Nation mourns as its Little Master prepares for final innings
Ever shy of the limelight - this is a man who drives his beloved sports cars around Mumbai in the dead of night so he won't be recognised - and eternally a little old-fashioned (wearing ancient buckle-up pads well into the 21st century) it was apposite that Sachin Tendulkar announced his retirement from Test cricket by letter.
The greatest batsman of his generation and the closest thing India has to a living god, Tendulkar will play his final Test for India, his 200th, against the West Indies on his home ground in Mumbai next month.
To formalise his retirement, he called no press conference, tweeted no pithy goodbye. He wrote a letter to his employer, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, announcing his decision to step down.
"All my life, I have had a dream of playing cricket for India. I have been living this dream every day for the last 24 years. It's hard for me to imagine a life without playing cricket because it's all I have ever done since I was 11 years old," he wrote.
"It's been a huge honour to have represented my country and played all over the world. I look forward to playing my 200th Test match on home soil, as I call it a day."
It had long been speculated that a Test in Mumbai, Tendulkar's home, would be his final match for India.
And the day might have come sooner. Against the West Indies in November 2011, Tendulkar moved to 94, just six runs short of an unprecedented 100th international century. That milestone, on his home deck, would surely have seen him draw stumps.
The edge to second slip that followed likely gave the world another two years of Tendulkar at the crease. Ravi Rampaul will never take a wicket quite so crucial.
On Friday, India mourned and celebrated. While Tendulkar's last 18 months of cricket have been undistinguished by his lofty standards, it was the totality of his career that was being lionised.
News of his retirement was expected, but strangely unfathomable. Since 1989, longer than many Indians are old enough to remember, Tendulkar's name has been the one constant on the team sheet.
In the rural dhabas of Old India and in the open-plan offices of the New, the talk on Friday was of one man only, as it has so often been.
Teammates and opponents showered praise on the man regarded as India's greatest ever cricketer.
A man who has watched more batsmen more closely than most, former umpire Dickie Bird, told Indian television: "I saw Bradman play in 1948. Tendulkar is the nearest player I have seen to Bradman and would always be in my side at No. 4. I cannot pay him a higher compliment than that."
Much was made on Friday of Tendulkar's records: 198 Test matches, 15,000 Test runs, those 100 international 100s.
But he was defined almost as much by the passion with which his achievements were celebrated and his tribulations mourned.
To watch Tendulkar bat during in a Test in India was to hear a nation draw - and hold - its breath.
At a recent Test in Delhi, again on his inexorable pursuit of the 100th century, Tendulkar spent a sunny afternoon batting with his great friend Rahul Dravid - the latter, for a while, afforded the chance by two spinners and a low, slow wicket to wear a cap.
Tendulkar, famously a creature of habit, remained in full protective purdah.
As the Little Master crept through his teens and into his 20s, the ground began to fill, the city, as if by osmosis, learning that history might be made this day.
As patrons poured into the ground, anxious to see one man at work, the batsman obliged, quickening his pace as he approached a half-century.
Little of it could be said to be classic Tendulkar but, as the sense of occasion grew, flashes of his earlier brilliance shone through.
The cover drive, once a faithful servant then retired because it got him out too often, re-emerged, once, then twice in succession.
And there were the Sachin-isms, the wide-eyed stare to the sky to adjust to the light, the almost-ritualistic gear adjustment before he took strike, the bobbing knee bend as the bowler ran in.
Just as all in attendance were convinced today would be one of moment, it was over.
A rap on the pads, a raised finger, Tendulkar dismissed for 76.
The ground drained instantly, thousands heading for the exits without a second glance.
Cricket was their religion, but Sachin was their god.
Tendulkar hurried from the field, as if embarrassed by the attention.
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