By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Cricket-crazy India will have a lump in the throat as its favourite son, Sachin Tendulkar, walks out for one last time this week to play the game he has dominated for nearly a quarter of a century.
The 'Little Master' will bring the curtain down on a glittering 24-year career at the age of 40 when he plays his 200th test match, against West Indies, at his home ground starting on Thursday.
Among the 32,000 present will be his wheelchair-bound mother Rajni, for whom Tendulkar has managed to get a ramp at Wankhede Stadium so she can watch her idolised son bat for the first time.
"Mother has never seen him play. This will be the first time. Also it will be a very emotional moment," his elder brother, Ajit, told an Indian Today group television programme.
For the last time, the superstitious Tendulkar will put on his left pad first, and walk out to bat in India's colours, having long secured his place among the game's greats.
"In terms of stats, you're going to have players with better stats (in the future), you never know," West Indies batting great Brian Lara said of the Indian.
"There are boxers who have a better record than Mohammad Ali but if you talk about boxing you've to mention Muhammad Ali, basketball you have to mention Michael Jordan. When you speak about cricket, you'll speak about Tendulkar."
Statistically the greatest batsman of all time, Tendulkar's greatness goes far beyond those numbers.
Despite overwhelming adulation from a country that has virtually deified him, Tendulkar has displayed the same composure at the crease in accumulating 100 international centuries as he has done off the field.
His self-discipline and controversy-free image have made him a role model for India's burgeoning youth, who are largely disillusioned with the politicians.
Since announcing his decision to retire from cricket, the country of 1.2 billion people has slipped into nostalgia about its biggest sporting icon.
Tendulkar's career has dominated the pages of national dailies with figures from politics, sport and the corporate world all contributing to the frenzy surrounding his final match.
The website selling the meagre 5,000 tickets available for the public to attend the test crashed within minutes of opening on Monday under what it called "unprecedented pressure", with 19.7 million hits in the first hour.
The frenzy was hardly a surprise given it will be the last chance to watch a player whose place in the batting pantheon is second only to Australian Don Bradman.
Bradman's test average of 99.94 is nearly 40 runs ahead of any of his nearest rivals to have played at least 20 matches.
All other major run-scoring records belong to Tendulkar, who made his debut for India against Pakistan in Karachi in 1989 as a curly-haired 16-year-old.
He has scored the most runs in tests and one-day cricket and his 51 test centuries and 49 ODI hundreds are also records.
Even Bradman once asked his wife Jessie to watch Tendulkar on television to confirm his own impression that the pair had similar styles.
Tendulkar probably shouldered a more difficult task in living up to the expectations of 1.2 billion cricket-crazy fans every time he walked out to bat.
"Sachin Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders," team mate Virat Kohli said after India's players completed a lap of honour with Tendulkar on their shoulders following their World Cup win at home in 2011.
'The God of cricket', as fans call him in India, has not been in prime form during the last few years with his last test century coming against South Africa in January 2011.
Some believe the master batsman has played on for too long and should have retired after the World Cup victory.
"If I was Sachin, I would have quit a year ago," Sourav Ganguly told NDTV in a chat show. "Last two-three years haven't been good for him and only because he is Sachin Tendulkar he has been given the run for three years.
"Nobody in world cricket or Indian cricket would have got that rope."
Tendulkar's farewell series has been marked by a nostalgia-laden celebration of his glittering career.
In the last fortnight, a ground in Mumbai has been named after him, his wax statue has been unveiled at Kolkata's Eden Gardens, singers have produced a music album and countless banners, murals and paintings of him have sprouted up across India.
The government is also planning to bestow India's highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, on him which would make him the first sportsman to achieve the honour.
"There used to be a hitch earlier when similar demands were made for Sachin to get the Bharat Ratna," central minister Rajeev Shukla said. "That being he was still playing and it will be difficult to award him the Ratna.
"But now that he will be retiring we will renew our demand."
* Due to an ongoing dispute between media organisations and the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Reuters is unable to provide full coverage of the India v West Indies test match.
(Editing by Ossian Shine)