The fall of an Indian wicket on home turf is generally greeted with a profound silence. A little past 3.30pm on Thursday afternoon, however, the packed crowd in the Wankhede Stadium here in his home city of Mumbai broke from that norm and erupted in ecstasy when Murali Vijay was dismissed.
That was not so much in celebration of Vijay’s fall as to herald the arrival at the crease of Sachin Tendulkar in his 200th and final Test. The stadium stood as one; the West Indian players lined up with India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara and umpires Nigel Llong and Richard Kettleborough to form a guard of honour.
Tendulkar acknowledged the reception with characteristic grace, but if the West Indians had hoped to catch him off guard during a time of great emotion, they were in for a nasty surprise.
For 82 minutes, from 3.33pm until stumps were drawn on this first day of this second Test, Tendulkar provided not even a hint of any inner turmoil. The feet moved with an assurance that has deserted him in recent times, the bat came down with splendid straightness and the body and mind seemed in perfect alignment as Tendulkar turned back the clock for perhaps one last exhibition of vintage batsmanship.
For a majority of a 73-ball stint that saw him swiftly reach 38 by stumps, spectators in the Sunil Gavaskar Pavilion and the Sachin Tendulkar Stand stayed on their feet, riding an emotional roller-coaster. Every delivery was an event in itself. The sense of anticipation as the bowler ran in, the sense of relief as much as delight when each ball was negotiated safely: it made for compelling viewing.
The match itself, as much as the series has been to date, was something of a sub-plot, with the exploits of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, the spin twins who helped dismiss West Indies for just 182 in their first innings, and the questionable shot selection of the visitors’ batsmen that contributed to their downfall, all relegated to the background.
Ashwin, playing his 18th Test, became the fastest Indian to 100 Test wickets while Ojha completed his sixth five-wicket haul to justify the captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s decision to field first.
Showing little of the character or responsibility that the visiting captain Darren Sammy had demanded of his side the previous day, West Indies keeled over for a total well below par given the conditions in Mumbai.
With Tendulkar in imperious touch and Pujara intelligent enough to play second fiddle to his illustrious partner, India closed on 157 for 2, primed to push on in their pursuit of a 2-0 series win.
Day two of this Test will begin much like the first one did – with all eyes on Tendulkar as he seeks the 115 more runs he needs to bring up 16,000 in Tests.
The 40-year-old had been presented with a brand-new cap to celebrate his 200th Test, and was given the honour of leading the team out on to the park at the start of play.
That the West Indian batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul became only the seventh player to feature in 150 Tests or more was comprehensively overshadowed by Tendulkar’s presence. Most cameras and nearly 25,000 pairs of eyes followed his every movement.
His time in the field was largely uneventful, though each time he touched the ball, the spectators cheered loudly.
As he carefully walked down the steps seconds after Vijay’s dismissal, the atmosphere inside the stadium transformed completely. The roars grew but so did the nervousness, anxiety and tension.
Tendulkar quickly calmed things. He got off the mark from his third delivery with a slog sweep off Shane Shillingford – the off-spinner who had earlier briefly rocked India with two wickets in three deliveries – and scored the first of his six fours off the same bowler from the 11th ball he faced, a crunch through point after drawing away to give himself some room.
Shillingford had first troubled and eventually accounted for Tendulkar in the previous Test in Kolkata, but this time around the Little Master was in complete control. It was as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, as if he was relieved that his time was almost up.
He batted with a freedom not seen for several months, unaffected by the occasion or the fact that for the first time, Rajni, his mother, was watching him from the grandstand.
Armed with a bat made especially for his final Test, with the grip and the maker’s name decorated in the colours of the Indian flag, Tendulkar produced some memorable moments. A trademark punch through straight mid-on drove the fans to raptures, and when Tino Best hurled a bouncer at him in the penultimate over, the bowler was greeted with good-natured boos.
On to day two then, with the promise of one final flourish from arguably the best batsman of his generation. Sport seldom throws up fairy-tale finishes, though Tendulkar has already done better than Sir Don Bradman, who was dismissed for a duck by Eric Hollies in his final Test.
If he can somehow script a hundred on Friday, it would be his 52nd. That was the number of matches the Australian legend played.
R Kaushik is deputy editor of Wisden India. www.wisdenindia.com