NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sachin Tendulkar stood on the brink of batting immortality only to retreat, plunging a milestone-obsessed country into depression and triggering a debate on his vulnerability against the pressure of expectation.
Six runs shy of a record 100th international century, Tendulkar's usually impeccable shot selection deserted him on a placid pitch at his home Wankhede Stadium Friday.
The 32,000-seat venue sported a forlorn and empty expression on the first two days of the third West Indies test as the tourists piled up 590 runs, but the ground became more densely populated Thursday before it was packed to the brim Friday morning in anticipation of the milestone.
Tendulkar whetted the Mumbai faithful's appetite too, upper-cutting Fidel Edwards for a six to waltz into the 90s but the landmark century was to elude him yet again.
Paceman Ravi Rampaul banged in a short and wide delivery, hardly the deadliest ball Tendulkar has faced in his two-decade-plus career. Trying to punch it, Tendulkar opened the face of the blade and edged it into the welcoming hands of skipper Darren Sammy at second slip.
A short groan echoed around the stadium before being replaced by an eerie silence as Tendulkar hung his head, sighed and trudged back to the pavilion.
Many believe it was pressure, and not Rampaul, which accounted for the 38-year-old 'Little Master'.
After all, this was the second time he fell in the 90s since scoring his 99th international century in a 50-over World Cup match against South Africa in March.
Since then, Tendulkar has hit six half-centuries -- two in one-dayers and four in tests -- but has been unable to add to his 51 test and 48 one-day centuries.
Twice previously he came close but fell leg before on both occasions.
Tendulkar, who has scored more than 33,000 international runs since his 1989 debut in Pakistan, was nine short of the 100-mark in the Oval test in August when he tried to play across the line and was dismissed by Tim Bresnan.
In the second innings of the Delhi test against West Indies earlier this month, Tendulkar, batting fluently on 76, attempted a pull shot and was dismissed by a skidding Devendra Bishoo delivery that caught him plumb in front of wicket.
Six fifties in 16 innings since his 99th international century notwithstanding, there is a growing feeling that Tendulkar is finally showing signs of a pressure many thought he was immune to for a majority of his career.
Former team mate Sanjay Manjrekar wants Tendulkar, who has grown selective with his one-day international participation, to play and get the century in one of the five ODIs against West Indies before India travels to Australia.
"India wants Tendulkar relaxed and confident (in Australia). He should play the one dayers, get that monkey off his back and go to Australia with a free mind," Manjrekar told Neo Cricket channel.
"(Rahul) Dravid and Tendulkar will be key for India in those conditions against Australia."
India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni does not buy into the theory that the milestone has bogged down a batsman used to shouldering the expectation of a cricket-crazy country of 1.2 billion.
"If you are talking about the gentleman, the expectation has always been the size of Everest," Dhoni recently said in Delhi.
"Whatever he has done so far... right from the first two years of his career, he has been a star.
"If he comes onto the field and does not score 50, people think he has not scored. It's something he deals with each and every day.
"Any individual who comes close to any milestone... somehow it takes more time than usual. I think it's just round the corner. We just need to wait."
Tendulkar himself has dismissed the hype, terming his 100th international century as "just a number."
The fans, however, feel otherwise.
Many of them had no hesitation in praying, in vain, for India to follow-on against West Indies so that Tendulkar had another shot at the milestone on a batting paradise of a pitch.
Editing by John O'Brien