As cricketing numbers go, a century of centuries is like infinity: mind-bending.
AS CRICKETING numbers go, a century of centuries is like infinity: mind-bending. One of its warping effects is to transcend partisanship. Sixty-four years ago, in a preliminary to India's first tour of Australia, Don Bradman made his 100th 100. In Farewell to Cricket, he said that it was the ''most exhilarating moment'' of his career.
So it was for the Indians. ''Bradman provided my players with their greatest cricket show,'' said team manager Pankaj Gupta. At length, newsreel footage reached journalist and author R. C. Robertson-Glasgow in England. ''At the historic moment, when Bradman was about to go from 99 to 100,'' he wrote, ''the Indian bowler was trying to deliver the ball with one hand and applaud with other, a feat that is beyond the most enthusiastic practitioner.''
At the start of another Indian tour, this phenomenon is again manifest. This time, cricket aficionados are holding their breath in anticipation of Sachin Tendulkar's 100th century. After some agonising near-misses at home this year, Indian fans can think of no more apt stage than Boxing Day at the MCG. Nor can Australian fans.
This reflects absorption with the milestone, but also with the man. Long ago, Tendulkar was elevated above petty international rivalries. On his last visit here four years ago, Tendulkar was surprised at the warmth of his reception, in a series otherwise infamous for its rancour. Journalist and historian Mike Coward thinks that no visiting cricketer has entered more fully into Australia's sometimes flinty sporting hearts since English stylist David Gower in 1978.
Some context: Bradman's eventual tally of 117 centuries comprised 29 in 52 Test matches and the balance in other first-class cricket. Tendulkar's 99 hundreds consist of 51 in 184 Tests and 48 in one-day internationals (but ignores 27 other first-class centuries). This merely reflects the way the game's infrastructure has changed.
Bradman made his 100th hundred in his 295th innings. Tendulkar will have played at least 746. This reflects the way Bradman's standing has remained unassailable. But there is no doubt that the vibe about the imminence of the achievement is almost identical.
In 1947, Bradman was playing for an Australian XI at a packed SCG. Bradman, then 39 years old, began uncertainly, but blossomed, and the crowd scarcely could contain itself.
''I turned a ball to square leg, ran one, then went for what the crowd thought was a risky second,'' he wrote.
''One could literally feel them rise from their seats as they thought I might not make good my ground. Even in the most exciting Test match, I can never remember a more emotional crowd, nor a more electric atmosphere.''
An over before tea, Bradman was on 99. Unexpectedly, Indian captain Lala Amarnath summoned from the outfield occasional leg-spinner Gogumal Kishenchand, who had not previously bowled on tour and never would in Test cricket. Tactfully, Bradman chose to remember it as a shrewd move. More probably, it was Amarnath's guarantee of safe passage, not that Bradman ever needed one. If and when Tendulkar's moment comes in Melbourne, it is unlikely that Michael Clarke will be so obliging.
From the second ball, Bradman took a single to mid-on. He was mobbed by the Indians, and some of the crowd sang For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. ''I think of all my experiences in cricket, that was my most exhilarating moment on the field,'' he wrote. Wesley Walters painted the moment in oil, and signed prints still sell for $3000 or more.
Bradman wrote of the great felicity of that tour, saying the Indians were ''absolutely charming in every respect''. Amarnath told of Bradman's generosity with his time and advice. ''I love to play against him, because he is such a great sportsman and a thorough gentleman,'' he said. How times change. Bradman made four centuries in the five Test matches, including a double, but if the Indians tired of his virtuosity at all, they did not say so.
Renewed, Bradman shelved retirement plans to agree to make the next year's tour of England, and so the legend of the Invincibles was born.
Fifty years later, Tendulkar's batsmanship one day during the 1996 World Cup moved Sir Donald, watching on television in his Adelaide lounge room, to remark viscerally upon their similarity. As much as any man can, Tendulkar has lived up to that rarefied endorsement. He first played for India at 16 and is still playing at 38. He has outlasted contemporaries Brian Lara, and now Ricky Ponting, whose 69 international centuries is next best to Tendulkar but includes just one in the past two years.
Like Bradman, Tendulkar has become what Indian author Suresh Menon calls a ''non-person'' idealised impossibly by a billion compatriots, yet somehow rarely disappointing them. ''Behind his simplicity,'' notes teammate and fellow great Rahul Dravid, ''is genuine simplicity, that only the truly great have in any field.'' The contrast is with Ponting, for whom the game suddenly has become maddeningly complicated.
Tendulkar made two Test centuries on his first tour of Australia, at 19, and two more on his most recent visit, four years ago. By then, all were on his side, the side of the angels. ''Commit all your crimes when Sachin is batting,'' read a banner at the SCG. ''They will go unnoticed because even the Lord is watching.'' Shane Warne now has his own plinth at the MCG, but puts Tendulkar on a pedestal, alone.
Seemingly unwearied by time, Tendulkar made his 99th hundred, against South Africa in Nagpur in March, during the World Cup. Since, he has proved mortally anxious. He made two more half-centuries in that tournament, and thereafter three Test half centuries, including 94 against the West Indies in his last international innings, but each time the fireworks had to be stayed and the national holiday foresworn.
So, in Tendulkar's nervous 90s, the dwelling and the longing intensify. Really, it is unfair. It takes at least 100 balls to make a century, but only one to get out, and it doesn't even have to be a good one. Even legends are helpless in the face of this verity. Bradman ''failed'' to make a century twice as often as he made one. Tendulkar averages 7? innings for every 100. But sport is nothing if not hoping and wishing and dreaming.
From Bradman to Tendulkar, plus ca change. Bradman's series was mannerly, but not without its tensions. Famously, Vinoo Mankad ran out Bill Brown while backing up. Bradman made no objection, saying: ''There was absolutely no feeling in the matter as far as we were concerned, for we considered it quite a legitimate part of the game.''
Nonetheless, ''Mankad-ing'' became and remains a byword for poor sportsmanship. Sixty years later, a lamentable dearth of sportsmanship on both sides almost led to the abandonment of India's last tour.
In 1947, Bradman had implored the Indians to agree to covered pitches, for their own sake. They refused. It cost them dearly since they were caught on wet pitches four times and skittled.
But it cost Bradman, too. He made a century on the first day of the first Test, but a storm curtailed play on the second. At inspections, a seething crowd turned on Bradman. ''I wanted to play, Amarnath did not,'' he wrote. ''The crowd for some unaccountable reason thought I was objecting to a resumption, and I was roundly hooted.'' In fact, a riot was only narrowly averted.
Playing conditions remain contentious. Latter-day India distrusts the Decision Referral System - the so-called ''third umpire'' - and refuses to sanction it. Expect contretemps.
Bradman worried about playing on uncovered pitches for another reason. ''The financial aspect of cricket cannot be ignored,'' he wrote. ''I do not suggest the interest of cricket should be subservient to finance, but it must have been obvious ? that the Indian tour would make very little, if any, profit. The shortening of matches and the one-sided nature of victories could not do otherwise than to have a detrimental effect on gate receipts.''
Now India is on the cricket field as it is in the global economy, noisily ascendant. Engagement with India effectively funds Australian cricket, and the increasingly bellicose Indians are not afraid to remind Australia that this is so. That is a temporal truth. Boxing Day, fortunately, is for cricket's divines.