Till the first ball of the seven-match one-day series against Sri Lanka was bowled, the buzz around Nagpur was of the return of Rahul Dravid to the city. We've all heard of the phrase son of the soil, but for the first time the catch phrase was son-in-law of the soil. "Nagpur ko aap kya vapas denge? Nagpur ne aap ko biwi diya, sundar rajkumar diya ..." (What will you give back to Nagpur? It has given you a wife, a beautiful prince ...) one journalist asked Dravid in all seriousness at the pre-match press conference. But once Dravid had accomplished the first important task - winning the toss and getting first use of a good batting track - Sachin Tendulkar took over. This city is known for its succulent oranges and for being the home of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing saffron brigade, but to Indian cricket fans it will come to be known as the town Tendulkar painted red with his inimitable bold brush strokes on return from injury.
You would scarcely have believed it has been six months and eight days since Tendulkar had a hit in international cricket. More recently, he went under the surgeon's knife and suffered a rehabilitation period so debilitating that he could not pick up a cricket bat for the best part of it. There are few more cruel things you can do to Tendulkar than prohibit him from batting. The earliest indication came off just the second legal ball he faced - a fullish ball outside the off stump. Tendulkar reached for it a touch more than he would perhaps normally do, anxious to be back in the mix, and limed the ball through cover to the advertising hoardings in front of the Kimji-Phiroze Bilimoria Pavilion, where not one person was still seated. Then came a pick-up shot that could not be played by a man with one good hand - the ball sailed high for six over midwicket. A trademark on-drive, just about a push, raced past the bowler, and one journalist could not conceal his glee in the press box. "God is back."
But it was not only the coruscating strokeplay that told you how important it was for the big fish to be back in water. There was one manic charge down the pitch that resulted in a thick inside edge. There was a marked reluctance through the course of the innings to look for the second run - nothing would be as tragic as a run out when batting well. There was a playful exchange with Muttiah Muralitharan where Tendulkar mock dabbed at him after being glared down. There was the lingering look to the heavens when he reached 50, off as many balls.
Only recently Tendulkar had given an in-depth interview to Deccan Herald, the Bangalore-based newspaper. In the course of that lengthy chat, he was asked if he was ever frustrated enough during the layoff to think about abandoning the game altogether. "At some stage, because it was taking such a long time, obviously I was worried about what was happening ..." he began. Then, probably realising the magnitude of what he was about to say, and the impact it would have on his massive legion of worshippers, he checked himself. "I used to think it's been almost two months but I am still feeling the pain. Why isn't it settling? The doctors had clearly told me it was going to take time and there was no point worrying so early but I could see all the games being played, on television, and occasionally I did become impatient."
Fortunately that impatience was kept well in check, and even when Irfan Pathan, sent in to bat at No. 3, played some big hits that pleased the crowd no end and at one point overtook Tendulkar, there was no impatience. When Pathan was finally dismissed, on 83, Tendulkar had 91, and was just beginning to pull up with cramp. A glide to third-man took him to 93. But there it ended, seven short of a richly-deserved century, when Kumar Sangakkara took a good catch to pouch an edge off Farveez Maharoof.
As he walked back to the pavilion, raising the bat to acknowledge the raucous applause of a grateful Nagpur crowd, the Sri Lankans would have heaved a sigh of relief to see the back of that No. 33 jersey. One is not sure why Tendulkar chose that number on his comeback, rather than the customary No. 10, but hey, it hardly matters what number plate you hang on some machines. A Ferrari is still always a Ferrari.