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May 23, 1999

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This one's for you, dad!

Prem Panicker

He played one clinically to long off, pushed for the first hard, went back for the second. Up went his head, looking up into the heavens. A gloved hand sneaked inside the visor of his helmet, apparently brushing away a tear. And then, with just a quick flip of the bat towards the pavilion where his mates were applauding, he settled back to the business of scoring runs as though they were going out of style.

You've got to wonder who writes Sachin Tendulkar's scripts for him.

Five days after returning to India for one last look at a much-loved father, he flies back to England arguing that his team needs him. Drops down the order to number four. And walked out undefeated on 140 off 101 deliveries, studded with 16 fours and three huge sixes, guiding India to 329 for the loss of just two wickets in fifty overs.

I remember talking to Harsha Bhogle after India's first warm up game, and asking him what Sachin's innings was like. At the time, he told me that while he looked very relaxed, it was noticeable that he didn't play one of his favourites -- the one where he rocks back to deliveries just fractionally short, and pulls fiercely through midwicket.

Was his back still bothering him a touch, we privately wondered at the time. We needn't have bothered -- today, it was all there. The calculated pushes in the V. The delicate glides to leg and late cuts to third man. The flat-bat pull through midwicket. The inside out drives through the covers. The dance down the track to shorten the length and power the ball over long on, over midwicket, over the bowler's head. And even one reverse sweep for four, just by way of extending his repertoire a bit further.

But the really interesting facet about the innings was the way it was constructed. In the first few overs, he seemed to be going the extra mile to play straight, just tapping the ball into the V and taking the singles. It was as if he was looking to do two things at one time -- get his recent loss out of his mind and get it focussed on the cricket again, and also settle down to the long grind of batting through the 29 overs that remained in the innings, when he walked in at the fall of Ramesh's wicket.

At some stage, he must have figured that he was, mentally and emotionally, 'back' -- for suddenly, without notice, he changed gears. Rahul Dravid was batting 22 when he walked in. By the time Rahul doubled that score, Sachin had caught up. And from then on, it was like there was only one man out there.

Which in fact is horribly unfair to Rahul Dravid. Before Sachin arrived at the wicket, Dravid was looking solid and composed, having come in at the fall of Ganguly's wicket. But though he -- and Ramesh, at the other end -- batted well, India's besetting problem remained. At the end of the 19th over for instance, India had made 85/1. And at that point, they had taken just 17 singles, as opposed to 13 fours -- and there were 81 dot balls.

It seemed like there were no singles to be had, anywhere on the field. Sachin came in with one ball left in the 21st over -- and 237 runs came off the next 175 deliveries, with singles coming seemingly at will -- and most importantly, Dravid was getting as many, and running as brilliantly, as Sachin did.

It is perhaps this that the Indians have been missing -- when he is out there, he lifts standards all round, raises the performance levels of his partners as well.

Dravid was second fiddle in this particular orchestra -- but his role was no less. Rock solid throughout, he blossomed into some very attractive strokeplay towards the second half of the innings, almost matching his partner shot for shot and playing some delectable on and square drives in between all that frenetic running between wickets.

That a partnership of this nature would break records was inevitable. This was the first 300+ score of this competition. Sachin and Dravid scored the first centuries of the 1999 world cup. Their 237-run partnership was the highest for the third wicket in all limited overs internationals. More to the point, it is the highest partnership for any wicket in World Cup competition. Tendulkar's 100 came off 84 balls -- the fastest by an Indian in World Cups, pipping the 85 balls Sunil Gavaskar took to record his only ODI hundred against New Zealand at Nagpur. And by way of trivia, his 22nd century was his first batting in the middle order.

Before the tournament began, Sachin had said that in his mind, the World Cup would be decided in the second 25, not the first 25, overs. Today, he and Dravid indicated just how right he could be in that assessment. With Tendulkar firing, this is how India scored, in successive overs starting with the 37th when the two batsmen suddenly upped gears: 12 in 37, followed by 11, 12, 7, 8, 13, 4, 12, 9, 9, 13, 9, 9, and 16 (a stunning 144 runs in the last 14 overs).

Earlier, Saurav Ganguly's brief appearance at the crease indicated that he was having some trouble with his foot movements -- which, on the day, were static. This meant he ended up pushing away from his body, feet stuck in his guard, and in the process made Martin Suji's clean line and length bowling look far more dangerous than it actually was. Ramesh, however, turned in another good performance, producing a fluent 44 that was especially impressive in the initial stages before he too got bogged down by a seeming inability to find gaps to place the ball into and run the singles. However, the way he has batted indicated that if so inclined, India does have the option of using him at the top as Ganguly's partner, freeing Tendulkar to bat a bit lower down the order in case of need.

The Kenyans bowled as well as they were allowed to -- which was not very well. There was, actually, nothing much wrong with the bowling, which had earlier been seen in action against Zimbabwe and Kenya. It was just that Tendulkar and Dravid, on the day, were unstoppable, playing with a raw savagery that was startling.

Came Kenya's turn to bat, and all the good work done with the bat was undone in the field by the Indians. Srinath bowled a dream first spell, his first three overs being maidens, and a mere 17 coming off his first spell. Agarkar, in Prasad's absence, got the new ball in his hands and was more full in length and, as a result, moved the ball around more.

But the general indiscipline that has characterised the bowling thus far persisted in this game as well, 31 wides being given away by the Indian bowlers in course of the game. If they don't get into the nets and tighten up on this department, this kind of prodigality is likely to cost them very, very dearly as they go up against stiffer competition. And when you couple this with a fielding performance that oscillated between the merely okay to the farcical, you are forced to conclude that while Tendulkar's unlooked return has given the side a new zest and immeasurably strengthened the batting, there is a lot of hard work ahead of the side before it can make a realistic push for greater glory.

The gain on the day with the ball, for India, was Debashish Mohanty. True, he went for 56 in his ten -- but at least half of those runs owed to edges as batsmen failed to control their shots against his swing and seam, coupled with fielding lapses (including an absolute sitter out at deep midwicket by Nikhil Chopra off the classy Steve Tikolo, at a time when the batsman hadn't really got himself set). But on the other hand, the first change bowler, coming in for Prasad who was resting a sore arm, took out four wickets, all of them victims of good lateral movement of the ball, both in the air and off the track.

In fact, former England Test star Robin Smith was just one among several commentators on television who referred to Mohanty as the most impressive of the Indian bowlers. And that could be the first good news for India with the ball, in course of this competition -- more so when you consider that Mohanty's victims were batsmen number 2-5 (with number three, Tikolo, benefitting from that chance as well). Another interesting performance was that of Nikhil Chopra -- coming in to bowl when the Kenyans were trying to up the tempo, he turned in a very tight spell of 10-2-33-1, his flat line and variation of angle proving almost impossible to hit off the square. Given that he is a very gritty batsman as well, India might just have found the man needed to fill Robin's place in the order.

For the Kenyans, Kennedy Otieno played a scrappy, gritty hand of 56 at the top of the order, beaten repeatedly by Srinath yet hanging on for all he was worth, then chancing his arm once the pace spearhead was off the attack. Steve Tikolo, after that one blemish, was all class and grace, rubbing salt into Mohanty's wounds by repeatedly dancing out to drive and lift him over the infield. And towards the very end, Thomas Odoyo entertained with some neck or nothing hitting that, while doing nothing to change the eventual result, did force the Indians to shed their lethargy in the field and tighten their game a touch.

India, thus, have two points on the board, and two big games -- against Sri Lanka and England -- to play.

And the big question that was being asked was, assuming India's hopes for further progress rest on Sachin Tendulkar, what kind of frame of mind will he be in after the tragic loss of his father?

Sachin himself provided the answer, when picking up his award for the man of the match: "I would like to dedicate this to my father, who I have just lost, I wish he was here to watch this innings. And to my brothers and sisters and my wife who told me to come here, and my countrymen who wanted me here. And I can say that I am very confident of this team, and sure that we will go on from here to win more matches in this tournament."

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