Trinity offer a Test match special
On the flight from Mumbai to London, I sat alongside Kiran More, the former India wicketkeeper who was not so long ago the chairman of the national selection committee. He was flying in to watch the Lord's Test, but was paying for the trip himself. This is something he planned to do a long time ago. "I am here to watch Sachin, Rahul and Laxman," he said. "A pity Sehwag isn't there."
More knows what the rest of us do. The clock is winding down on the golden age of Indian batting. You could even say the golden age of Test batting. Only Ricky Ponting remains from the great Australian line-up; Brian Lara went long ago; Jacques Kallis is fit and hungry still, but he is on the wrong side of 30. Perhaps AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla will join their ranks before they finish, and Kevin Pietersen, if he finds his second wind, may end up as one of the all-time greats, but India's batting wealth in the last 10 years has been freakish.
And while everything is cyclical, as Twenty20 skills grow more and more vital to the professional cricketer, it is likely that the best of Test match batting as we have known it is already behind us. This summer presents an opportunity - one of the last few - to savour what remains of it.
It had seemed improbable in 2007, when India toured England last, that Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid would be back again. Even VVS Laxman was a marginal case. But they have all endured. Tendulkar has grown even more resplendent; Laxman has become India's great saviour; Dravid's powers have waned but he was still able to produce a match-winning innings on a difficult pitch in Kingston last month. Still, it can be said with a degree of certainty - though with Tendulkar nothing can be ruled out - that this it for them as far as England goes: one last summer in what remains the finest and strongest bastion of Test cricket.
They will play before full houses, before crowds that cherish and understand Test cricket, in conditions that will challenge them and against bowlers who will test their skills. It is a series in which they will be defending their status as the No. 1 Test team. Add in the facts that it is the 2000th Test, and the 100th Test between India and England, and there is everything: occasion, context, the stage, the grand story, the prospect of a proper contest between bat and ball, and the opportunity for one of the game's most artful and versatile batting line-ups to make a final stand at the home of Test cricket. More knows what he is paying for.
It is staggering to think that More was in the dressing room when Tendulkar, just a few months past 17, scored his first Test hundred in 1990, a match-saving masterpiece in the final innings at Old Trafford. He has made three hundreds since on subsequent tours but memories of that innings linger. Of the six hundreds scored in that match, Tendulkar's was the most poignant, and not merely because he was so young. After his senior colleagues departed on a wearing pitch he batted with an assuredness that reminded many of Sunil Gavaskar, with whom Tendulkar shares his physical stature, but it was his back-foot driving that marked him out as special. Two decades later, he will start this tour in quest of his 100th international hundred, a statistical Everest.
For Dravid, the 148 at Headingley remains his defining innings. There have been equally significant match-winning innings - 180 in Kolkata against Australia in 2001, 233 in Adelaide in 2003, 270 against Pakistan in Rawalpindi - but none was made in tougher conditions, and none required more technical certitude and patience. It was also his second-most prolific series, bringing him three hundreds and more than 600 runs. The next England tour brought mixed results for Dravid: he won the series as captain, but his returns were abysmal with the bat.
Retirement couldn't have been far from his mind then, but he could have hardly resisted a final tilt at Test cricket in the country where he made his debut and where Test cricket remains the supreme game. Batting geniuses are freaks of nature and there is no telling when and where the next one will come from, but the way the game has gone in the last few years, it is hugely unlikely that India will produce another Dravid. Watching him plod away might seem excruciating to some but perhaps they will realise what they are missing after he is gone.
English fans might occasionally wonder what the fuss over VVS Laxman is all about, for they have never watched him at his best. A highest score of 74 in a losing cause at Lord's in 2002 was easily eclipsed by, of all people, Ajit Agarkar, who blazed a hundred - the only one by an India batsman at that ground in the past 15 years. It can be argued that the swinging and seaming conditions in England are anathema to Laxman's wristy ways, but more likely it is a mere aberration, for Mohammad Azharuddin scored some splendid hundreds here with a similar style. Laxman comes into this series with the reputation of India's iron man and with a determination to set the record straight.
There is another 100th hundred to be scored in the series, and it doesn't have to come off Tendulkar's bat. Between them, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman carry a tally of 99 Test hundreds to the Lord's Test. Dravid and Laxman don't play one-day cricket anymore and Tendulkar turns out only occasionally in coloured clothing. They belong to Test cricket as much as Test cricket belongs to them.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo