New Delhi: Sachin Tendulkar, possessor of every one-day batting record worth holding, carries an unparalleled weight of expectation over the course of the next two months.
Even the incomparable Australian Don Bradman, whose feats at the crease during the Great Depression sustained an emerging nation`s morale, did not endure the pressure Tendulkar will confront at the 10th World Cup opening in Dhaka on Feb. 19.
According to the historian Ramachandra Guha, Tendulkar is the best-known Indian alive with a status equivalent to a Hindu god or a Bollywood film star. When he faced the former Pakistan opening bowler Wasim Akram the television audience in India exceeded the entire population of Europe.
"Batsmen walk out into the middle alone," wrote the Indian poet and critic C.P. Surendran. "Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena."
"A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit their visored saviour."
Tendulkar scored his 51st test century this year after a duel with South African fast bowler Dale Steyn recalling Bradman`s jousts with England`s Harold Larwood in the 1932-33 Bodyline series.
Three more one-day hundreds in the World Cup climaxing in his native Mumbai on April 2 would make him the only batsman to total 100 centuries over both forms of the game, a landmark which like Bradman`s test average of 99.94 would probably last forever.
"I still want to achieve something and everyone knows that," Tendulkar, 37, said last month at a ceremony to celebrate India`s number one spot in the world test rankings.
Fourteen teams have been divided into two groups for the tournament, co-hosted by India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with the top four from each division advancing to the quarter-finals. The first round follows a week of warmup matches, further extending an already overlong competition, and on paper looks soporifically predictable.
In Group A, defending champions Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka would have to seriously under-perform to miss qualifying ahead of Zimbabwe, Canada and Kenya.
Group B holds marginally more interest. Bangladesh barely hold their own in test cricket but they can be a force in the one-day game, especially on their own pitches as a 4-0 drubbing of New Zealand late last year testified.
With a host of slow, naggingly accurate bowlers on sluggish pitches, Bangladesh could well qualify at the expense of West Indies in a group including India, England, South Africa, Ireland and the Netherlands.
The explosion in the one-day game in India, which made the country the richest and most powerful nation in world cricket, followed their upset win over West Indies in the 1983 final under the inspired captaincy of all-rounder Kapil Dev.
At subsequent World Cups they have not played to their potential, reaching only one other final when they were demolished by an outstanding Australian side in 2003.
To exploit home advantage, India have packed their side with full- and part-time spinners in the knowledge that when the knockout stages eventually get away in late March temperatures will be soaring and the pitches will deteriorate faster.
The other leading contenders have reached the same conclusion with even South Africa, who have historically viewed spin bowling with deep suspicion, naming three slow bowlers.
South Africa possess a modern-day master in all-rounder Jacques Kallis, whose averages stand comparison with those of Garfield Sobers. They will again field a confident, aggressive side but have consistently failed to convert potential into performance at the World Cup.
Australia, emphatic champions in the last three tournaments, were trounced by England in the Ashes but won the subsequent one-day series with Shane Watson batting with muscular authority at the top of the order and a revitalised Brett Lee bowling at express pace.
For their part, England have enjoyed a wonderful 12 months, starting with their first major one-day title in the Caribbean last year when they won the Twenty20 World Cup. The 50-overs World Cup is the next target en route to their goal of becoming world number one in both test and one-day cricket.
Pakistan remain possibly the most talented but certainly the most unpredictable team in world cricket and if anybody is to deny India it may be another of the sub-continental sides.
Muttiah Muralitharan, the highest wicket-taker in both test and one-day cricket, will play domestic cricket only after the tournament.
Before then he will strain every sinew in his elastic right arm to help Sri Lanka, who demonstrated strength in depth in their one-day series triumph over Australia before the Ashes, to emulate their 1996 World Cup victory.
"This World Cup will be my last outing," Muralitharan, 38, said. "My time is up. This is my fourth World Cup."
"We won in 1996 and came close in 2007 by reaching the final. This would be a memorable one for me and for Sri Lankan fans."