MUMBAI - At 7.45am outside Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, the smog just lifting off the sea, an old Indian cricket scene unfolds. Crowds mill, policemen frisk, cameramen film. It has been over a decade since I covered a cricket Test match in India and it is amusingly chaotic and strangely familiar.
Cricket for the next five days, as it was once in the 1990s, is not about duelling teams. It is about waiting to see Sachin Tendulkar bat. But there is a difference. Once, when he walked to the middle, his nation felt the giddiness of hope and excitement. Now, as India waits for Tendulkar, 40, to bat in his final Test match, they are wrapped in gratitude and sorrow.
Outside, a man photographs a hoarding with Tendulkar on it. Everywhere, like a whisper, Tendulkar's name filters down the line. In the queue, I run into a cricket fan and blogger who I am in email contact with. Subash Jayaraman is an ultrasonic engineer who lives in the United States. This Test wasn't on his agenda till Tendulkar decided to retire and so leave was arranged, a flight booked from America and he arrived in India without a match ticket. He called people, he asked, he kept faith. He is in the ground as I write.
All across the top of the stadium, like a ring of honour, are 51 posters, each noting the Test centuries Tendulkar has scored. Proportion, of any sort, has long been abandoned. From giant laddoos (an Indian sweet) to massive posters, he is his city's obsession and his nation's fascination. Television is gushing "a billion thank yous" and former cricketers are garlanding him with praise. Not a Tendulkar flaw is to be seen or spoken of. Like obituaries, no one has the heart to spoil this story, though it might make it more real. It is much easier to say he is greater than Australia's Donald Bradman, even though it is untrue. It is over the top and yet it is sweet.
The coolest man in the place, or so it seems and so it always was, appears to be Tendulkar himself. On Wednesday, after practice, in the middle of the cricket field, he was mobbed. He took two steps, and a ballboy asked for a shirt to be signed. He took two steps and another ballboy asked for a photograph. Then the media wanted a picture with him. Then the photographers wanted one. He was surrounded, pushed, smothered, but he did not raise his voice or push back or rush. It suggested a champion's low and steady heart rate.
There have been Tendulkar symposiums, Tendulkar debates and Tendulkar discussions. On Tuesday evening I was at one where Rahul Dravid, his long-time team-mate, was interrogated on Tendulkar's genius as a group of attentive and suited businessmen got their Tendulkar fix.
Dravid himself, after all these years, seemed bewildered by his colleague's hunger. Everywhere, Dravid said, whether in his room, or at lunch, or in the dressing room, Tendulkar was always thinking: How am I going to score more runs? In Tests itself, Tendulkar has 15,847. They would be enough for any man, but he has never been any other man. Even now, he will want more.
It is lunch at the cricket and the stadium is just over half-full. The West Indies is batting, Tendulkar walks the field, film star Aamir Khan is in the commentary box. The crowd hasn't found its voice yet, but every now and then they call his name. Some out of habit. Some in mourning. Some in celebration. But most because they just want to see him bat.