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'Why did he play that?'

N Hunter joins Mumbai's crowds as they go through ecstasy and agony watching their hero fall six runs short

Sachin Tendulkar was one big hit away from the elusive landmark, but it wasn't to be  •  AFP

Sachin Tendulkar was one big hit away from the elusive landmark, but it wasn't to be  •  AFP

Sudhir Gautam is sitting in the first-class compartment of the Churchgate-bound local train. It's 7.30 am, peak traffic hour when thousands shuttle from Mumbai's northern suburbs to the older, more beautiful southern neighbourhoods en route to their offices. Today the trains are even more packed than normal as the office crowd is joined by hundreds travelling to watch Sachin Tendulkar try and score his hundredth international century.
Gautam, famous as Tendulkar's most devoted fan, sits quietly amid the chaos, his pale brown eyes staring ahead. He's dressed in his work clothes: bare torso painted in the Indian tricolour (which is scrubbed off each night with kerosene), shaven head sporting a single lock of hair; around his waist is a sign saying "100 century Tendulkar". His trousers are the unwashed whites worn by Indian cricketers, his sneakers are dirty and the soles are evidence of how much he's travelled.
His fellow commuters recognise him from the innumerable television images - waving the Indian flag, blowing the conch shell, even making it to the Indian dressing room - on Tendulkar's invitation - minutes after the World Cup win on April 2. Gautam doesn't seem to mind the stares; he's focused on getting to the ground before the Indian team so he can blow his conch as they drive through the stadium gates. Then he must start waving the flag before the first ball.
As the train enters Churchgate station (Wankhede is next door) someone finally musters the courage to address him directly. Gautam is asked why he doesn't have a regular job. "Who will do this?" he answers, without even looking at the man who'd asked the question. Will Tendulkar get the century today? "Today he will score. It was his dream to win the World Cup at home. Now that is fulfilled, he should get his hundredth at home, too. He deserves it." His words are strong but there's a note of anxiety in his voice.
The ground is filling up fast. The intensity and fervour of the previous day doubles as soon as Tendulkar comes down the steps from the dressing room. Just before he crosses the ropes, he takes off his gloves and washes his hands. He's ready. The final delivery of the first over, from Ravi Rampaul, is flicked for a four behind square. Fourth over, fourth delivery, facing Fidel Edwards for the first time in the morning, is punched through the offside; Adrian Barath chases it to the long-off boundary but the ball has too much on it.
The noise inside the ground reaches cacophonous proportions when Tendulkar uppercuts Edwards over third man for six. He is now seven short of the century. The next 15 deliveries yield just a single while he and the crowd enjoy watching Virat Kohli tackle Edwards' short-ball barrage expertly.
However, the tension is growing. Being in the 90s is no guarantee of reaching his target; he's already fallen there once this year, when Tim Bresnan reverse-swung a delivery on the final afternoon of The Oval Test in August to trap him plumb on 91.
During that England tour, fans had travelled across continents and paid as much as £250 for a daily ticket to watch the 100th hundred.
Tickets on Friday were cheaper - Rs 100 going for eight times the value - but equally hard to come by; thousands of fans stood for hours a kilometer outside the ground on the Churchgate and Marine Drive sides, hoping the Mumbai Cricket Association would somehow find extra tickets to sell. No such luck; daily tickets for Day 4 had been sold out within minutes of the windows opening on Thursday afternoon.
There are a lucky few like Aniket Bhalekar, a Class XII student at Sathe College in Vile Parle who decided to skip his semester exams to fulfil a dream of watching Tendulkar get a hundred. "I'd convinced my father yesterday to allow me to come to the ground. Today my mother asked me why I was wasting my time - even if Tendulkar gets his century it wouldn't help my future," Bhalekar says. He managed to get a ticket after skipping the last two sessions of Thursday's play and standing in a queue for six hours.
Now he and thousands of others are holding their collective breath as Tendulkar, six short of the landmark. stands calm in the middle, leaning on his heavy bat.
"We want six, we want six," Wankhede shrieks as Rampaul runs in to deliver the final ball of his fourth over. The ball pitches on a length on the off stump and seams in a bit too quickly into Tendulkar's body. But Tendulkar goes for a premeditated steer - and offers a simple catch to Darren Sammy at second slip. The only voices heard now are those of the ecstatic West Indies players.
"Why did he play that? Why?" Bhalekar screams next to me as he stands, sits down again and then covers his face in disbelief. Tendulkar looks up to the heavens immediately, then, walking back, cranes his neck to watch the replay on big screen. He raises his bat slightly, stares at it, almost blaming it for deceiving him. Gautam stands there, stunned.
To their credit the crowd stays on. They are rewarded by R Ashwin, who becomes the third Indian to get a five-for and a century in the same innings of a Test. And when Tendulkar comes on to deliver the final over of the day, they stand and clap with the same enthusiasm. There is even a hint of redemption when Kohli gets a difficult chance off a push from Darren Bravo, but this isn't Tendulkar's day. Stumps drawn, the crowds go home.
And somewhere in Mumbai Tendulkar's biggest fan prepares to scrub off his hero's name until the next match.