Ton-dulkar! A New Landmark For Cricket’s Greatest

Sachin Tendulkar, cricket's greatest batsman, reaches another mark.

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Aijaz Rahi / AP

Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar bats on his way to scoring a century during the Asia Cup cricket match against Bangladesh in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday, March 16, 2012.

That giant whoosh you heard as you woke up on the Eastern Seaboard this morning was the sound of 1,200,000,000 Indians exhaling after having held their collective breath for a full year. Sachin Tendulkar, the nation’s sporting deity, had just completed his 100th score of 100 playing in national colors, a feat no other cricketer has come even close to achieving.

For Tendulkar, arguably cricket’s greatest-ever batsman, the pursuit of this ‘ton of tons’ has been unusually tortuous: he scored his 99th a year ago, then went through what, by his stratospheric standards, must rank as a lean patch. In 33 attempts at bat, he twice notched up scores of 90 or more, only to fall agonizingly short of the Big One. For cricket-mad Indians—and indeed Tendulkar fans the world over—it was pure agony.

(PHOTOS: Tendulkar at the Cricket World Cup)

His talent is so immense, there was never any doubt he would get there, it was only a question of when and where. Now that he has, some will cavil that the occasion did not match the achievement: he got the runs against Bangladesh, one of the minnows of the game. And he did it at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in the city of Mirpur, which doesn’t exactly rank among cricket’s great venues. A feat of this magnitude should, the kvetchers will say, should have taken place at Lord’s, against England; or at the Sydney Cricket Ground, against Australia; or at the Wankhade, Tendulkar’s Mumbai home stadium, against South Africa.

That it came against weak opposition in an unsung stadium will be seen by some as proof that Tendulkar’s great powers are on the wane. It will be suggested, too, that now he’s reached the milestone, Tendulkar should consider hanging up his batting gloves. After all, two of the great quartet of Indian batsmen who lit up the past decade—Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly—have already retired. The fourth, V.V.S. Laxman, is also the subject of retirement speculation. If Tendulkar leaves now, commentators will gently suggest, it will have been with the greatest possible flourish: the ‘ton of tons,’ to go with India’s World Cup win last summer.

But this is all nonsense. Great sporting achievements set their own landmark: they don’t need to occur on especially haloed turf and at an especially propitious hour. Pele’s 1,000th goal did not come in a World Cup final, it was in the Brazilian league. Muhammed Ali’s comeback from being barred for refusing to fight in Vietnam was not against Joe Frazier or George Foreman, it was against Jerry Quarry.

As for Tendulkar’s batting, there’s no denying he spent much of the past year in the doldrums, but that’s understandable when you consider the burden of expectation he has had to carry. In a TV interview just after his 100 at Mirpur, Tendulkar hinted at the pressure: “Wherever I went—the restaurant, room service—everyone was talking about the 100th hundred. Nobody talked about my 99 hundreds. It became mentally tough for me because nobody talked about my 99 hundreds.” Who among us could take that strain and still perform at peak? And anyway, it’s not as if the lean patch before Mirpur was his longest: in 2007, he went 34 innings without scoring a 100. And that was without the pressure of a big landmark on the horizon.

If history is any guide, now the pressure’s off, Tendulkar will hit a purple patch of form, scoring hundreds with his customary aplomb. That’s a terrifying thought for bowlers everywhere, and a delicious prospect for all those who love the game, for when Tendulkar bats without a monkey on his back, he elevates the sport into art.

The Little Master, as he is sometimes known, turns 39 next month. That is long in the tooth for most professional cricketers, it’s true. But the rules that apply to others have never held much meaning for Tendulkar: why should this one? He’s fit, and his legendary appetite for runs remains undiminished. And the departure of other greats only argues for him to stay—the Indian team could use the stability he would represent. (India lost the game to Bangladesh: did I call them minnows?)

Having borne the weight of his nation’s dreams for so long, and with such uncomplaining grace, Tendulkar has earned the right to keep going, to keep achieving. Don’t encumber him now with speculation of retirement. Let Sachin play.

LIST: Tendulkar in TIME’s Top 10 Blown Calls

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