Tendulkar and his people savour the final hours
At 9.05am, Sachin Tendulkar scored a goal in the warm-up football teams play before the start of a day's play. This was the final day of his international cricket career. A healthy crowd had already entered through the gates. This was no mundane warm-up. They were all watching, and cheered Tendulkar on. Tendulkar, who has shed a lot of his restraint over the last week, waving to crowds at every boundary he goes to, now removed his hat and took a bow. That's about as much showmanship as Tendulkar has ever exhibited. It also began the first round of "Sachiiiiiin, Sachin" for one final day, although people still hoped that West Indies would make India bat a second time and take two early wickets so they could watch Tendulkar bat again today. And tomorrow.
At 9.12am, Tendulkar walked towards the steps to go back up into the dressing room and change into India whites for one last time. What was he feeling? He possibly wouldn't remember, because people on either side asked him for autographs, and Tendulkar didn't turn them down. The staircase has 34 steps. It took him three minutes to finally make it to the top. Over the next few minutes he would have changed into his match whites, taped his fingers - disfigured from 29 years of non-stop competitive cricket, during which time one by one his team-mates kept walking out.
Finally, at 9.26am, out he came with a confident walk, that white hat on, not perfectly stiff - it's probably his lucky one, and he has been wearing it soon after he washes too - the right hand pushing the bracelet up. The Wankhede Stadium came back to life as soon as the left foot touched one of the 34 steps. After a team photograph was taken, MS Dhoni took the team off the field and let Tendulkar lead them back on. Tendulkar walked in for what could be his last session, surveyed the Wankhede Stadium, his Wankhede Stadium, even as two cameramen walked in front of him and Dhoni to his side.
Tendulkar took his position at short-fine leg as R Ashwin began the overnight over at 9.31am. Before the next over started, Tendulkar was sent back to long-on. Pragyan Ojha could have bowled right-arm legbreaks and would have gone unnoticed. Tendulkar was not only at the boundary, he was waving to his fans. This is a bond difficult to thoroughly explain. Suffice to say Tendulkar has been the most popular personality across all parameters in independent India. The rest of the cricket didn't matter once again.
On his final day of international cricket, in front of his home crowd, Tendulkar did let himself go a bit. Off the third ball of this over, he didn't take a start towards a ball hit between him and deep midwicket, and let the other fielder field it. But he was back to full attention now as he raised his arms and wanted to know where to field - on the boundary or up at mid-off - for the other batsman, Marlon Samuels. He was asked to stay back at long-off, much to the crowd's joy.
People in the stands either wanted Tendulkar to bowl or West Indies to score a lot of runs so they could see Tendulkar bat. Before the start of the 17th over, it seemed they had had their first wish. Tendulkar went from short-fine leg towards the umpire, the crowd left their seats and began to applaud, only to see he was taking R Ashwin's cap over to the umpire. What a tease. What a ritual, though - one he had going with Anil Kumble. During Kumble's perfect ten, Tendulkar insisted he hand the bowler's cap over to the umpire. He did so before Kumble's last over in Test cricket too. Now he was beginning to do the same for Kumble's successors.
Before the 18th over, Tendulkar went to do the same for Ojha. The idea there is for Tendulkar to give advice to the bowler, which Ojha took although he went ahead and handed over his cap himself. The Wankhede crowd didn't like it, and let it be known. Never has a Test so one-sided been so keenly watched in India. Three balls later, Samuels lost his mind, and was stumped by a mile. Tendulkar jogged in from long-off, Ojha broke the huddle next to the stumps and ran to greet Tendulkar. Who knows, it might have been something that Tendulkar pointed out?
It is difficult to imagine what Tendulkar would have been going through. This was turning out to be a perfect end for him. He had had a good innings while he batted - not a hundred, but still fluent, delightful even. Now there was no pressure as West Indies never really challenged India with the bat. The innings win looked certain, and Tendulkar could now just savour his last day in Test cricket. He would also have wanted wickets, but with every wicket that final moment would come closer. That final moment that you know is inevitable, but still want to avoid as much as possible. "Save tonight/From the break of dawn/Come tomorrow/Tomorrow I'll be gone."
So Tendulkar saved tonight. He would look back into the stands, he would smile, and every five minutes or so he would wave to the crowd. The crowd of course would go mad. They, too, were in a quandary. They wanted India to win, but they wanted them to drag this out as much as possible.
This, though, was ending fast. Chris Gayle and Narsingh Deonarine fell in the 22nd and 24th overs. Things were happening too fast to process. People were happy for Tendulkar and India, but they weren't quite prepared for the end yet. You can never be. What they wanted, though, was a bowl for Tendulkar. About 48 minutes into the day's play, Dhoni did remove Ojha. Tendulkar wasn't too far out of sight, but the 30th over went to Mohammed Shami and the whole Wankhede booed. Dhoni is the best captain to have at such times. He doesn't get swayed by emotion, and while he is a bit of a showman, he waits for the right time. That wasn't the right time.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Denesh Ramdin now built up a partnership. The crowd quietened down a bit. For about 19 minutes more, because that's when they sensed another bowling change. Ojha, who had got a change of ends, was now being taken off. Another massive "boo" arrived as the ball was thrown to Ashwin. "Dhoni hai hai [Down with Dhoni]," went round the stadium. Dhoni didn't care. You sensed he would give Tendulkar a bowl after the eighth wicket had fallen.
The bowling change worked as Ashwin trapped Chanderpaul. Soon Ojha removed the clueless West Indies captain, Darren Sammy. There were eight minutes to go to lunch. "We want Sachin." A minute later, between over breaks, Tendulkar began to remove some of the strapping on his fingers as he stood next to the pitch. The crowd leaned forward, but they knew they had been teased before. So they waited. Then Virat Kohli left him alone at the pitch, and clapped as he walked off. Here it was. Tendulkar removed his hat, and switched the electricity in the crowd on.
There were only about 20,000 people in the stands, but as they all stood up they became the loudest 20,000 people you could imagine. As he corrected his hair, pushed the bracelet up, twirled the ball and set the field - two slips, gully, short leg, long-on, long-off - the sound built and built. The batsman, Ramdin, waited for the 41st over to begin. He must have thought he was facing Lillee and Marshall combined. The first ball was a legbreak, landed on middle and leg, but was too full, and was defended easily. Tendulkar sent out a full toss next ball. Were those palms sweating?
Tendulkar looked up at the big screen for a replay. Big screens were not even thought of when Tendulkar started bowling in Tests. They showed Ajit Tendulkar - dada to the younger Tendulkar - after the replay. It had been three minutes since he was given the ball, and he had bowled only three balls. The googly didn't arrive in that over. At 11.27am, the over finished, and this meant the last over for him before lunch unless Ojha took the ninth wicket in the next over.
Ojha didn't, but he sped through the over. There were a few seconds left. The leg umpire began to walk to the stumps, at his normal pace, but halfway through the clock turned over. He then spoke on his walkie-talkie, and it turned out we were extending this. So Tendulkar got a bowl again. "Thank you, Sachin" chants now. The second ball of this over was meant to be an offbreak but it turned out to be a generous full toss. The fourth was a googly, but too short and too straight, although that extra bounce could not be missed.
The over ended, and Tendulkar went back to his fielding position at the boundary. The next over ended too. Dhoni looked towards Tendulkar at long-on. Tendulkar raised his hands to tell the captain he had had enough. It was time to go for the kill. Immediately Ashwin was brought back, and four balls later the wicket was delivered. Now the last man was in. It could be any moment now. This was the end, my friend. Hey there, lady, don't bend to pick up the ball of wool, you might miss the moment.
There was a huddle after Ashwin took that wicket, but Tendulkar left it prematurely. Presumably the captain and the team were rehearsing their plans as to what to do after the last wicket was taken. For half a minute they discussed, even as Tendulkar stood at the boundary.
Eleven minutes later, at 11.50am, the moment arrived. Tendulkar had just been moved to square leg. Shami bowled Shannon Gabriel through the gate. Tendulkar raised his arms in joy. It was all over. Tendulkar was a former professional cricketer now, after 29 years of his 40-year-old life. He ran towards the stumps. Players were already there to hand him those. The extras came out, everybody formed a guard. Tendulkar walked through it, but the players formed a fresh guard as soon as he reached the end. This was supposed to happen till the end of the ground, but they couldn't keep pace with him. Did he wipe a tear off as he approached the dressing room?
For the next one hour, nobody sat, nobody moved, nobody left. They waited patiently for all the awards to be given before Tendulkar was called upon to speak at 12.28pm. Classily, Ravi Shastri, the man conducting the interviews, handed over the mic and left the frame. For 20 minutes, Tendulkar spoke and thanked everybody who contributed to his success. Most touchingly, he spoke of the "Sachiiiiin, Sachin" chant.
Chaos ensued after Tendulkar was done talking. You wished he would be left alone when he took a lap around the ground. It's between him and his biggest lovers. A unique bond. Let him savour it all alone. However, it is too much to expect that in India. Hundreds tagged along. You couldn't see anything but an India flag being waved by possibly the shortest man in that group. Hangers-on again. A constant in his life. The crowd was being denied this private moment. They had earned it. They deserved it. Rightly they shouted, "Extras ko phenk do [Throw out the extras]."
Thankfully, though, his team-mates and family were with Tendulkar. The team-mates took turns to carry him on his shoulders so he at least stood out. After the lap was over, he made a special request to everybody to leave him alone because he had to go meet another lover of his. He walked back to the pitch, bent down, touched it with both hands, and then touched his heart. On the way back, he wiped his eye. Tendulkar had left the building. Only he knows how tomorrow morning will be, when he has no bowler, no contest, no pitch, no team to prepare against.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo