CENTURION: The legend of Sachin Tendulkar continued to grow on Sunday as the Indian batting maestro hit his 50th Test century and shared a remarkable partnership with captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni on the fourth day of the first Test against South Africa at SuperSport Park.
It was almost certainly not enough to save his team from defeat, with India finishing the day on 454 for eight in their second innings, still 30 runs short of making South Africa bat again.
But it was an heroic effort which salvaged the reputation of an Indian side which took a battering in the first innings.
Tendulkar (107 not out) and Dhoni (90) put on 172 for the seventh wicket and defied the South African bowlers for a minute short of three hours.
"It was extremely important for us to come back strong and to send out a strong message," said Tendulkar, adding that the world's top-ranked Test team needed to recover from the first innings in which they were bowled out for 136 before conceding 620 for four declared when South Africa batted.
"I think we have been able to do that," said Tendulkar.
"Many positives have come out of this match. We just need to continue with this in the remaining part of the series."
It took a special delivery from fast bowler Dale Steyn to end the Tendulkar-Dhoni stand shortly before bad light and an approaching thunderstorm ended play for the day.
Steyn produced a vicious bouncer which Dhoni could only fend to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher. In the next over Harbhajan Singh edged left-arm spinner Paul Harris to slip, almost certainly ending any hopes of a miracle reprieve for India, although more storms are forecast for the final day on Monday.
South Africa seemed set for an early win when they took four wickets before lunch, with a new ball available 13 balls after the break. At that stage India were 277 for six, still trailing by 207 runs.
But Dhoni counter-attacked in thrilling fashion and South Africa's new ball pair, Steyn and Morne Morkel, were on the receiving end of some cracking drives and cuts as Dhoni raced to a half-century off 40 balls with nine fours.
South African captain Graeme Smith was forced into making bowling changes with the ball still relatively new and Harris was brought on after 56 runs had been scored in nine overs against the new ball.
Having seen off the immediate threat of the pace pair, Dhoni settled down to play a more conventionally watchful innings and he made his 90 off 106 balls with 14 fours.
After the interval, the focus switched to Tendulkar, the highest-scoring batsman in international cricket history. Resuming at 80 he continued a calm innings during which he was seldom troubled.
He went to 95 with a straight six off Harris. On 97 he was beaten by a ball from Morkel which cut back and missed the inside edge of his bat. He pushed Steyn to midwicket for two, then drove the fast bowler to deep cover to reach his century after 258 minutes of watchful batting, during which he faced 197 balls and hit 12 fours and a six.
As he ran to complete the single he jumped in the air and lifted his bat to the heavens. No other batsman has scored more than 39 centuries in Tests.
"He's a great player," said South African spinner Harris. "It's just good for a player like me to be able to bowl to him."
Harris said he thought South Africa bowled well on what he described as a day of "proper" Test cricket.
"Dhoni and Tendulkar showed the fight we expected from them," he said.
Sharma frustrated the South African bowlers for the first 48 minutes of the day, looking awkward against short-pitched deliveries but finding a straight bat to keep out anything aimed at his stumps. He eventually fell to Steyn when he prodded a catch to Hashim Amla at short leg after making 23 and batting for a total of 71 minutes, facing 51 balls.
Dravid became the third batsman, behind team-mate Tendulkar and Australia's Ricky Ponting, to make 12 000 Test runs, reaching the mark when he had scored 43. He was congratulated by Tendulkar but did not add to his score before edging a lifting ball from Morkel to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher. The previous ball, pitched well outside off stump, had kept low.
Laxman and Raina fell cheaply, edging Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Jacques Kallis to gully and first slip respectively, with Raina out in the last over before lunch.