Sachin Tendulkar has made cricket history and won any number of prestigious awards, but now the nation is debating if its greatest cricketer should retire from the game.
Cricket is Bollywood's top competitor for India's biggest passion. Like scripts of hit Hindi movies, the game is also personalised as the saga of a few top heroes. Recently, the popular "master blaster" of cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, secured his place in Indian lore as the first batsman in cricketing history to score 100 centuries in international competition.
Tendulkar, who turns 39 next month, reached the unprecedented milestone March 16th in an Asia Cup match against Bangladesh at the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka.
"It was a moment the entire country was waiting for," leading cricket commentator Arun Lal told Khabar South Asia. "It seems one billion Indians had linked their personal happiness to Sachin achieving this landmark. The outburst of joy was all the more pronounced because a whole year and four days had lapsed between his 99th and 100th tons."
A native of Mumbai--the city that has bred more cricketing legends than any other in India -- Tendulkar has been paid tributes over the past few days by the Parliament and all 28 state legislatures. Meira Kumar, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, said, "This exceptional accomplishment is a matter of national pride and is a source of inspiration for budding cricketers throughout the cricket-playing nations."
Legislators in his home state of Maharashtra also paid rich tributes to the champion. The diminutive, self-effacing, stocky batsman has already been honoured by the government with the highest sporting award, the Khel Ratna, as well as other civilian awards during his 24-year career like the Arjuna, Padmashiri and Padmavibhushan.
Dilip Walse Patil, Speaker of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, demanded that India's highest recognition, the Bharat Ratna, be bestowed on Sachin. If the government agrees, he will be the first sportsman to be declared "Gem of India".
But where does Sachin go after this? His fans are divided over the issue of retirement. The matter gained sharp focus when another great, Rahul Dravid, announced his goodbye from the game on March 9th.
The buzz persisted even after the big day in Dhaka. According to Lal, "Many Indians who are diehard crazy over Sachin believe it would be better for him to walk into the sunset while he is at the top rather than make himself a liability when he is no longer in peak form."
But Sachin is unfazed. Last week, he told reporters at a press conference shortly after India's elimination from the Asia Cup, "When you are at the top, you should serve the nation. When I feel I am not in a frame of mind to contribute to the nation, that's when I should retire, not when somebody says. That's a selfish statement that one should retire on top."
At 14, Sachin made world headlines for scoring 326 runs in an inter-school cricket match for the Harris Shield in Mumbai. He has been a mainstay in the national side since making his debut against Pakistan in Karachi in 1989. The man named the second-best greatest batsman ever by Wisden, England's leading cricket evaluator, dominates the record books. He has scored over 15,000 runs in Test cricket and more than 18,000 in the one-day game.
Demands that he bat on comes from Indians high and low. India's leading popular singer – and fellow Mumbaikar – Lata Mangeshkar wrapped it up eloquently in a statement on March 19th: "If Sachin steps down now, I fear I may lose my voice."