Sachin Tendulkar has set the stage for a glittering finale. Now all he has to do is finish the job.
Pakistan's clumsy fielding almost allowed the world's greatest batsman to post his 100th international century in the World Cup semifinal against Pakistan yesterday. Instead, Tendulkar will target the milestone in tomorrow's final against Sri Lanka in his hometown Mumbai.
"Going back to Mumbai, especially for this event, is a wonderful occasion," Tendulkar said of playing a World Cup final on his home ground. "All I want to say is, we want to be calm, focus on our job and get the job done."
The 37-year-old Indian opener, a sporting icon in his home country, can't have had many luckier innings than his 85 against Pakistan, which played a major role in the World Cup co-host's 29-run win over its bitter rival.
He was dropped four times, had an lbw decision overturned and survived a close stumping decision before he was finally caught by Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi at extra cover off the bowling of Saeed Ajmal.
Tendulkar was adjudged lbw to Ajmal on 23, but the decision review system showed the ball would have gone on to narrowly miss leg stump. He was almost out off the next delivery but just had his toe on the ground when Kamran Akmal removed the bails in a decision which also went to the TV umpire.
Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Kamran Akmal and Umar Akmal all put down chances when Tendulkar was on 27, 45, 70 and 81.
The packed, partisan crowd of 28,000 at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium briefly fell silent when Tendulkar drove straight to Afridi before rising to applaud another crucial innings.
Tendulkar, who has scored two previous centuries in the tournament, also passed 400 runs at a World Cup for the third time, joining Australians Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist in achieving the feat. It was the latest in a long list of accomplishments for Tendulkar, who has the most runs and centuries in both test and one-day cricket. Up against him tomorrow will be leading test and one-day wicket taker Muttiah Muralitharan, playing in his final match for Sri Lanka.
The "Little Master" reached the World Cup semifinal with India in 1996 and the final in 2003, but the trophy has remained out of reach. Tomorrows's setting could be no more perfect for his 100th hundred.
Given that India didn't win either match in which Tendulkar passed 100, his legions of fans might regretfully hope he falls short again.
"I want to say sorry to my nation. We tried our level best," said Afridi. "I want to congratulation the Indian cricket and all of the Indian nation for this great victory. We wish them well in the final."
Critics condemned the fielding performance - Pakistan dropped six catches - and wondered why Afridi didn't use their batting powerplay earlier in a bid to throw the Indian bowlers off their rhythm and give the big-hitting middle order a chance with the fielding restrictions in place.
Afridi said it was difficult getting the strategy right with wickets falling frequently. He had some encouraging words for his squad, which had been given little chance before the tournament started.
"We really played well in this competition - the boys did a great job," he said. "I'm proud I'm the captain of these guys."