Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar on Thursday bid farewell to his adoring public and basked in tributes from fellow players, politicians and fans as he took to the field for his final match.
The 40-year-old is ending an international career spanning nearly a quarter of a century during which he became the all-time leading Test and one-day batsman and the only man to score 100 international centuries.
The departure of the 'Little Master', who has almost god-like status in his cricket-mad home country, has been met with nationwide nostalgia for his sporting feats, achieved since his international debut in 1989.
Tendulkar, who led the team out onto the field on Thursday for his final match against the West Indies in his home city of Mumbai, said the last 20 years had been "marked by some of the most challenging, exhilarating, poignant and memorable moments of my life".
"The game has seen so much change over the last two decades – from advances in technology, new formats, yet the basic spirit and passion surrounding the game remains the same," he wrote in a front-page Hindustan Times piece.
Excitement ahead of the game has been building since he announced his intention to retire last month, with highlights of his innings and interviews looping on news channels.
"He's not just a cricketer. For me he's an ideal son, an ideal friend. The biggest thing about him is his humility," said fan Himanshu Kapadia, queueing for entry to the stadium with his two sons.
"It's a piece of history for me," he said of the farewell match.
Many fans have expressed disappointment that only 5 000 tickets went on sale for the general public despite the 32 000 seats in the Wankhede stadium, many of which are reserved for VIPs such as sponsors and cricket club members.
Such was the demand for tickets for the game against the West Indies that the main website selling them crashed within minutes of sales opening on Monday.
Footage broadcast on Indian television showed Tendulkar leading the team out to the pitch and the toss taking place with a specially minted coin bearing his image on one side.
"We will be very fortunate if we get another Sachin," Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said at the toss. "So it is important that we learn from the great man."
Since 16-year-old Tendulkar made his debut in Karachi in 1989, he has racked up an astonishing 15 847 runs in 199 Tests, helping India win the 2011 World Cup and reach the top of the world rankings.
On the eve of his final match, which extends his record for Test appearances to 200, he thanked his fans on Twitter "from the bottom of my heart for 24 years of support".
Tendulkar's wheelchair-bound mother Rajni is due to watch her son bat for the first time after a special ramp was built for her at the south Mumbai stadium, despite her previous fears that her presence at matches could bring him bad luck.
Along with Tendulkar murals, banners and billboards that have sprung up in the countdown, Mumbai's tattoo parlours have reportedly seen a spike in requests for designs of the sporting icon.
"Since it was for Sachin Sir, I hardly felt any pain," Rikin Dedhia told the Times of India after a smiling Tendulkar was etched on his upper arm.
Cricketing greats Brian Lara and Shane Warne have also flown in for the farewell game at Wankhede, where a huge security force has been deployed for the next five days.
"Sachin Tendulkar was the best batsman of my generation and it will be a privilege to be in Mumbai," wrote Australia's Warne, who is commentating on the match.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, on a visit to New Delhi, called him "absolutely an all-time great" and said he was an example and inspiration to cricket-lovers.
Father-of-two Tendulkar has tended to avoid the limelight off the pitch and has steered clear of controversies, earning a reputation for modesty and self-control.
Despite his glowing reputation, his cricketing powers have waned in recent years and some suggested that he should have retired earlier, with the latest of his 51 Test centuries back in January 2011 against South Africa.
The match is on-going. – AFP