Last sighting of Indian Trinity?
They came in their thousands in anticipation of history being made. After Muttiah Muralitharan shattered those hopes, they contented themselves with raucous chants in appreciation of Sachin Tendulkar. Later in the day, they even booed the Indian captain before a shower of mighty sixes put smiles back on sunburnt faces. In the midst of this emotional rollercoaster, few would have realised that they had possibly witnessed a moment or three of history anyway - today might have been the last time an Indian crowd saw, in a Test, the trio that did as much as anyone else to defeat the strongest team of the era in 2001.
Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have played 183 home Tests between them, scoring 13,665 runs and 37 centuries. They also have a combined age of 107 and, with few countries actually adhering to the Future Tours Programme, there might be no home Tests before the World Cup in 2011. Next year's series against South Africa will feature only ODIs and it's hard to see much enthusiasm on the part of the BCCI for a tour by New Zealand just three months before the first ball is bowled at the World Cup.
While all three could still be around in the summer of 2011, Father Time has a habit of tapping you on the shoulder when few expect it. Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist gave it away before most expected them to, while Michael Vaughan didn't even play another Ashes Test after the high of 2005. If a combination of itineraries, ageing limbs and satiated minds ensure that the three are not seen in tandem again, those present at the CCI on Friday will look back with special fondness.
It was also that rarest of days when all three went past 50 without going on to complete a century. There was still a fair bit to savour, though Dravid added only 12 to his overnight total before chasing a wide one from Chanaka Welegedara. It was a rare lapse from a man whose powers of concentration down the years have been second to none. Batting alongside far more flamboyant individuals, Dravid quickly realised that it was better to have his own niche than be a poor replica. His solidity gave those around him the freedom to express themselves, knowing that all was not lost even if they departed.
Tendulkar began as though he meant to match Sehwag in the shot-making stakes, paddling Murali twice for four and pulling Rangana Herath with precision and power. Over the years, the paddle has become his signature stroke against the slow bowlers, and few have played it with anything like the same effect. While fans from a previous generation might yearn for a glimpse of the marauder who took on Shane Warne, the new-age Tendulkar has excelled at playing the percentages and eliminating risk.
Laxman, he of the inside-out drives through cover out of the rough - remember Eden Gardens? - started hesitantly, and as he struggled to find the gaps, the run-rate dropped drastically. Not that scoring was easy. Murali was bowling to a 2-7 field, with a leg slip, two men either side of square leg, two short midwickets, a deep midwicket and a mid-on. Though he once lofted Murali over that phalanx of men, the pressure eased only once the new ball was taken, with a punchy back-foot drive off Nuwan Kulasekara.
It was a different story after lunch. Tendulkar departed, bowled by a lovely off-cutter, but Laxman found the rhythm that can make him so irresistible to watch. Apart from Mohammad Azharuddin, it's hard to think of an Indian batsman whose timing has been so exquisite, and after the interval, he scored at a run a ball before Murali enticed him down the pitch to get his reward in the shape of a miscue. A cracking square-cut off Welegedara and a peachy cover-drive off Kulasekara were the pick of the shots he played, and his fluency was instrumental in India getting back on track after a dour phase of play.
It's hard to put into words what these three men have contributed to Indian cricket. Who'll ever forget Tendulkar's assault on Warne in Chennai in 1998, or the way he repeatedly upper-cut him for four at the same venue three years later? As for Laxman and Dravid, they have the greatest Lazarus act in the history of the game to their credit. It's also a measure of their quality that each has performed impressively abroad, being pivotal in famous triumphs at venues as far apart as Adelaide, Sabina Park and Headingley.
If, as the Rolling Stones sang, "this could be the last time", what wonderful memories they leave behind, of both victory and heartbreak: Tendulkar trudging off forlornly at Chepauk in 1999 having taking India to the very brink, Dravid emerging from the worst slump of his career with a typically gritty century in the Mohali gloom last December, VVS saving a Test against New Zealand when it appeared that Daryl Tuffey might be able to do what even Sir Richard Hadlee hadn't.
The other member of the famed quartet, Sourav Ganguly, exited stage left a year ago. And it's not excessive to say that Virender Sehwag joined that elite band a while ago. But these three men hark back to an earlier age, a time before IPLs and mega endorsements and dodgy agents. They have not only excelled on the pitch, but been marvellous role models off it. Humble, polite to a fault, courteous and admired by the opposition wherever they played. Something tells you that they'll never be replaced.