Nervous nineties. Even in isolation, there is a certain charm attached to those two words. Taken in conjunction, they send a mild shiver of anticipation - and perhaps impending doom - up the spine.
As a batsman approaches his hundred, especially in an international game, there is a distinct buzz around the ground. Conversations are hushed even as the air crackles with electricity. Without thought or awareness, fans sidle to the edge of their seats; depending on whether the batsman belongs to the home team or the visiting side, there is either a battle between the teeth and the nails, or an affected sense of indifference that doesn't fool even the affected.
Batsman after batsman, indeed cricketer after cricketer, will vehemently deny nerves or eagerness as he moves into the nineties. He will talk of not looking at the scoreboard, of how the team's cause is more important than his own landmark, of how a hundred in a losing cause has no value and how he would swap his century for a victory. Any day. Don't always believe him.
Some batsmen are so caught up with their journey towards the three-figure mark, so pumped up that the promised land is within touching distance, that they actually start counting their runs once past 80. Others, slightly less oriented statistically, try to blast their way to the milestone. Indisputably, not many batsmen in their 90s continue to bat, or think, the way they have until then.
The allure of a hundred is irresistible. Anil Kumble celebrated his century against England at The Oval in 2007 more animatedly than he did any wicket - and make no mistake, he celebrated every wicket as if it was his first, and might be his last - just as Tino Best suffered more at being dismissed for 95, coincidentally also against England not so long back, than he might have had a catch been dropped when he was on a hat-trick.
No matter if you have scored ten hundreds earlier, or none at all, the last ten runs appear tantalisingly close, and yet a million miles away. Sometimes, you feel two good hits would do the trick; at other times, you are afraid to put bat to ball, the feet feel as if heavy iron chains have been clamped around them, the heart thuds and flutters and races along, the mind is gripped by insecurity and the 'what if' conundrum.
Sadagopan Ramesh once spoke of the ticking off he received from Sachin Tendulkar as he closed in on a Test century, against New Zealand at Ahmedabad in 1999. Ramesh, a stylish left-hander with oodles of time and talent who could and should have done more with his ability, had cruised through the 90s and reached 98 when a sudden rush of blood elicited a wild hoick. Tendulkar, watching from the non-striker's end, was immediately in his ear. A not-so-gentle rebuke was followed immediately by a gentle reminder, "Remember how you made those 98 runs instead of thinking about the two you require."
Tendulkar should know a thing or two about making hundreds. Even by then, he had comfortably topped 20 Test tons - not to mention numerous One-Day International centuries - but by 2007, he seemed himself to have temporarily forgotten how to translate a 90 into a 100. So often was he dismissed in the 90s that even his seven-year-old son Arjun could not help but offer advice. "When on 94, just hit a six." Perhaps, Tendulkar junior belongs to the Virender Sehwag school of thought.
Just in the last week, two men at different stages of their career, at the opposite ends of the spectrum, missed out on cherished landmarks. Kumar Sangakkara, the 34-year-old Sri Lankan stylist, has made more Test double hundreds than any active player, but he couldn't translate an epochal innings in the first Test against Pakistan into a ninth double ton. A scoreboard error meant Sangakkara thought he was on 194 when he was only - only? - 193. A slog-swept six was celebrated by the whipping off of the cap, hands thrown aloft as looked in the direction of the dressing room, hoping to soak in the adulation. All he saw was Mahela Jayawardene, his captain, and Thilan Samaraweera, the senior pro, signal that the television showed he still needed one more to get to 200. Sangakkara failed to get the single off the only remaining delivery of the Saeed Ajmal over, and watched in horror as last man Nuwan Pradeep was cleaned up by Mohammad Hafeez in the next over.