By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Sachin Tendulkar struggled to hold back the tears as he soaked up the unconditional veneration of an Indian crowd for the last time when the sun set on the master batsman's glittering 24-year career on Saturday.
After his side completed the formalities of an easy victory over West Indies, Tendulkar collected a stump as a memento and slowly made his way through a mobile guard of honor formed by his team mates, head bowed and struggling to hide his emotions.
As television coverage broadcast images of a huge banner in the stands proclaiming "Legends Never Retire", the 40-year-old Tendulkar shook hands with opposing players and staff before climbing the stairs leading to the dressing room.
Tendulkar later returned with his wife Anjali, daughter Sara and son Arjun to make a moving and humble farewell speech at the presentation ceremony before completing a lap of honor on the shoulders of his team mates.
"All my friends settle down, let me talk. I will get more and more emotional," he said, his voice almost drowned by chants of "Sachin, Sachin" reverberating around his hometown Wankhede Stadium.
"It's getting little difficult to talk but I'll manage."
A solemn Tendulkar spoke for more than 20 minutes as the 32,000-strong crowd listened intently with hands folded as if in prayer and eyes moist with tears.
A day after the anniversary of his international debut against Pakistan in Karachi in 1989 as a mop-haired 16-year-old, Tendulkar finished his career as the sport's most prolific international run-scorer.
He leaves the game after playing more test matches (200), scoring the most test (15,921) and one-day international (18,426) runs, and compiling more test (51) and one-day (49) hundreds than any other player in cricket history.
"My life's been 22 yards for 24 years. It's hard to believe that wonderful journey is coming to an end," he said, going on to thank his family, friends and all the people associated with his career.
A perfect role model for the country's youth and the sport worldwide with his impeccable image on and off the field, Tendulkar offered a rare glimpse into his fiercely private family life through the speech.
"The most beautiful thing happened to me in 1990 when I met my wife Anjali," Tendulkar said, addressing his wife as she wept uncontrollably. "I know Anjali being a doctor, there was a wonderful career in front of her.
"When we decided to have a family, Anjali took the initiative to step back and say that 'you continue with your cricket and I will take responsibility of the family'.
"Without that, I don't think I would have been able to play cricket freely and without any stress.
"You are the best partnership I've had in my life."
Such was India's dominance that Tendulkar was only required to bat once in his final test, scoring a stylish 74, but he did get to bowl a couple of overs on Saturday to at least play an active role in his last day of duty.
Responding to chants of "We want Sachin, We want Sachin" from the packed stadium, India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni tossed the ball to Tendulkar, who delighted his home fans with a brief bowling cameo in his 200th test match.
A crowd-pleasing wicket was not forthcoming but he did show off a full repertoire of deliveries, offering leg-spin, off-spin and an immaculate googly which tail-ender Shane Shillingford somehow fended away.
The regular bowlers returned to finish off a match that will be largely forgotten as a contest but remembered as a fitting farewell for a man who may be small in stature but cast a giant shadow of greatness over cricket in India and beyond.
Tendulkar said he had a simple message for his team mates and all those aspiring to represent the country when Dhoni presented him with the special cap to mark his farewell.
"I feel all of us are so fortunate and proud to be part of the Indian cricket team, serving the nation," Tendulkar added, seeking to pass the baton on to the next generation.
"I know you will continue to serve the nation in the right spirit, the right values.
"Each generation gets this opportunity to merely take care of this sport and serve it to the best of our ability."
In a fitting and final tribute, Tendulkar returned to the 22-yard strip of land that has defined his life and career to perform a 'Dandavata', an Indian form of respect requiring one to bow the forehead and stoop to touch the ground.
* Due to an ongoing dispute between media organizations 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 John O'Brien)