It's here. Kolkata waited, CAB prepared, and now it's about to occur. Sachin Tendulkar's penultimate match and a Test series begin tomorrow. Cricket is the context, Tendulkar the focus. But it will be cricket first, then Tendulkar.
Silver banyan tree, golden leaves, commando salute, rose-petal shower, wax statue: you don't associate these with a cricket match. It appears silly to see confetti bursts welcoming players to training. But that's the mania gripping Kolkata for Tendulkar's 199th Test.
Thankfully, bat vs ball takes over tomorrow. The festivities, some beyond the realms of saneness, will wait while Tendulkar does what he enjoys the most - play cricket.
Festivities, some beyond the realms of saneness, will wait while Tendulkar does what he enjoys the most as the first Test against West Indies begins on Wednesday. (AFP Photo)
Tendulkar's love affair with Kolkata began on January 4, 1991. After 22 years, it will end next week; on what note, only time will tell. The cynosure won't be Tendulkar's runs, but his last appearance at the Eden. Tickets are being madly sought not to watch runs off his bat but just to get a glimpse of him.
He had been an East Bengal club cricketer, hero of the Hero Cup and a crowd pacifier in a Test against Pakistan in 1999. Clearly, his association with the Eden is nothing less than one with the Chepauk or Wankhede.
But the importance of a Test series can't be undermined. That's where cricket takes over and Tendulkar becomes part of the big equation.
Also part of the equation will be West Indies' gladiator Shivnarine Chanderpaul whose contribution to cricket is as monumental as Tendulkar's. The Eden Test will be Chanderpaul's 149th. The unorthodox stance has yielded 28 Test tons, one-fourth of which have come against India in 23 Tests. His overall average of 52 shoots up to 66 against India. Quite clearly, he's the assassin who worries India the most.
But West Indies will have history against them, with their last series win in India coming 30 years ago. "We are going to be playing hard. When we were here last time, whenever Sachin came, we bowled hard and fielded hard." Clearly Tendulkar is playing on West Indies' minds, as the words of team manager Richie Richardson suggest.
The Windies were successful in spoiling Tendulkar's party last time they were here in 2011. Though the visitors lost the series 2-0, they denied Tendulkar his 100th century, dismissing him for 94 in Mumbai. And Tendulkar hasn't scored a Test century since his 146 in Cape Town on January 2, 2011.
The Indian ten
India's batting machinery looks pretty fluid after the runathon against Australia, when they chased two record ODI totals to win the series. However, Shikhar Dhawan will have a new opener in Murali Vijay.
ODI double-centurion Rohit Sharma earned a Test recall and is set for his debut in the middle order that will be led by Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3 and Tendulkar at No. 4 besides the hitmen Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni.
India bowlers will breathe easy with more men in the outfield and an old ball to work with. It will swing, spin and reverse - something India and Australia sorely missed in the ODI series.
Dhoni will miss Ravindra Jadeja, who has been rested for the series due to a shoulder injury. That will put Pragyan Ojha in frame with R Ashwin. Mohammad Shami is in the squad as well, but he might have to wait for his debut. Bhuvneshwar Kumar should be one of the first-choice pacers, while Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav will contest for the other place.
The West Indies ten
If there's anyone who can steal the thunder from Tendulkar, it's Chris Gayle. He got his gears in order with a 49-ball 58 in the warm-up game against Uttar Pradesh. Kieran Powell could open ahead of Kirk Edwards, with Darren Bravo at No. 3 and Marlon Samuels at No. 4. Like Gayle, all three of them scored half-centuries against UP.
But the most impressive of Windies batsmen in warm-up were Chanderpaul who got 112 and Narsingh Deonarine who scored 94.
The visitors are here without Ravi Rampaul and Sunil Narine, which means Kemar Roach and Darren Sammy will lead their bowling attack. It's likely to be a toss-up between Tino Best and Sheldon Cotterrell for the third seamer's role, with the spinning job to be filled by either Shane Shillingford or Veerasammy Permaul.
"It will be a good, firm, even-bouncing wicket, so that the [batsmen] will be able to play their shots," Eden Gardens curator Prabir Mukherjee told ESPNcricinfo.
Mukherjee faced a lot of hardship preparing this track since it rained so heavily preceding the Test that the Ranji Trophy game between Bengal and Baroda was washed out.
There were reports earlier that the Eden track will be prepared to suit batsmen, so that Tendulkar enjoys his last game in the stadium. But Mukherjee rubbished those claims. "I had no pressure to prepare a wicket tailor-made for Sachin. And why should I? ... For Sachin, to make it easier to bat is a foolish approach."
Weather forecast over the next five days suggests clear skies with sunshine, so even rain gods want to watch Sachin bat in his full might.
India: 1 Shikhar Dhawan, 2 Murali Vijay, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 Virat Kohli, 6 Rohit Sharma, 7 MS Dhoni (capt/wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 10 Ishant Sharma/Umesh Yadav, 11 Pragyan Ojha
West Indies: 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Kieran Powell, 3 Darren Bravo, 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 6 Narsingh Deonarine, 7 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 8 Darren Sammy (capt), 9 Veerasammy Permaul/Shane Shillingford, 10 Kemar Roach 11 Tino Best / Sheldon Cotterrell