Tendulkar's pulsating swansong
Every stand was full. People sat along the stairs leading to the seats, they stood along the railings and the walls and whatever they could lean against or stand on. When Cheteshwar Pujara took a single allowing Sachin Tendulkar to face his first ball of the morning, the 40,000-odd fans at the Wankhede Stadium announced to the world who was batting.
It was an emotional moment, even for Tendulkar, as he walked in to bat late on Thursday afternoon. On his return, undefeated, as he climbed up the steps towards the Indian dressing room he'd missed a step and lost balance. Wankhede was heaving and chanting "Saacchinn, Saacchinnn." Before climbing the stairs, Tendulkar had waved the bat to the crowd to acknowledge their support. He had waved the bat towards his family to acknowledge their support - gestures he would never have made unless he had reached a landmark.
The fans were back today. In huge numbers. With one common expectation: 'God, get a hundred'.
The atmosphere was similar to that two years ago at the same ground against the same opponent. In the final Test of the 2011-12 home series against West Indies, Tendulkar had walked in on the third morning on an overnight score of 67, in search of his hundredth international century. As he breezed to 94, Wankhede screamed and begged their most beloved son to get to the milestone with a six. Tendulkar, instead, steered into the hands of Darren Sammy at second slip off Ravi Rampaul. A college kid, who had told his mom he was bunking class that day, cried in despair: "Kyun khela yaar (Why did he play that shot?)." It was as though Tendulkar had deceived him.
Today, thousands screamed at Tino Best, who had the temerity to bowl short balls at Tendulkar, who was attempting to guide the ball over slips. He failed on at least four occasions. On one such occasion, Best appealed for a caught behind, rushing towards cover with his arms splayed, dead sure he had his man. Tendulkar did not move. The umpire, Richard Kettleborough, was not interested. West Indies could not believe it. Wankhede booed Best in unison. "Tino sucks. Tino sucks," went around the ground like a Mexican wave.
On 48, Tendulkar tried to once again open the face of the bat against a Best delivery that was pitched short-of-a-length. The ball, however, did not rise as much as Tendulkar expected, and also moved into him. His wife Anjali cupped her mouth in nervousness.
Next delivery Tendulkar played the most beautiful straight drive with an open face, beating mid-on and getting to his half-century. Anjali clapped, but did not stand up. The crowd, though, did. Such was the cacophony inside the arena that a friend from Trinidad wrote in, saying: "That crowd's sounding extra loud even from the TV."
On 58, there was a minor blip once again when Tendulkar decided to attempt a slog-sweep, but fortunately the ball had hit outside the line. "Arre, bhai. Hundred dekhne ka hain! (What are you doing? We have come to see a hundred) said a man with a grey French beard.
The crowd had become Tendulkar's pulse, yet the man himself remained calm. In what could possibly be his last innings he played every shot in the textbook, barring the hook and pull, to perfection. A crisp back-foot punch that raced past the empty cover region moved him to 60.
The youngster with his cheeks painted received a phone call. "God is on 67. 33 minimum Marega (He will get it)," he told the person at the other end in a loud and confident voice. On cue, that trademark on drive, with just enough power, beat Shivnarine Chanderpaul at mid-on.
Two balls after drinks, Tendulkar moved swiftly inside the line of the ball to paddle sweep Narsingh Deonarine for two runs, taking advantage of no leg slip or fine leg. Two balls later, trying to play a wristy cut at the very last moment, Tendulkar was caught by Sammy at slip. The crowd were caught off guard. Initially it was met with silence, but a fraction later everyone rose as Tendulkar walked back to the pavilion, probably for the last time. Anjali stood up and clapped finally, eyes hidden by her black shades. His son Arjun Tendulkar, who was one of the ball boys near the boundary rope, stood up to join the rest.
Perhaps even Tendulkar understood that fact. The joy ride had come to an end in such a sudden fashion. Two yards before crossing the ropes, helmet on, gloves on, sucking his lips inside, Tendulkar waved around the ground to thank the fans one last time with bat in hand.
"End of an era" said a senior journalist in the press box, a man who had covered Tendulkar's Test debut 24 years ago to the day. North Stand did not empty out. So did none of the others. Tendulkar was yet to leave cricket for good.