We were at the Kotla for two reasons. One, this Test between India and Australia was going to be the final step towards 4-0, with India dominant in the one-sided series, and the Kotla's would be the last Test of the home season before the high-volume insanity of the IPL.
The other reason belonged to a place agnostics would recognise. The area covered by 'what if…' and 'just in case…'
The question that no one had the answers to, and therefore needed the 'just in case' fallback, was whether the Kotla Test would be Sachin Tendulkar's last in India.
As of now, India's FTP lists India's next home Test series in October 2014, against West Indies. Tendulkar will be 40 a month from now and the calendar is tight - the only gap available to India to possibly fit in other matches comes between an ODI series in Zimbabwe, ending in mid-July, and the Champions League T20 that is slotted for September 2013. If there must be the business of a farewell at home, that's when it must be arranged. August-September, some place where it doesn't rain.
But what if? We didn't know so we turned up at the Kotla and so did he. First up, as Australia batted, out on the field, in his broad-brimmed white hat, the only one wearing that head gear on the field other than the reedy Ishant Sharma. Fingers taped, eyes peeled, neck pushed forward when closing in as the bowler began his run-up. Tendulkar fielded along the boundary line or on the edge of the 'ring'. In between overs, he would roll his shoulders, flex his neck, chat to the bowler, exchange a word with the umpires, shine the ball on his trousers.
He would throw himself at the ball, fall over it or scamper around to stop it. Once he put in a sprint that gave him a good chance of beating R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha over 50m. The batsmen stole a single easily from those two, but when Tendulkar swooped down on the ball from the outfield they shouted "wait!" for the second. The throws still came in flat and precise. Whatever happened to the tennis elbow, his 40-year-old throwing shoulder looked in good shape.
Every time Tendulkar would pick up the ball, the crowd cheered. Every time he turned around to walk to his mark near the fences, hundreds of arms waved at him. It is difficult to remember whether he normally does what he did in Delhi. Respond to every stand with a flick of the wrist or the raised palm, by holding up his hands or giving a quick wave. I hear you, every gesture said, I see you. Out there in the heat, every person who waved at him no doubt believed he did. Each one of them, in the massive arc from east to west, past the club house.
This adulation generated by Tendulkar has led to teeth-gnashing and lip-curling, mostly from those who do not belong to the less-expensive seats. This is not right, this is not the way, this is blind worship, they are not like this in England/Australia/South Africa. As Tendulkar's form dipped over the last two years, the hundred hundreds milestone turned from shiny trophy into get-lost albatross, the teeth-gnashing rose in intensity. There are debates about the fading of skills, the appropriateness of the moment, the ebbing away of legacy, the timings of retirements, the impotence of selectors.
But, the Kotla Test proved again that Tendulkar's people are not to be easily silenced. Even if India are battling against the Australian bowlers on a track born in the netherworld.
Virat Kohli knows exactly what that means. In both innings, India's No. 3 for the game, Dilli ka ladka (Delhi's own boy) was suddenly being told his presence was not required. He became the batsman frozen in the white headlights of a crowd that had lost its bearings and was driving with foot on floor, all brakes of rationale severed.
It happened two days in a row at the same time of afternoon. When the heat was turned up high and the crowd had filled into all but the highest uncovered stands on three sides of the Kotla. Any sniff of Kohli's wicket falling lit the blue touch paper that set the crowd off, in full vocal and emotional force. It put itself behind every leg-before appeal, as if it were India that were bowling.
In the first innings, when Kohli tried to turn one around the corner, which fell short of leg gully, the caterwauling couldn't be contained. On both occasions, there was someone else they wanted to see.
In the second innings, along with the sublime Cheteshwar Pujara who was playing on some other pitch in some other town in some other match, Kohli had tried to secure himself for more than an hour. Glenn Maxwell spilled the simplest of return catches and there came a roar of disgust and the rattling of a cage, as if an Australian had been granted a reprieve.
That heat from the stands was disorienting. It was not beautiful, it was far from logical but its ferocity sounded and felt uncontrollable. Like anything could happen if the beast was not fed.
Down in the centre, Kohli experienced the unthinkable for two days in a row. The sound of Indian jubilation at his dismissal. In India colours. The sound was so shrill, old Delhi's medieval window panes must have quivered. As Kohli traipsed off in a huff, it was impossible to hear oneself even think. Nothing made sense.
It was the tall, looming, uncovered, unforgiving eastern stands that saw Tendulkar first, positioned as they are right opposite the makeshift tunnel that brings batsmen onto the ground. Their reception was amplified around Kotla and from it rose a chant that has been familiar for more than two decades: "Sah-chin, Sah-chin".
The umpires may have prodded people along, but it felt like five full minutes before Tendulkar could do what they were making such a noise over: bat. In the first innings, he spent more than an hour and a half at the crease, 99 minutes across lunch and tea; in the second he played only five balls. Leg before both times by Nathan Lyon, who was disheveled and wrung out but bowling the best spell of his life in spinners' Utopia.
In the first innings, Tendulkar was fortunate to survive an lbw appeal on 1 before he settled in; among the five boundaries on his way to 31, he produced an inside-out cover drive defying geometry and physiology in a microsecond and a sweep of risky intent. In his second innings, with India still short of the target by 28, he tried to turn Lyon over on to leg and was hit on the pads, in front of the stumps, dead centre. Tendulkar's Test was over. The Kotla didn't know what else had ended, but just in case...
Tendulkar walked out to the presentation, chatting in between David Warner and someone who looked like Phillip Hughes. When it was time for the winner's photo he was pushed to the front and centre of the group. He then led the team around the ground on a victory lap, surrounded by photographers and cameramen, security guards and hangers-on. At the far end of the ground, he was dwarfed by taller men. As the posse drew closer to the Eastern Stands, Kohli, bless his largeness of heart, handed over the Border Gavaskar Trophy to Tendulkar and tried to rev up the crowd, pointing at him. Louder, he was saying, cheer louder. For India's victory? To say goodbye? We don't know but what if…
Tendulkar's arrivals on the field were seized and, at one level, even orchestrated by the Kotla crowd. His departures at various points of the match, though, told their own tale. On day one, he was closest to the dressing room entrance as the teams went in for lunch. He slowed down as he neared the rope, letting the rest of the team catch up with him and ensuring his captain took the first step across the boundary line. At stumps on Friday, he was the last man off the ground. After the players had melted into the tunnel and umpires had wandered in behind them, Tendulkar ambled off the field. He turned his head to look at the stands right behind him and then looked up to the skies. A good day at the office.
Late on Sunday afternoon, the crowd left the ground one last time from the Test. They walked along the ochre medieval walls of the real Firoz Shah Kotla fortress. The sun was heading southwards, the light was melting into gold. Curled-up dry leaves were falling lazily over our heads, a confetti of faded brown floating down in slow motion. This season we call vasant, India's spring, is almost over. Summer's full blaze is coming.
India had won so, striding and strolling, we were buoyant, chatty. Fathers instructing daughters to hold their hand, teenagers loudly debating what Dhoni said to Pujara in the penultimate over, older men murmuring, women talking. They did not know if it was his last time in international cricket, his last time for India in India or merely in Delhi. The crowd headed home trying to find individual contentment and closure.
I came to see him bat, you know. See him bat in person. Never again for India? Possible? Maybe not? IPL is fine, but India? Not in white clothes? How?
The last sighting of Tendulkar from the Kotla stands was of him disappearing into the Perspex tunnel, towards the dressing room at the end of the victory lap, dressed in his blue training shirt. But that wasn't to be the abiding memory.
It was the walk back to the pavilion, out for 1 in the second innings, bat tucked under his arm, head lowered, gloves coming off. Tendulkar with a long shadow attached to his heels, leaving behind a vast expanse of green. The crowd rising to its feet, their shrill, manic voices silenced, their applause growing into the booming crack of a gun salute. No one said anything to each other but, just in case. As he walked back into the shadows of the dressring room, Kotla engulfed him with acknowledgement, appreciation and an aural embrace.
Even when he may not have wanted it, Sachin Tendulkar has always had the crowd around him. He has never walked alone.