By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) - A deafening roar greeted Sachin Tendulkar on Thursday at his home ground as India's favourite son walked out to bat in his farewell test to a guard of honour from his opponents.
Tendulkar's 200th test match, against West Indies, at the Wankhede Stadium will also be his last, as the 'Little Master' brings the curtain down on a glittering 24-year career at the age of 40.
With his heavy bat -- sporting a grip in the colours of the national flag -- tucked under his arm, Tendulkar trotted out to bat at the fall of opener Murali Vijay, whose dismissal had sparked wild celebration among expectant fans in the stands.
"A billion hearts are beating at the moment," Tendulkar's childhood idol and former India captain Sunil Gavaskar said from the commentary box.
The stadium, filled to its 32,000 capacity, erupted in joy as he swept West Indies spinner Shane Shillingford for a single to get off the mark in his innings, which could be his last as the visitors were shot out for a paltry score while batting.
Tendulkar, who made his debut for India against Pakistan in Karachi in 1989 as a curly haired 16-year-old, has most batting records in his kitbag, and enjoys unmatched adulation in cricket-crazy India.
He has scored the most runs in tests and one-day international cricket and his 51 test centuries and 49 ODI hundreds are also records.
But 'The God of cricket', as fans call him in India, has not been in prime form for the last few years, with his last test century coming against South Africa in January 2011.
He showed little sign of rust, though, on Thursday as six vintage Tendulkar boundaries flowed from his bat, both off the front foot and the back.
His signature cover drives left fielders stranded while his last four of the day, a classic straight drive off West Indies captain Darren Sammy, sent the crowd into a frenzy.
He remained unbeaten on 38, ensuring he will shoulder the weight of expectation -- as he has done every time he has stepped on the field -- for at least one more time as fans will flock to the stadium expecting another big innings from him.
His wheelchair-bound mother Rajni, who has never before watched her son bat at a stadium, joined his first coach Ramakant Achrekar, figures from politics, sport, corporate India and Bollywood stars on Thursday to watch the master batsman in his cricketing swansong.
"I am really touched with #ThankYouSachin messages. Your support all these years have inspired me to give my best," Tendulkar said on Twitter on the eve of the match.
"I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for 24 years of support."
The match started in festive fashion with the government releasing two commemorative stamps, while local organisers used a specially minted coin to mark the occasion as Tendulkar led the team on to the ground.
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, with a grin on his face, said he would have to disappoint everyone present, or watching the game on the television, by opting to field first after winning the toss.
"We will be very fortunate if we get another Sachin," Dhoni added after flipping the coin, which had Tendulkar's image on one side, at the toss. "So it is important that we learn from the great man."
Dhoni also handed him a cap which had "200th Test" stitched on it while the whole Indian team wore a shirt which had "Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar 200th Test" embossed on it.
The sense of occasion resonated from every inch of the stadium; with the sentiment best summed up by one banner in the crowd which grappled with the spectre of the sport in India, post-Tendulkar.
"Now only humans will play cricket," it read.
(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)