What now for Sachin Tendulkar? He has finally crossed the one landmark that to be candid was wearing him down. Whether he admits it or not, whether he plays for records or not, the tension of being so close to his 100th international hundred for so long was taking its toll on his game, on his naturally attacking instincts.
Particularly in recent months, he had gone into his shell, was strangely hesitant in his strokeplay and there was a certain mortality about him. Gone was the dashing batsman who was a commanding figure at the crease, who made bowlers look hapless.
For a change, the bowlers were dominating him by getting him out in various ways which would have been impossible even to think about in the recent past. After all, Tendulkar was cricket's Peter Pan, the ageless artist who, drunk on elixir, would go on forever scoring runs and notching up hundreds in both forms of the game at will.
Now that he has reached the 100th hundred - a record that is likely to stay for as long as Don Bradman's immortal average of 99.94 which means for all time - what next for Tendulkar? Should he retire gracefully from the game he has adorned for so long? Should he opt out of ODIs and concentrate on Test cricket? Or should he continue to play in both?
Once the euphoria surrounding his feat has subsided, I am sure the chorus for his retirement is bound to become more vociferous. After all, the detractors were after his blood during the extended period he spent in his bid to get the 100th hundred. They said he was playing just for his 100th hundred and not for the team, that he was past his best and was but a shadow of a once great cricketer and that it was time for him to ride off into the sunset.
Now the same critics are singing his praises, calling him God of cricket, king of the game, the greatest player ever and so on. Believe me, a couple of failures and the 'retire' cry will be heard all over again.
I am firmly of the view that Tendulkar will now play more freely, more like the Tendulkar of old. An early indication of this was seen during his half century against Pakistan on Sunday. Even the greatest sportsmen sometimes succumb to pressure and it was clear that the tension was getting to Tendulkar.
Now that he has got the gorilla off his back, there is no reason to believe why he cannot play glorious strokes and reel off the runs and the centuries at a much faster clip. He completes 39 next month but even at this age and perhaps well past his peak he is still better than any youngster who will take his place.
He is not blocking the path for any youth. It is just that no youngster has yet emerged to be a replacement. Ultimately he will call it a day of course but I reckon he is good for another year at least in both formats of the game.
True to his character, Tendulkar has remained reticent and has even taken in his stride the broadside thrown at him by Ian Chappell. A few years ago the acerbic former Australian captain a one time admirer had written that "Tendulkar looks like a player trying to eke out a career; build on a glittering array of statistics. If he really is playing for that reason and not to help win as many matches as he can for India then he is wasting his time and should retire immediately."
Again, just a couple of weeks ago while comparing the three greats of the modern era, Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Ricky Ponting, he rated the West Indian as the best of the three.
Now in the wake of Tendulkar's latest and greatest feat, the hard to please Chappell while paying his tribute has come out with the following: "The fact that Tendulkar has handled fame so well and maintained an attacking outlook throughout is a tribute to not only his skill but also his wonderfully alert mind. Considering the length of his career and the fact that he was able to renew his attacking desires I would now rate Tendulkar slightly ahead of Lara and comfortably in front of a fading Ponting."
But then Tendulkar has this ability to force critics to his side. He is able to rise over debates surrounding his retirement and scotch such speculative stories with another sublime knock. Having come through the toughest period of his long career there is even a belief that we could be seeing Tendulkar of old.
As he said the other day in a TV interview "my belief is that if I feel I can contribute and I am mentally there where I feel I am bringing value to the team then I should be playing." Clearly, retirement is not yet on his mind. He will pick the time and the stage to make a graceful and momentous exit even as he marches on to fresher pastures his enthusiasm for the game undiminished even after more than 22 years.
Long may Tendulkar regale his willing and joyful subjects!