Only once in his 22-year-long career had the cricket gods made Sachin Tendulkar wait more than a year between centuries. That is, of course, until he hit the 99-mark in international hundreds. While the 369-day wait between the 99th, scored against South Africa in Nagpur during the World Cup, and the 100th, against Bangladesh in Dhaka in March this year, has been well chronicled, few have pointed out that 511 days passed between Tendulkar's maiden Test ton in Manchester in 1990 and his second, at the Sydney Cricket Ground 511 days later. Of course, the media's eye was trained much less on cricket back in the early 1990s and the frenzy that accompanied Tendulkar's ascension from 99 to 100 showed the anxiety around the country over his landmark.
For the best part of the wait, Tendulkar tried to remain patient, and as long as it was humanly possible, focussed on batting well rather than on getting to three figures. He certainly did not do badly in that period of 33 international innings, and four times made 80 or more. With pressure mounting from all quarters, Tendulkar did not address the media, realising that it would be impossible to speak about the team, their success or anything else while the landmark remained elusive.
Since getting the monkey off his back, on March 16, Tendulkar has spoken many times about what that period was like, but it took a gathering of cheering fans for him to really open up. "Initially, it was not on my mind. I scored my 99th hundred against South Africa at Nagpur. After that, I played four World Cup matches and no-one spoke about it because the focus was on the World Cup," Tendulkar told a gathering in Dubai on June 9. "We won the World Cup and then the thought went around the media: 'What next, what can we now focus on?' There was a gradual build-up. I went to England and someone said I had skipped the West Indies tour because I wanted to score my 100th 100 at Lord's. I wish such things were possible, but cricket doesn't allow you to even think like that. Even after 22 years, it's still difficult."
In England, Tendulkar came close, motoring to 91 in the second innings at The Oval. He was moving his feet as well as ever, finding the gaps with ease and batting fluently when given out LBW to Tim Bresnan. "I batted well on the fourth day to get to 35, and then resumed on the fifth day with just the kind of start I wanted. I won't discuss that decision, but it was difficult to digest." Rod Tucker was the umpire in question, and although Tendulkar was struck in front, replays suggested that Bresnan's inswinger was doing more than enough to miss the leg stump.
"Off the field, I just could not avoid talk of the 100th hundred wherever I went," Tendulkar said. "Whether it was the person from room service bringing my food, the housekeeping staff changing the sheets, the man on the street or waiters at restaurants, the first thing I would hear was 'all the best for the 100th 100'. Of course, that was soon followed by advice on what I needed to do," said Tendulkar, eliciting laughter when he added, "In the end, I took all that advice."
If not getting the rub of the green with an umpiring decision brought disappointment at The Oval, anger followed at home. In the first Test, at Delhi, Tendulkar made 76 in the fourth innings, and with VVS Laxman, ensured that India chased down 276 to win by five wickets. "On a day when I had made 76 and with Laxman won the game for India, a couple of guys in the media reported it badly. 'Sachin misses 100 again' was the headline, rather than looking at the fact that I made an important contribution to an India win. When they want to, people talk about playing for the country and later they conveniently talk about individuals. It should be country first at any cost."
As if he had not been through the full gamut of emotions, the third Test against the West Indies took him close to the brink once more. "Mumbai was just heartbreaking," recalls Tendulkar. "I was on 67 overnight and at the start of the fourth day, I hit clean shots to add 23 to get to the 90s. All I needed was a couple of bad balls. But it was just bad judgment, and perhaps the ball got a bit big on me." Ravi Rampaul was the party pooper, getting one to climb on Tendulkar, with Darren Sammy completing the catch at second slip as the Wankhede Stadium was stunned into silence.
"At the start of the tour in Australia, once again I felt I was playing well," Tendulkar said, tracing his journey. "I moved well, I had enough time to react even when the ball was coming at 145-plus. I had enough time to react. I was playing as well as I have in the last few years," said Tendulkar, who got to 80 at Sydney but once again fell short, this time poking the left-arm spin of Michael Clarke to Mike Hussey at slip. "But it did not happen. It was one of those tough tests of my life. I was working as hard as possible, but sometimes there are no reasons, you can't explain why something does not happen."
In a relaxed setting, with the healing passage of time, Tendulkar was able to look back at that testing phase of his career with clarity and honesty. He did, however, say how relieved he was that he'd never be asked when he was going to get his next hundred. That is, of course, till he hits the 149-mark.