His last dress rehearsal
Exactly at 0954 hours Wednesday morning Sachin Tendulkar walks down the steps from the Indian dressing room at the Wankhede Stadium. Sudhir Gautam, the man who has created his own niche as Tendulkar's most popular fan, blows the conch shell while waving the Indian tri-colour, from the adjacent MCA Pavilion. At the same time a local train chugs out of the Churchgate station. A journey has started for many. For Tendulkar it will be his final nets before he walks in tomorrow to play one last time.
With his pads tugged under his shoulders along with his hip and elbow guards and helmet, Tendulkar carries two bats with one hand and an unbranded bat in the other. The shutterbugs fire away, making a noise like the flapping wings of pigeons taking off for a flight.
An hour after entering the ground Tendulkar, finally enters the nets where he can breathe easy finally. He has already obliged the maalis while sitting with them for a group picture as well as giving a special thanks to the pair of Lalsuram Jaiswal and Vijay Tambe, the oldest groundsmen at Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA). When Jaiswal wanted an exclusive picture with Tendulkar, the player jokingly said: "Make-up kar ke aaya hain kya (did you wear make-up and come?)," eliciting a loud laughter all round. A short while later N Srinivsan, the BCCI president, had a short chat with Tendulkar.
It is amazing that Tendulkar for decades has never let the outside elements distract his game. So as soon as he joins the rest of the squad, his eyes are on the ball. On a bent knee as he put his pads on Tendulkar continues his diligent watch across the nets watching the Indian top order bat.
He swivels his neck first left, then right and then all around before putting on the helmet. Rubbing his palms and swinging his hangs he tries to release the stress as he waits for his turn to bat. Two bats, both branded rest on a chair while the third lies flat on the ground. On Tuesday, Tendulkar, on his way to taking throwdowns, had by mistake stepped on one of the bats. Immediately he bowed and lowered one hand towards the bat and then towards his head. Usually Indians do that gesture if they mistakenly step on the toes of another person. For Tendulkar, his bat is a sacred weapon and he dare not step on it.
As soon as he has marked his guard he asks the bowling coach Joe Dawes to describe the field. The first ball, from a net bowler, pitching on off stump and moving away, is left alone. For the next 10 minutes Tendulkar plays the trio of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma and two net bowlers with confidence and ease. When Shami bowled an inswinger, he left it again. The bowler enquires if the ball has come in. Tendulkar tells him to focus on keeping his wrist upright.
As those early nerves disappear and Tendulkar is picking length easily, you can see he is playing strokes with certainty. One of his best shots of the morning comes when he moves quickly on the back foot, rises on his toes to punch a handsome square drive - a certain four in the match.
To watch Tendulkar from a close space is not just a privilege but can also leave you with a spine-tingling sensation most times. There is no better sight than watching Tendulkar prepare to face a ball. He will mark his crease by dragging his toe a few times across the batting crease. Even before he pats his bat down, he will flex his knees up and down like a coil of spring. Then he will pat his bat down between two or three times with his bottom-handed grip. His stance has always been side-on as he stands still with an erect posture: shoulders, left elbow, hips and knees all in a straight line. His head does not move. There is no trigger movement. Cricket pundits talk about balance and it becomes clear if you are near Tendulkar in nets.
That sequence has barely changed in decades. Perhaps it is a habit that Tendulkar needs to make himself feel relaxed and confident. In the second net he faces the spin pair of Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra. Today he is not facing the offspin of R Ashwin as he had done that on Tuesday. Yesterday Tendulkar had come in with a pre-determined plan. He wanted to practice the sweep shot and he focused on that. Today it is all about reaching to the pitch of the ball and defending.
So when Ojha manages to dip a ball on the off stump and it is about spin into him, Tendulkar nips the turn in the bud decisively by stretching fully on his left leg to defend while his right foot is rooted to the crease. Although Tendulkar is bowled by Mishra attempting a slog sweep, the batsman is back in ascendance as he lofts the legspinner for a one-bounce straight four and over the covers to show who is in command.
People who have worked with Tendulkar in the nets point out Tendulkar's sole intention to make sure he has ticked all the boxes primarily. But the most important thing is the feel. And to understand that feel, you need to be around. Because when Tendulkar plays a forward defense and you see his left elbow straight, his head bowing like a Japanese saying hello to the ball and the toes pointing towards cover you know as much as him that it is textbook perfect. It is just not his perfection that stands out. It is the ease with which he manages to impart that technique that increases the awe.
As Anil Kumble, Tendulkar's former team-mate and former captain, reminded us during the MAK Pataudi Memorial lecture, that fans tend to forget the thousands of hours of hardwork Tendulkar has put in to play strokes so clean, so elegant, so timeless, so memorable. In the end it is in the nets where Tendulkar started his dream.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo