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The world’s greatest athlete will take his final bow this month…

…and more than a billion people will stop everything to watch.

Sachin tendulkar retiring cricketEnlarge
Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar plays a shot during the third Test cricket match between India and West Indies on November 24, 2011. (PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI, India — In the strata of intergalactic star power, few athletes can outshine Michael Jordan.

Sachin Tendulkar may very well be one of them.

That’s right: Sachin Tendulkar. Never heard of him? He’s probably the greatest cricketer ever.

For billions of people outside the US, he overshadows Jordan, Tom Brady, Pele and Wayne Gretsky. Combined.

In his native India, it’s almost impossible to exaggerate just how much Sachin Tendulkar means to people.

This month, he’s playing his last match ever, before retiring.

And the world — or at least a significant part of it — is coming to a standstill to mark that moment.

Bollywood stars are changing their schedules to watch the 40-year-old cricketer’s final game. Newspapers have argued he should be made sports minister. He has already been given a seat in the Rajya Sabha, India’s equivalent of the US Senate. A special gold coin is being minted with his face on one side – it was tossed on Wednesday to decide whether India or the West Indies would bat first for his penultimate game in Kolkata. The West Indies captain called heads and the coin landed Sachin-up.

Spectators were handed Sachin masks. A waxwork statue of him was erected outside the dressing rooms. In a pre-match presentation he was given a silver banyan tree, symbolising the resting place of the Hindu god Krishna — the allusion is not subtle.

At the end of the first match, two airplanes will drop 199 kilograms (439 pounds) of rose petals on him — a kilo for each of the tests he has played, and 199 Chinese lanterns will be released into the sky. The entire schedule for international cricket has been re-arranged to give him the chance to play his last game in front of his home crowd in Mumbai.

Still not getting it? How about this: like Michael Jackson, he has endorsed both Coke AND Pepsi.

The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar on November 18 will bring India to a standstill, if its firecracker feet allow, to watch its favourite cricketer stride out to bat for the last time. With any luck, he’ll make another century — an individual total of 100 runs or more that usually puts the scorer’s side in a strong position. He already has 100 centuries in international cricket — 29 more than his nearest rival.

But Sachin Tendulkar is more than an athlete. He’s the embodiment of South Asian ambition, an avatar of India’s emergence as a power in the world.

A creation myth

When Sachin first went out to bat for India, aged 16 years and 223 days on November 16, 1989, the Berlin wall was being demolished. The Soviet Union had just left Afghanistan. Tim Berners-Lee was founding the internet.

And India?

The country was hamstrung by the impenetrable regulations of the Licence Raj, barely able to feed its millions. India’s leaders were clinging to its status as the main non-aligned power by offering homage to each of the superpowers. Yet they were almost impotent against Chinese border incursions.

Things weren’t much better on the cricket field.

In the 1980s, India was usually among the also-rans, battered by the mighty West Indies sides, subdued by the Australians and snubbed by English players who declined to tour the subcontinent with its strange food and noisy, unruly crowds. A world cup win in 1984 provided a temporary fillip, but confidence was only a fleeting sensation for Indian fans.

Sachin’s swagger changed all that.

Sachin Tendulkar in Lahore, Pakistan in October 1989. (Ben Radford/AFP/Getty Images)

He announced himself in a test series against Pakistan, India’s rivals on and off the field. A Pakistani firebrand, Waqar Younis, bowled at the 16-year-old, hurling a ball that reared off the ground and smeared Sachin’s nose across his face. Blood dripping onto his white shirt, the boy picked himself up and smashed the next ball to the fence.

India had a new hero.

While India’s politicians struggled with a sinking economy, culminating in a bailout by the International Monetary Fund in 1991, Sachin gave Indians something to cheer.  At first his feats were relatively modest. He hit 119 runs to stop a sure win by England in Manchester, then gave