens into a bond of deep admiration and friendship. At some stage, they start dabbling in the other’s chosen sport (sometimes virtually through video games) to understand the psyche of the individual. And then they take inspiration to emulate the other’s achievements in their own way.
Earlier this week when Roger Federer won the Rotterdam ATP 500 event to become the oldest World Number One in the history of Open Era Tennis at the age of 36, in my mind there sprung up an immediate albeit unlikely parallel, with his friend, Sachin Tendulkar.
The two legends first met each other at Wimbledon in 2011. Federer had this to say about the meeting: “I’m glad I got to meet him, we had tea on the terrace at Wimbledon. I remember the meeting clearly. I enjoy meeting great athletes. It is an experience for me. I like picking their brains, seeing how it works. I enjoyed my time with Sachin.”
Federer was 30 at the time, and while he was still winning Slams, he could feel the extra effort he needed to put in to keep up with his younger rivals Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Sachin was already a past master at managing longevity and one imagines the conversation veered around to the topic.
The two kept in touch and exchanged notes over the years, and in 2017, when Federer swept all opposition away to claim his eighth Wimbledon crown at the age of 35, Tendulkar was there to witness it and spend time with his friend. In 2018, when Federer in all likelihood picks up his ninth, one can rest be assured that Sachin will be there once more.
Federer has already won an incredible 20 Grand Slams and is now 36, the exact age Sachin was when he played one of the most stunning knocks in Men’s ODI history to register the first ever double century in the format. Federer has made a fairytale comeback after five years in the wilderness when he did not win a single Grand Slam, Sachin did much the same when he scored that 200. He made ten percent of all his knocks above 100 in the twelve month period before Gwalior, after hanging around for a few years when it seemed like his best was behind him.
How important the knock was in shattering the mental glass ceiling for batsmen in the format is evidenced by the fact that it took 39-years for the first 200 knock in a Men’s ODI, and in the 7-years hence, the feat was achieved another six times.
This is the story of that epic path-blazing knock and its significance.
February 24th, 2010 – India v South Africa, Gwalior
When MS Dhoni won the toss and elected to bat on a flat deck in Gwalior with Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar opening the proceedings, it was clear this was going to be a high scoring match. But no one quite imagined how the innings would pan out, particularly when India lost Sehwag with the score at 25.
Dinesh Karthik joined Tendulkar. 45 of Karthik’s 79 runs were to come from runs which primarily involved getting Sachin back on strike. Karthik’s strike rate of 93 was almost pedestrian compared to the belting that his partner’s bat was dishing out to the Dale Steyn led the attack. Steyn would eventually go for 89 runs in his allotted ten overs and his new ball partner Parnell for 95. When Karthik eventually perished for an 85-ball 79 in the 34th over, India was 219 for 2, the pair having added 194 runs in 30 overs.
Unbelievably, life would get harder for the Proteas after Karthik’s departure.
Yusuf Pathan walked in and played a 23 ball cameo before perishing for 36. At that point, India was 300 for 3 and the pair had put on 81 runs in 10 overs.
Just as a hapless Jacques Kallis captaining the South Africans thought it could not possibly get worse, in walked the best finisher in world cricket, the Indian captain MS Dhoni. Tendulkar by then had gone past 150.
What followed was brutality of an order that should rightfully be outlawed on a cricket field. MS Dhoni scored 68 runs at a scarcely credible strike rate of 194, Tendulkar an almost silent bystander.
As the last couple of overs of the innings came around, the crowd began to grow impatient. Notwithstanding the fours and sixes Dhoni was dealing in, Tendulkar was being denied the strike. Then on the third ball of the last over, Tendulkar had the strike. He pushed a ball behind point and took a single.
With that one innocuous run among two hundred, a new chapter in cricketing history had been penned.
The South African response was almost anti-climactic. An unbeaten 114 from 101 deliveries from AB de Villiers seemed almost pedestrian in comparison to the fireworks earlier in the day and with no one to provide support other than a 34 from Hashim Amla, the South Africans folded up tamely for 248 in the 43rd over.
The Significance of Sachin Tendulkar’s 200
The significance of Tendulkar’s double hundred was not in the fact that he broke a record and achieved a number. That, for Sachin, was par for the course. Unfair as it may seem, he was not doing anything his fans did not expect, given how high he himself had raised the bar.
26-years before this glorious Gwalior day, Vivian Richards had scored 189 not out at Old Trafford and shattered the morale of the hapless Englishmen. 13-years after that Saeed Anwar had presented a master class in batting with his 194 at Chennai and bludgeoned India to defeat. Were those two knocks significantly inferior to Tendulkar’s? Surely not.
Four years after Gwalior Rohit Sharma would play a jaw-dropping innings of 264 against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens with a significantly higher strike rate and 42 hits to the fence compared to Tendulkar’s 28. So was his innings far superior to Sachin’s? Absolutely not.
The importance of Sachin’s innings lay in the psychological barrier that it breached.
It was impossible to score 700 runs in a Test innings, until it was done in 1930 more than 50-years after the first Test was played. And then in the next 90-years, it was surpassed another 22 times.
433 runs in an ODI was impossible to surpass, until it was overtaken, a bare three-and-a-half hours later.
Only experienced men became Test captains until Tiger Pataudi was thrown into the deep end at the age of 21 when Nari Contractor was felled by a Charlie Griffith bouncer. That success would encourage South African selectors, decades later, shattered by the Hansie Cronje experience, to trust their instincts and blood Graeme Smith who would become the most successful Proteas captain of all time.
In much the same way, the cricketing world sat through 2961-ODI weighed down by the belief that surely no man could score 200 in 50-overs match. And then eight years ago, on just such a February day in the temple-rich city of Gwalior, India’s God of cricket raised his bat in triumph and shattered the glass ceiling that had restricted batsmen from dreaming of the impossible.