NEW DELHI: Sachin Tendulkar is facing unprecedented calls to retire after a string of failures fuelled speculation that time had finally caught up with India's cricket icon.
Tendulkar, who is now 39, has shouldered the hopes of a nation for 23 years, in the process becoming the world's leading run-getter in both Test and one-day cricket with 100 international centuries.
But a string of recent poor scores – combined with the manner of his dismissals – has turned sections of the media and a once adoring public against him.
Sunil Gavaskar, the first man to reach the 10,000-run milestone in Tests, suggested during this week's second Test against New Zealand in Bangalore that Tendulkar's reflexes were on the slide.
“The dismissal that was most disturbing was that of the 'master' when he was bowled through the gate,” Gavaskar wrote in his syndicated column.
Pressed further, on air during the second Test, Gavaskar said: “With age, the feet don't come to the pitch of the ball, the eyes don't pick up the ball early.”
Former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin also said Tendulkar's feet were not moving well in the crease and he was constantly playing across the line.
“It is clear his reflexes have slowed down,” Azharuddin said.
Tendulkar has scored a record 51 Test centuries but he has now gone 25 innings without a hundred in the five-day game since making 146 against South Africa in Cape Town in January, 2011.
His top score in the recent series against the lowly Kiwis was 27, prompting The Times of India to post pictures of three of his dismissals – all bowled – on its front page under the headline: 'What's wrong with India's batting genius?'
An online poll in the Hindustan Times said 56 percent of respondents agreed that it was time for Tendulkar to retire.
The Mail Today asked in a front-page banner headline if it was the “End of the road for Sachin?” And the usually conservative Hindu newspaper also wondered if “Father Time was catching up with the maestro”.
Tendulkar has consistently dismissed any thought of retirement and told reporters last week that he still loved the game and enjoyed playing at the top level.
He is the last remnant of a fabled Indian middle order after both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman retired in the last 12 months. Sourav Ganguly, the other member of the quartet, quit in 2008.
Ganguly, who played alongside Tendulkar for almost two decades, said speculation over Tendulkar's future in the game was uncalled for.
He insisted that Tendulkar is still good enough to play at international level, ahead of visits by England and Australia later in the season.
“I honestly feel the time has not come for him to go,” Ganguly said. “He is a legend and takes pride in his game and no one knows his game better than him.
Ganguly said lack of match practice contributed to Tendulkar's cheap dismissals against the Black Caps, and he expected him to be back in peak form when the four-Test series against England starts in mid-November.
“His ability has not declined, he just has not had enough time out in the middle,” said Ganguly.
“The problem is with his shot selection and that is because he has not played for the last few months.”
Tendulkar had a rotten time in England and Australia last year, scoring just four half-centuries in 16 innings as India went down 4-0 against both rivals.
Alarm bells began ringing when Tendulkar took a year to move from 99 to 100 centuries, finally reaching the landmark during the Asia Cup one-day international against Bangladesh in March.
Hopes that the floodgates would then open have since evaporated.
But despite his recent woes, he can at least still rely on the unstinting support of his current captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Dhoni, asked by reporters on Monday if Tendulkar's form worried him, responded: “The good thing is that whenever people talk about his form, he comes up with a brilliant performance.
“I'm waiting for that. I don't really get worried about that.”