There was always one unfulfilled desire gnawing away inside Sachin Tendulkar, one trophy lacking in his cabinet. That was the one that counted the most, the World Cup.
From his first time at the tournament in Australia in 1992 to the bitter disappointment of 2007 and falling at the fallen hurdle in 2003, Tendulkar had only known disappointment on cricket’s greatest stage despite holding all the World Cup batting records that count.
Now speculation was rife on the eve of the 10th World Cup, and the third to be staged in India, that Tendulkar’s record sixth World Cup would be his last — there had been hints in the recent past, though the man himself had never gone on record. Tendulkar had, from the previous year, been giving his aching body a rest, playing just two ODIs in 2010. There would be another two in South Africa early in the year. That also meant he was reducing the chances of injuries that had been bedeviling him since 1999.
India’s shock victory under the captaincy of Kapil Dev back in 1983 meant that expectations had risen on the eve of every subsequent World Cup, more so in 1987 and 1996 when the event had previously been staged on Indian soil. Now, with the Indian team under Mahendra Singh Dhoni going from strength to strength, it appeared 2011 was the best opportunity to emulate the feats of 1983.
Despite a blazing start to their campaign against joint hosts Bangladesh in Dhaka, the Indian team’s performance was far from impressive in the group stages. The batting was prone to collapses, the bowling lacked penetration and the fielding was downright sloppy.
It was the adept handling of his limited resources by captain Dhoni, the batting of Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir and the dazzling all-round performance of Yuvraj Singh that saw them through to the knockout stage. But there were scares along the way. Tendulkar recorded his fifth and sixth World Cup centuries. But, as so often in the past, neither produced victories.
Against England at Bangalore his 120 saw India reach a massive 338. But captain Andrew Strauss replied with 158 and, for the first time in the World Cup, India were involved in a tie. It came as a jolt to the home camp, but worse was to follow.
After the disposal of lightweights Ireland and the Netherlands came a shock defeat at the hands of South Africa. This time Tendulkar top-scored with 111 — but the last nine Indian wickets collapsed in a heap for 29 runs and the total of 296 was not enough. The alarm bells began to sound.
It came down to the final group match against the West Indies, who were duly brushed aside at Chennai to set up the first high-octane contest in the quarterfinals — India v Australia at Ahmedabad.
Champions in the last three editions, the Aussies were having problems of their own but could not be taken lightly.
Tendulkar chipped in with a delightful half-century but it was the level-headed batting of Yuvraj that once again saved the day amidst mounting tension.
To the delight and astonishment of the cricket world, the semi-final at Mohali now saw India take on traditional rivals Pakistan, the one contest that everyone was dreaming of.
India had beaten Pakistan in their previous four World Cup match-ups, and, even though the margin of victory this time was comfortable, it was a high-octane contest with the political leaders of both nations in attendance and the eyes of the world on Mohali.
India’s total of 260 was built round Tendulkar’s 85. But even his greatest fans would admit it was an embarrassingly inept effort from the master, who was playing in his third semi-final since 1996.
It was almost as if he were giving catching practice to the Pakistani fielders, who let him off on four occasions. On two further occasions he had a reprieve from the third umpire. It looked like he was going to get his 100th international century before captain Shahid Afridi finally decided enough was enough and clutched the catch to himself with relief as much as joy off Saeed Ajmal’s bowling.
Pakistan’s batsmen spluttered and sputtered and ran out of steam and the day the nation had been waiting for had finally arrived — India in the final against Sri Lanka in Mumbai.
The Wankhede Stadium wore a splendid new look for the final. Speculation had reached fever pitch that this would be Tendulkar’s last bow in India colours on his home ground. What could be a finer stage to announce his retirement, particularly if India won the final?
It was in the 1987 Reliance World Cup match between India and Zim-babwe at the same stadium that the 14-year-old Sachin got his first taste of a tournament on which he would leave his indelible mark. He was one of the ball boys stationed around the boundary and, at the innings break, Sunil Gavaskar took him into the dressing room to introduce him to the team. The teenager was suitably awestruck and yet just two years later he would be part of that same Indian dressing room!
A century — the magical 100th hundred — in the World Cup final in front of his adoring home crowd to guide India to victory? Every Indian cricket fan was hoping that dream would come true on April 2.
The century was not to be, though the more important part of the dream was fulfilled on a hot, humid and tense Mumbai night. A hush descended across the ground and the watching nation as Tendulkar nudged one to the keeper off Lasith Malinga with his score on 18. Gambhir with 97 steadied Indian nerves and when captain Dhoni smashed Nuwan Kulasekara over the boundary for the winning six, the champagne and tears of joy were flowing.
The long wait was finally over. India were world champions again after 28 years. For the younger generation of Indian cricket fans, it was an altogether new feeling as they flooded the streets of every town, city and village to celebrate one of the great moments of Indian sport. For once it appeared the nation was united.
Tendulkar, with his kids by his side, was carried aloft on the shoulders of his teammates on the victory lap around the ground as was coach Gary Kirsten in his last match in charge of the side.
“Sachin Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation on his shoulders for 21 years; it was time we carried him,” said Virat Kohli after his first World Cup.
There was no retirement announcement from Tendulkar and no one even cared to ask. No one wanted the night of celebrations to end either.
Gulu Ezekiel is a sports writer based in Delhi. This is an excerpt from his latest book Sachin: The Story of the World’s Greatest Batman (Penguin India, Rs499). The views expressed by the author are personal.