The last stand

Sachin and us.

It dawns on me on Day 2 as the crowd strikes up the chant “Eh oh, eh oh, Dhoni is a madarchod”. This match isn’t about cricket at all. It isn’t even about Sachin Tendulkar, whose last outing this is after 24 years of playing the game. No, we in the crowd care only that we have come to watch Tendulkar play his 200th and final test match. Cricket and Tendulkar are only the theme of this particular amusement park, the bonfire around which we dance our savage dance.

On the morning of Day 1, team buses arrive at Wankhede from Marine Drive, escorted by armoured cars conspicuous in camouflage paint. Outside on the roads leading to the stadium gates are policemen at barricades, black-marketers of tickets, sellers of India flags and made-in-China noise-making contraptions, face-painters, and queues that snake on and on. A banner with a photograph of Tendulkar waving reads “If you love Sachin quit tobacco now. (Supported by Dollar Innerwear)”.

The gates are not open three hours before the start of play, as promised on the tickets, and people are being let in slowly in batches, presumably to avoid stampedes. The frisking at the entrance is at once cursory and authoritarian, the illusion of thoroughness achieved by divesting spectators of the most harmless things: an old man can’t take his newspaper in; people are asked to throw all the coins they have into a cardboard box; in another box is an assortments of combs, lip-balms and lipsticks, chewing gum, lotions; even my pen is taken (my notes from this match have to be painstakingly thumbed into my mobile phone). There’s some grumbling in the line at having missed the toss, but no one cares after we learn West Indies are batting.

Even while the West Indians bat, the only cheers are reserved for Tendulkar. There’s an almost constant base-line chant of his name that swells when he is shown on screen, and that erupts when he fields the ball or comes into play in any way.

The West Indian batsmen, almost sheepish for being in the way, hasten to get themselves out, and out come the Indian openers. The crowd doesn't particularly care for them either. Loud appeals go out from the stands every time a ball is missed or strikes the pads. When Murali Vijay is given out to bring Tendulkar to the crease, there is dancing and screaming and such celebrations as have surely never been seen before from an Indian crowd at the fall of an Indian wicket.

Tendulkar walks down the steps from the pavilion into a cauldron of sound. The West Indians line up to give him a guard of honour as he arrives at the pitch, and continue with four fielders close in as Shane Shillingford skips in to bowl. Tendulkar dabs the first ball to forward short-leg and carries on briskly from there. He bats with abandon, as if he were many years younger today. He's in form, and there’s a crowd going wild to his batting.

But along with the appreciation there’s a quality of self-obsession to the cheering, as if Tendulkar were only a projection of our need to cheer. Mexican waves repeatedly go out as Tendulkar takes strike. He’s always been finicky about movement behind the sight-screen, but there’s nothing he can do about these upheavals. At other times we are viciously, needlessly protective: Tino Best bounces a few at Tendulkar, glares, and there are en masse roars. The chant behind me: “Tino is a bastard.”


On the morning of Day 2, Tendulkar edges one to slip and is out. He turns back and begins striding to the pavilion, bat tucked under his left arm. This is the quietest the stadium will be at any point in the match, while it sinks in that we may just have seen him bat for the last time. Some stand still. Grown men wipe tears. Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary, the tri-colour body-painted, full-time fan of Tendulkar who’s become a mascot for Indian cricket, stands quietly hunched over a railing, a human flag at half-mast. A sober, grateful ovation breaks out, swelling as Tendulkar stops before he crosses the boundary rope, turns around, and raises his bat to the stadium. Soon after, a screen flashing text messages from the crowd reads, “Cricket is dead at 10.45 a.m. at Wankhede.” It could also be said that the vaunted spirit of cricket briefly escaped the madness of the match and came alive then.

Only to die again. “Declare, declare”, the crowd roars after Tendulkar is gone, but to no avail. They move on to encouraging the West Indies by striking up a chant: Out karo, out karo, jaldi jaldi out karo. Then, four demented syllables aimed at the new batsman: “Koh-li wick-et. Koh-li wick-et.” When Pujara has a close catch referred to the third umpire, a menacing beat: “Out, out, out, out”.

A young man sitting next to me stands up during a lull in the game and nearly deafens me by screaming “India all out” to the universe at large. The next morning, with less than half the allotted time of the match elapsed, the West Indies are close to an innings defeat. Dhoni is called madarchod because he hasn’t tossed Tendulkar the ball despite our entreaties. It would give everyone one last chance to go wild. Then Dhoni does. “Dhoni zindabad” becomes the new chorus.


All existence is shrunk to the stadium, the baying mortals on the periphery, cut off by fences from the deities in white playing their games in a pasture. To be allowed participation by threatening, cajoling, imploring, is to be justified, to be fulfilled in some way, a balm for one’s powerlessness. Even to call out the name of a player, or a former player who steps onto the field during breaks for commentary, and to receive a wave of acknowledgement is a joy. One of the happiest outcomes for a spectator has nothing to do with the game: it is to be shown on the large screens at the stadium, and for a moment to occupy the space occupied by the players.

It is to this end that much of the flag-waving, the banners, and the face-paint is directed. Right on Day 1, with the match just starting, a hyper-energetic young man begins to lead a section of the crowd behind me in cheering. They begin with the customary “Such-aaaiin, such-in, clap-clap-clap” and over an hour progress to increasingly desperate and improbable sloganeering: “Simon go back.” “Inquilab zindabad.” Then the leader, looking agitated, soaked in sweat, comes up to the bank of television cameras in front of me.

Bhaiyya,” he yodels to one of the camera operators in a voice that sounds like it’s been through a shredder, “hum yahan paseena baha rahe hai, chilla rahe hai, lekin aap camera apne taraf ghuma hi nahi rahe. (We are toiling, screaming, but you aren’t turning the camera towards us.)”

Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary has “Tendulkar” painted on his chest, an India-shaped tuft on his head, and for a decade has been travelling, often by bicycle, to wherever Tendulkar plays. Similarly bare-chested, painted and tufted, an imitator has Dhoni’s name on his chest. He sticks close to Chaudhary on the second level of the Sachin Tendulkar stand and appears on the screen every time Chaudhary does. And they’re always surrounded by a knot of people waiting to be on the large screen and TV.

One of them is a man with a fierce moustache that flares over his cheeks before joining his sideburns. He gets close to the duo and waits for the cameras, in-between ordering his wife to take photographs of him with a phablet. At one point, he creates a clearing a short distance away and tries to lead a few others in a chant accompanied by a manic jig, but this doesn’t take off, probably because the words are in Tamil.

I had run into him outside the stadium, where he told me he’d come from Chennai for the match. He paid ₹25,000 for the flight ticket because the planes were so full. “You may have seen me,” he said, a little hopefully, flicking his palm towards his face. I hadn't. He’s well-known in Chennai, apparently, since he's there for all the Chennai Super Kings matches. “I have come on TV many times,” he said. “I am not just anyone.” He handed me a visiting card with his mugshot on it.


Almost no one here is just anyone. Tickets are so scarce that the event is either for the well-off and connected, or the rich and influential. No one gets to be here only because they want to watch cricket or bid goodbye to Tendulkar.

The approximately 33,000 seating capacity of Wankhede is mostly taken up by quotas of one sort or the other. Tickets are earmarked for the Garware Club; the Tatas; the Hindu, Islam, Parsee, Catholic and Bombay gymkhanas; the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI); the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) and its over 300 affiliated clubs; sponsors, the municipal corporation, the police, the state government, and no doubt several other entities.

For this match, Tendulkar wanted 500 tickets. The MCA chose to sell 1,500 tickets at Rs. 10,000 each to people selected from applications. The tickets left for open sale were around 3,500. And these were released only four days before the Test, making it hard for outstation fans to make travel arrangements.

On November 10, four days before the Test, MCA joint secretaries P. V. Shetty and Nitin Dalal issued a statement saying tickets would be available from 11 a.m. the next day. “In keeping with MCA’s tradition of making access to international cricket as easy, safe and democratic as possible, we have made tickets available online,” they said. They named KyaZoonga as their ticketing conduit, stating that “their service delivery over the last several matches including the ICC CWC 2011 hosted by Mumbai make them the natural choice”. (In 2011, KyaZoonga’s website crashed due to heavy demand for tickets to the World Cup finals. A KyaZoonga employee was quoted as saying it would take a server farm the size of a football field to keep up with demand.)

The announcement appeared in newspapers only on the day tickets were to be sold. That football-field-sized server was evidently not yet in place; several reports claimed the site had crashed (though a KyaZoonga functionary denied this, claiming that the website was just incredibly slow as a result of receiving 19 million hits within hours).

Over the next few days, there were reports of a retired MCA official and people associated with several gymkhanas and clubs being arrested for channelling tickets to the black market.

My own ticketing strategy was to piggyback on my friend Nattu. No one I know goes to greater lengths to watch cricket than him. When we were in college, he once rushed back to the hostel from an exam after attempting exactly 35 marks because India was batting. (He failed and India had collapsed by the time he returned.)

His father, an equally fervid fan, stormed into a lab when Nattu’s twelfth standard practical exams were going on, told the examiner there was an emergency at home, and rushed off on a scooter with Nattu riding pillion because Tendulkar was opening the batting for the first time. Last year, Nattu flew to Australia by himself for five days to watch the Boxing Day test match. If anyone was going to make it to Wankhede it was Nattu, and along with him, I.

Our quest for tickets became a hunt for the right contact. Calls were made to people who might know people who might know people. At one point, a playing member of the Indian team was contacted on our behalf while the first Test was in progress to ask if he could organise two tickets. (No.) Finally, a chain of contacts reached someone high up in a television channel who could assure us of tickets at ₹7,000 a booklet (which would have cost ₹2,500 if bought on KyaZoonga, on whose website Nattu spent all of November 11 without getting through).

Then, a minor disaster. Someone even higher up wanted tickets for the first day, and those were torn out of the booklets promised to us. We land in Mumbai without tickets for the first day.  We manage one ticket from a friend, but we need another.

We rise at 5.30 a.m. and make our way to the stadium from the suburbs, Nattu asking anyone who looks like they’re going to the match, “Boss, extra ticket hai kya?” One man in a white hat and sunglasses says he doesn’t, and that even his ticket is with someone else. One of a group of boys in the local train says, “Ticket hota toh college kyon ja rahe hote? (Why would we be going to college if we had a ticket?)” The culmination of a frenzied scarcity: on the first morning of the Test, the most precious commodity in Mumbai seems to be a ticket.

Then, outside the stadium, there’s an absolute glut of extra tickets. People with worried faces almost beg you to buy from them. One of them is the man from Chennai with the flamboyant moustache, whose wife can’t make it for Day 1. He has the MCA-conferred ₹10,000 tickets. He’s not here as a black marketer, but he can't resist: I ask how much, and he says, “I’ll have to charge more than what I paid, obviously.”

This conversation happens right next to a policeman, who just looks bored. People seem to have bought tickets simply because they have the contacts. And presumably, most with the right contacts wouldn’t have the time for a five-day Test match, so tickets have been passed on or resold. A paanwaala outside one of the gates is selling tickets along with cigarettes. Nattu bumps into someone by mistake in the throng, apologises, and then asks if he has any extra tickets. He does, for multiple stands. Nattu has no trouble buying one in the same stand as me. He pays ₹2,000 for the day.


The last time Nattu and I had to put in some effort to watch cricket was long ago, when we were in college together. The television in our hostels had been taken away, and there was a one-dayer being played in Sharjah between India and Australia. We had scaled a ten-foot wall, gone outside the campus to find a TV, and ended up in a  chaiwalla’s one-room house. The room was packed and in the dark you couldn’t tell who was from the neighbourhood around us, and who wasn't.

For a brief while, as Tendulkar won a battle against Warne and demolished Australia, everyone in that room shared the same soaring exultation, a respite from whatever context we had left behind to enter that magic room. Who knows in front of how many millions of television sets similar scenes were played out across the country, and over 24 years of Tendulkar playing for India. I do know that very few from that room could think of being at Wankhede if they wanted to bid goodbye to Tendulkar.

Inside the stadium, after all the drama about the tickets, the stands are at most half-full: so many empty seats that there’s a choice of seating. We station ourselves right behind the bank of cameras, a spot that calls for constant bending and shifting and peeking to get a clear view, but what a view it is, good enough to help the batsman take guard. The sun is merciless on our side. The only ones spared entirely are sitting in an air-conditioned corporate box: a glass house full of somnolent executives virtually indistinguishable from waxworks. So stark is the contrast from the mêlée outside that some of the outsiders walk up to the box and take cell-phone pictures of the executives as if they’re in a cage at a zoo.


On Day 2, with Tendulkar playing overnight, there are many more spectators and the stadium fills to perhaps 80 per cent of capacity. Two men in their thirties show up and tell us we’re sitting in their seats, and a third is on his way. We move around a little to accommodate them. “How did you get tickets?” I ask one of them. “Our friend works in the BCCI. He said these are the best seats in the house. But he didn't tell us about this shit,” pointing at the cameras and their sheltering shamiana.

 Almost everyone who’s managed to get in has clambered over others in ways implicit or explicit: by offering more money to someone, tearing out tickets from booklets promised to others. And if we’ve come here to watch Tendulkar at such expense and effort, we are entitled to ask batsmen to get out to pave the way, or abuse a captain who refuses to toss him the ball. We’ve beaten others who wanted to be here and the same  aggression is easy to see in all that surrounds the match. A strange combo of genuine emotion and crafty self-interest pervades the affair from top to bottom.

The BCCI curtailed a series with South Africa and invited this West Indian side for a hastily conceived series. It is hard to believe that this had nothing to do with ensuring Tendulkar played his last match on home ground. Admirable in a sense, but also a little bossy as the BCCI is wont to be. It couldn’t have been pure sentimentality: they could not have been blind to the commercial interests represented by a game around which such media frenzy was being whipped up. After all, television rights are everything.

(And a lot of the game seems set up for television. The “best seats in the house” are blocked by cameras; the Star Sports logos near the top of a bowler’s run up at either end of the pitch appear weirdly stretched from anywhere in the stadium except the straight-on TV camera’s perspective. The breaks are given over to television: suited ex-players and camera crews prowl the sidelines as sessions come to an end so they can quickly take position in front of silver reflectors; they walk out to practice pitches to provide expert demonstrations [with Rahul Dravid carrying his jacket out on a hanger]. Sidhu, conspicuous from a distance in a purple turban, bloviates animatedly, and then when the shot is called, relaxes and exchanges a high-five with V. V. S Laxman. And the award ceremony, of course, is entirely driven by television.)

The celebrities who turn up: surely there’s an element of wanting to be seen at the carnival, of getting a share of the biggest media event in town? There must have been consultations between managers, publicists and producers before Aamir Khan entered the commentary box? Some behind-the-scenes coordination before Yuvraj Singh in jeans and a T-shirt can walk along the boundary, waving to the crowd? Something beyond interest in cricket for Rahul Gandhi to turn up, not in the MCA enclosure with all the politicians, actors and industrialists, but in the stands with the public? We’ve all had to make arrangements to be here.

The spectators are a captive market. Food and water from outside are not allowed, nor can we leave the stadium once we have entered. A litre of water goes for ₹50; a small paper cup for ₹10. A half-litre glass of Pepsi is ₹50. Ice-candy with an MRP of ₹15 is Rs. 50. Samosas for ₹50, Subway for ₹180, and a small Domino’s pizza for ₹220.

 On Day 2, vendors hike rates after realising that the match won't last much longer. “ ₹60,” says a guy with a tray of Pepsis wearing a shirt with “ ₹50” printed on it. Nattu is incensed. “Kyon? Tumhare shirt pe pachas likha hai. (Why? It says 50 on your shirt.)” He’s unfazed. “Aapke ticket pe kitna likha hai? (What does it say on your ticket?)” he asks.

Which is as good a way as any to make his point; no one here should even pretend to take the high moral ground. But to be literal-minded about his question: there actually is no denomination written on the ticket. The tickets seem to be designed for the black market.


Then, Tendulkar gets out on Day 2. The guys next to us with the BCCI contacts generously tell us that they won’t be needing the third seat. Their friend won’t show up now that Tendulkar is out. They too vanish soon after. The rightful occupants of the best seats in the house turned up for only a little over an hour of the entire Test (and even during that time were engrossed in a discussion about office politics).

In front of us, two of the cameramen wearing T-shirts with BCCI emblems half-joke that it’s time to prepare their resumés since cricket viewership will drop post-Tendulkar.

In the lunch break, I stroll over to the landing that connects the entrances to the stands. A vendor is sitting distraught on the floor with a huge carton full of samosas in front of him. “Bhaiyya, aaj to hum chud gaye (today I'm fucked),” he says, wild-eyed, to an ice-candy seller. “Subah woh khel raha tha to koi kha nahin raha tha. Phir out ho gaya to sab chale gaye. (No one was eating in the morning because he was playing. Then he got out and they all left.)”

The ice-cream seller is a chatty fellow who, with business having slowed down, gets talking and says he works for the MCA as one of the people who lay boundary ropes. He’s taken on the ice-cream gig for extra money because some of his friends managed to win a contract for a food stall in the stadium (there are obviously wheels within wheels here). He nods to the samosa vendor in commiseration. “Lunch tak khelta to achcha hota. (It would have been good if he played till lunch).”

From a window in the outer shell of the stadium we can see a dense river of people making their way out towards Marine Drive. Putting journalistic self-interest first, I prompt a quote by shamelessly pointing out the obvious: “Arre,” I say, “everyone is leaving.”

He obliges by jerking his head sideward in dismissal. “Public ka koi bharosa nahin. Kabhi bhi palti marega. (You can't trust the public. They'll flip any time.)”


That ever-flippable public’s burden of expectation rested on Tendulkar for all the years he played, as it did in this last innings. He did not disappoint in either. Over the years his game has changed; some shots have been retired, some taken up. The gravity at the crease has increased fractionally: he falls away from cuts just a little heavier. But this, his last innings, finds him younger, more spry, batting with freedom. His range of shots is on display: cuts, sweeps, a leg-glide, cover drives, straight drives, attempted upper-cuts. He is beautiful in defence.

The West Indies get out quickly to hand India a win on the morning of Day 3. Tendulkar moves to the pitch, picks up a stump, hugs his teammates. They shuffle sideward on either side, escorting him to the pavilion in a rolling guard of honour. He wipes tears as he leaves the field. He’s not alone. Moist eyes are the norm around here.

Beside me, Nattu holds his head in his hands and weeps. It’s a bereavement. Those tears are for the impermanence of something we have come to take for granted. We’ll never see Tendulkar bat again. Or, for that matter, escort young fast bowlers to the top of their run-up; or execute that quick bandy-legged adjustment of the crotch guard; or scowl behind the helmet while checking out the field; or see those rounded pads barrelling down the wicket for a quick single.

A commonly worn T-shirt at the match reads “Cricket is my religion, and Sachin is my God”. Maybe it’s the usual hysteria over our public figures; maybe it’s an unknowing desperate search for the sacred in such corners as it might still exist. There were two straight-drives in Tendulkar’s last innings that brought the raucous pockets of spectators together to their feet in involuntary awe. Those were as sacred as anything could be.

There’s also something oddly flawed about the fact that such sublimity had to coexist with the most banal covetousness: the scratching around when close to batting landmarks; the matter of that Ferrari; that gym. The tendency is one all of us recognise within us, around us. Maybe we do not create gods unless they are at least partly in our own image.

To have some of the adulation rub off on them one last time at the awards ceremony is a row of administrators, politicians and businessmen, some of them an amalgamation of all three, as inglorious an array of the powerful as can be lined up. As if suddenly united by a higher truth, the public boos them all (except the police commissioner) as they are introduced.

Then Tendulkar takes up the microphone and there is such a prolonged bout of screams, claps, and thumping of bottles that he has to ask the crowd to stop and let him talk lest he become any more emotional. It’s a touching speech of acknowledgement. He’s then carried on his teammates’ shoulders around the stadium in the middle of a scrum of about a couple of hundred people—policemen, friends, family, the rest of the team, officials, cameramen—led by Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary furiously waving an India flag. Before he leaves the field Tendulkar separates from the entourage, walks to the pitch one last time, alone as he always has, and pays obeisance.

As we leave the stadium, there is still a group of people, now silent, standing on the level above us. They have a poster hanging over the Fair & Lovely Facewash for Men hoarding that reads: “28 castes. 1,618 languages. 6,400 castes. One God”.

The world is compromised and messy; for many it is oppressive. So was this stadium, a grotesque mirror of that world. We raged, shouted, wept, roared. Among us were monsters with blue curls, painted faces, hoarse voices. Primal rhythms were being banged out with over-priced plastic bottles. Flags were being whipped about. The wheels of commerce turned furiously around us. The sun bore down upon us; the thundrous babble of chants never let up. And while he batted he was there, waiting for each ball hurled at him: for that moment compact, silent, poised at the centre of an insane swirl, saving himself and all of us from ourselves.