Game's greats descend on Lord's
In the Long Room, where the oil paintings on the wall hang heavy with history, there is an air of informality. Current and former cricketers walk back and forth, some with equipment in their arms, most wearing odd bits of kit; members of the press mill about with shirt collars open, not bound by the usual MCC rules on attire. In the middle, a legspin bowler tosses up the ball and a diminutive figure with an unmistakable backlift stretches forward to meet it, bat perfectly straight.
It is 200 years since Thomas Lord, entrepreneur, wine merchant and cricketer, settled on the third and final location for the home of the MCC. To celebrate this bicentenary, Lord's ground - or simply Lord's, as it is known throughout the cricket world - will on Saturday host an exhibition match featuring a swoon-inducing array of star names. Captaining the MCC side is the most famous of the lot (even if it counts for little in Russia): Sachin Tendulkar.
His opposite number in the Rest of the World side is Shane Warne, though the rivalry, as they take questions and share smiles after an outing for the cameras on the pitch, is strictly of the staged variety. Social media has been overflowing with displays of bonhomie between the players in recent days and if the game is an exercise in self-promotion for the MCC, then the preferred medium is selfie-promotion.
Warne even tried his hand at self-deprecation. "I want to get him out, which didn't happen that often; he wants to smash me, which happened a lot," he says of Tendulkar. In the bosom of England's cricketing establishment, Australia's arch-larrikin has come over all coy. "Hopefully I don't get the chance to bowl to Sachin." Tendulkar smiles serenely.
For Tendulkar, whose retirement at the end of 2013 ended a 24-year soap opera that had been playing on all Indian channels, Lord's is a home away from home. He used to regularly practice in the nets, under a special arrangement with the MCC, bringing along his son, Arjun, who at 14 is the same age as when Sachin first posed for a picture in front of the terracotta pavilion. In a quiet spot on the Nursery Ground, the Sachinalia that forever accompanies the man can be held in abeyance.
"It's always a special feeling, they have been very kind to allow me and my son to practice here for so many years. We have our private moments - sometimes it's difficult. We get to spend quality time here, in the nets. The atmosphere is fantastic. However many times you come here, you feel special."
His first visit as an international cricketer, on India's 1990 tour, produced an enduring image - that of a young Tendulkar plucking the ball one-handed from the sky - although, like Warne and his MCC team-mate Brian Lara, he never made it on to the famous honours boards. Tendulkar is quick to remember a century scored at the ground in 1998, during a memorial match for Diana, Princess of Wales, but Lord's is one of few in cricket that can match his dauntless reputation. It seems a fitting venue for his first appearance with bat in hand since signing off amid an outpouring of emotion in Mumbai last year.
"To be honest, I've not played, right from my retirement from the time I got to London," he says, in that familiar, soft voice. "I started practising ten days ago... It's nice to be back in gear, play a few balls. That sound is always special, when you connect; I'm still trying to find the centre of the bat. I've watched a bit of cricket, I was with the Mumbai Indians during the IPL, but I've never felt like going out to bat."
While Tendulkar was serene, posing for photos and signing autographs, Lord's appeared to have an altogether different effect on Kevin Pietersen, one of Warne's Rest of the World XI. Declaring that he felt like "a kid in a candy store" to be playing with the likes of Brett Lee, Muttiah Muralitharan, Rahul Dravid and Adam Gilchrist, Pietersen instead looked like he had been made to suck on something rather sour, as he brooded from behind black, reflective sunglasses and again poured out his heart for England.
"I'd love to play for England again, I've still got hope," he says. "I've got a phone in my pocket and a pretty good resume." Perhaps, over the course of the weekend, he will slip that resume along with a note saying 'call me' under the door of the ECB offices, though it may be another bicentenary before his feelings are requited.
Perhaps the reality of being a "genuine out-and-out clubbie, playing once a week" has begun to pall, as Pietersen contemplates winding down his career on a diet of T20 takeout instead of the Test-match banquets he once indulged in. Certainly, he seemed out of sync with what was going on around him, dressed in casual wear and wearing a baseball cap from his fashion label, in the Long Room where the even the starchiest of MCC members rose to applaud his five Lord's hundreds.
His last visit, since being sent into exile by England, was as a guest in one of the hospitality boxes during the Sri Lanka Test. "I'm going okay at the moment. But there's nothing like playing, I'm still 34, you've got the rest of your life to enjoy days drinking and watching Test matches."
He will be at the centre of it all again on Saturday, though he will have to share the stage. Meanwhile, the Lord's magic remains undiluted.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick