MUMBAI — Just before 4 p.m. Thursday, work paused here in India’s humming financial capital. Power flickered in small villages as hundreds of thousands watched TV. Streets lay deserted.
All over the country, millions of cricket-crazy Indians stopped what they were doing to watch a diminutive, curly-haired man — one of the best batsmen ever to play the game, or so they say — take the field for the last time.
This week, Sachin Tendulkar is playing his final match for India, retiring after an extraordinarily long 24-year career that began in 1989, when he was only 16. He is now 40. In the intervening years, the quiet son of a novelist set record after record and brought home the World Cup for India in 2011, a moment he calls the highlight of his career.
He is now one of the world’s richest athletes — ranked 51st on the Forbes list of the highest-paid, ahead of Serena Williams and Gilbert Arenas — with $22 million in earnings. But more important, the polite family man invariably described as “humble” has become an Indian national treasure. In a country that has earned only 26 Olympic medals — all at the Summer Games — and where chess is covered in sports pages, there is only one sport that truly matters, and only one icon: Sachin.
The T-shirts say it all: “Cricket is my religion, and Sachin is my god.”
“He’s everything to India,” said Amit Karkhanis, 32, an insurance claims processor, on his way into Mumbai’s cavernous Wankhede cricket stadium Thursday. “He’s like the Michael Jordan of cricket, if you can say that. Actually, he’s the Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal of cricket combined.”
Later that afternoon, Tendulkar strode onto the field in his home town, swinging his bat, before a crowd that included Bollywood stars, corporate titans and his mother, who had never seen him play live before. As he took his place on the pitch, the sellout crowd roared his name — and wept.
India was a far different place when Tendulkar first took the field for his country in a match against Pakistan in November 1989. Since then, India has had nine prime ministers and seven general elections, and it has put in place economic reforms that spurred rapid growth — recently slowed.
“In a very literal sense, his career has spanned the enormous changes in the last two decades in India,” said James Astill, author of “The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India.”
Meanwhile, cricket has changed, too. The game dates in India to the time of the British Raj and was for decades dominated by the elite from Bombay, now Mumbai. During Tendulkar’s tenure, Indian cricket became far more democratic, Astill says, with the country’s growing affluence and widening TV viewership bringing in new fans. When Tendulkar began playing, about 30 million Indian households had TV sets, Astill notes; now, 160 million do. At the same time, the game’s governing board and professional league became far richer — and corrupt, hit by a string of match-fixing scandals. Tendulkar, however, remained untarnished.
“Cricket is one of the most conspicuous indicators of India’s new wealth and confidence, and Sachin is the most successful Indian cricketer of all time, so he’s almost a symbol of the new India, you might say,” Astill said.
In the mid-1990s, Tendulkar garnered a $7.5 million endorsement deal, unheard-of at the time. Even today, with his career ending, he still has a $1.2 million-per-year deal with Coca-Cola, which Forbes notes is far more than the annual salary of many other cricketers.
Over the years, Indians have forged such a personal connection to Tendulkar that many can remember where they were when they witnessed his career milestones.
There was his debut as a youngster against Pakistan, when he was hit by a ball but played on with a bloody nose, said Sushila Iyer, 58, a housewife from Mumbai.
There was the time he became the first to score 100 centuries (a century equals 100 runs) in international matches; the time he played in a World Cup game the day after his father’s funeral, crying behind dark glasses; and the time he helped India win the World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
“He’s one of those people who have achieved excellence and pushed the pedestal of sport to another level,” said Boria Majumdar, a cricket historian who is working on a book with Tendulkar. “But he did it with 1.2 billion people breathing down his neck, 24-7, 365 days a year.”
Through the years, Tendulkar managed the pressure thrust upon him by his compatriots with relative grace. He rarely says much and, unlike other sports stars, doesn’t provoke scandalous headlines. He married a pediatrician five years his elder and had two children. The family lives quietly in a palatial bungalow not far from the middle-class neighborhood where he grew up.
Early Thursday, the line outside the cricket ground stretched for several blocks. The fans shouted and cheered and waved pricey, hard-won tickets. They paid for street painters to brush orange, white and green on their faces, the colors of India’s flag. Some had traveled from as far away as England and the United States to see the “God of Cricket” play one last time. On Friday, India had a final look at Tendulkar on the field. After two days of batting, he departed, ending with 74 runs for the match against the West Indies.
Many of the fans who came to Wankhede stadium this week are in their 20s and cannot remember when Sachin wasn’t playing for India — so they anticipate an empty feeling when they switch on a cricket telecast in the coming months. Neighborhood watch parties will be no more. Some said they were swearing off cricket altogether.
“My childhood is getting over in the next five days,” said Neeraj Jain, an investment banker from Mumbai whose 25 years essentially span Tendulkar’s cricket career. “You can’t process all the emotions coming through. I only see matches to watch him play. I don’t know if I will watch cricket after this.”
As for Tendulkar himself, he seems to have enjoyed the waves of accolades he has inspired since he announced his retirement Oct. 10. They wanted to give him an honorary dinner in the eastern city of Kolkata, and he declined, but someone made a wax statue of him anyway. Gold coins have been minted in his honor, stamps created, songs written, “Salaam Sachin” billboards plastered everywhere.
There is speculation that he might be interested in politics next — he’s already been named a member of India’s Rajya Sabha, something like Britain’s House of Lords. He has said that he wants to travel with his family. His fans hope he’ll come back to the national pastime as a commentator or coach, but he hasn’t said anything.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” said Majumdar, just before Thursday’s match began. “He’s got five days of cricket left. He wants to love every moment.”
Cricket writers who covered a team practice earlier in the week reported that Tendulkar seemed a bit wistful when batting practice was over. After he climbed the stairs to the dressing room, one reporter wrote in Mumbai’s DNA newspaper, he turned back to look over the wide expanse of the green field one last time.
Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.