Under ordinary circumstances, it would seem bewildering that a player who has barely been on the periphery of the action for 69 of the 90 overs of the day should command so utterly the attention of the crowd at the Wankhede Stadium.
But then, these are not ordinary circumstances. This, Sachin Tendulkar’s 200th Test match, on his home ground, is his last. And – whether you like it or not – this series, this Test, has never been about anything else. The cricket has been largely irrelevant. The West Indies had been invited because you cannot have a farewell party without guests.
So it was no surprise that the largest cheer when India were on the field went up when Tendulkar came to patrol the boundary in front of the Sachin Tendulkar Stand. It would probably have been churlish of him to not respond in any way, so he smiled and waved. Then, gesturing towards the pitch, he pleaded for the noise and the chanting of his name to stop. Let them play. Let them concentrate. READ More: Tendulkar uses special tricolour bat in final Test
No one was listening.
Pragyan Ojha cleverly exploited the turn and the bounce of the wicket, picking up 5 for 40 in 11.2 overs. (He then dedicated his haul to Tendulkar.) Ravichandran Ashwin, with his 3 for 45, reached a century of Test wickets and was an able foil. But did the thousands at the Wankhede have an eye (or voice) for them?
How could they when Tendulkar was running round at backward square leg to make a routine stop?
From the second hour of the day, the crowd began imploring MS Dhoni to give Tendulkar the ball. Dhoni did not oblige. He at least seemed to stubbornly maintain the fiction that the cricket was important, that bowlers bowling well should be allowed to go on.
Sunil Gavaskar greets Sachin Tendulkar during the release of a postal stamp honouring the latter on the first day of his last Test match at Wankhede Stadium. (Ajay Aggarwal/ HT photo)
On such an occasion, watching the spectacle from the Sachin Tendulkar Stand had a particular resonance and appropriateness.
Perhaps aware of their duty towards their hosts, the West Indies — notwithstanding some cringe-inducing catching from India — duly offered a spectacular post-lunch capitulation. When the innings folded for 182 from merely 55.2 overs, the crowd could scarcely believe its luck.
Dhoni had not eventually been able to spoil their day by choosing to field on a wicket that should rightfully have elicited just that decision. The West Indies had come to the rescue. Thirty-five overs of play remained. The chance of watching Tendulkar bat was promising. With opponents like these, who needs friends?
Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay began India’s reply with verve and aplomb. Lofted drives, sweeps backward of square, pulls behind midwicket and square cuts flowed one after another as though India, scoring at nearly a run a ball, were looking to take the lead by close of play.
Suddenly Dhawan hoicked Shane Shillingford down the throat of the square leg fielder and it was 77 for 1. One ball later, Shillingford got Vijay.
The delirious cheering threatened to blow the roof off the stadium. It was 3.30pm. There was a minimum of 20 overs and two balls to be played.
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On the eve of the 24th anniversary of his Test debut, Tendulkar strode in to a guard of honour from the West Indians. The crowd offered its own, refusing to let the noise level slip one bit, refusing to sit down as he faced the first ball.
Spectators have applauded Tendulkar wherever in the world he has walked out to bat. I was in Kolkata when he did so last week, and had found the noise deafening. But this was frenzy of a different order. The spectators remained on their feet for every ball that he faced. You couldn’t hear yourself scream in the din. It was as though 24 years of adulation had been concentrated into these moments of continual hysteria.
Sachin Tendulkar leaving the ground on the first day of his last Test match against West Indies at Wankhede Stadium. (Ajay Aggarwal/ HT photo)
Tendulkar belongs to India, and to the rest of the world. But the opening day at the Wankhede showed that there is no doubt that the claim Mumbai can stake on him is unrivalled. That is why he wanted his farewell Test over here. That is why his wish was granted. It was just as it should have been.
A slog sweep off Shillingford — whose doosra was his nemesis in Kolkata — got him off the mark. Thereafter, Tendulkar proceeded to offer a highlights package of his celebrated repertoire. An imperious square cut, balance perfect, fetched a boundary.
So did two classic cover drives. He flicked off his legs — the stroke that Rahul Dravid has called his signature shot — for another four. He punched off the back foot into the covers. The textbook-perfect forward defensive shot, played at full stretch, was on display. And towards the end of the day, he unfurled that gorgeous straight drive, the timing flawless, the placement perfect, as the ball bulleted towards the fence.
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Was Cheteshwar Pujara playing quite beautifully at the other end? Was <there> an other end? A West Indian player was jeered when he misfielded and allowed Pujara a boundary. Had he not done so, it would have been only a single and Tendulkar would have been back on strike.
Uncharacteristic for a day of Test cricket, the crowd remained till the end in order to applaud Tendulkar off the field.
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The bookmakers had not given him much of a chance. And why not? In the five Tests at the Wankhede prior to this one, Tendulkar had scored 243 runs in nine innings at an average of 27 (his career average is 53.71). He had not made a fifty in those innings.
But perhaps Tendulkar had the conviction. Perhaps the unwavering self-belief that has served him so well in his remarkable career told him that he would not, as Bradman had, make his farewell an anti-climax.
At stumps, he was unbeaten on 38. He had faced 73 balls. He had hit six fours. Tomorrow is another day.