Sixteen years, and suddenly gone
At 9:25am on Thursday, August 23, when the bell goes in Hyderabad, for all practical and formal purposes, it will signal to everyone - umpires, players and the crowd - that there's five minutes left for play to start in the first Test between India and New Zealand.
The bell will largely be heard by those around the dressing rooms but across Indian cricket, it will also become the sound of the earth rumbling.
It will resound with finality, bringing home the truth that when the Indian team looks for security and courage, resolve and imagination, they will have to look elsewhere. Starting Thursday, India set out without Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the Everyman artisans of their greatest-ever middle order.
Hyderabad will not mark the first time that India have been without both Dravid and Laxman in the playing XI since the time they made their debuts. What is remarkable is that in the 16 years since Dravid's Test career began - five months before Laxman's - only once has the team been without both of them.
Injuries in the preceding Test series versus Bangladesh - Laxman in Chittagong, Dravid in Dhaka - had kept both of them out of the 2010 Nagpur Test against South Africa. India lost that match by an innings and six runs. For the next Test in Kolkata, Laxman returned, India won by an innings and 75. Dravid, meanwhile, recovered from surgery after being hit on the jaw by Shahadat Hossain, and when India played its next Test five months later against Sri Lanka, he was back.
Nagpur 2010 could have been slotted as either hiccup or harbinger. In the romping-stomping aftermath of India's rise to the No. 1 Test rankings, whatever it was, Hyderabad 2012 is certainly going to be definitive. Inevitable yet significant. Pragmatically we could think of it as yet another upheaval in cricket's relentless churn. Who knows who and what will take over and how incandescent they might indeed be?
Indeed. Inside the dressing room, there will be little room or time or attention for sentiment alone. Even though every man in the room, particularly the rookies, know that what the team is first looking for are two to fill this Dravid and Laxman-sized hole.
In numerical terms for India, they were 22069 Test runs, 345 catches but most importantly, 45 Test victories. When together at either end of the crease, they put up 4065 runs, averaged 51.45 had 12 century-stands and 14 50-plus partnerships. Laxman's Test career may have taken slightly longer to get warmed up than Dravid's did. But in his 134 Tests, Laxman didn't share a dressing room with Dravid in only two: Ahmedabad 2005 against Sri Lanka and Kolkata, 2010.
If numbers create structures, Dravid and Laxman's are a tower block of the kind that is now sold to urban Indians with central air-conditioning, high-speed elevators, heated swimming pools and helipads. Premium luxury. Those names fill the No. 2 and No. 4 spots among India's highest Test run-scorers. Between them is only S M Gavaskar.
Dravid and Laxman bookended either side of the middle order - at No. 3 and No. 5/6 - and their partnerships being, more often than not, that of India's last specialist batting pair. Now and then, there were discussions about theoretically where each could have been better fit. On the field the truth was that together or apart, they just fit. Without either man, things could easily have fallen apart.
They were different and distinct and, at their finest, perfectly synchronised. Even when helmeted and dressed in identical whites, Dravid and Laxman were easily identifiable whether standing on the roof of Eden Gardens or on the footboard of a train whizzing past the Wankhede. Laxman will be the taller, more angular, with geometric, squared shoulders. Dravid, the leaner, slighter framed, more compact in comparison, helmet strap hanging loose. On appearance alone, Laxman could have easily have been slotted in as classical batsman, Dravid, the ephemeral stylist. Which is why they say those things about not judging books.
Before they went out to bat, Dravid needed his quiet. Laxman often jumped into the shower to the bafflement of mates. In the slips they would stand next to each other, Dravid in his blue India cap, Laxman in white, broad-brimmed floppy. They chatted, they said, about children or dinner or pursuing electricians and plumbers when they were getting new homes built. When they batted together, each at his own pace, lost in his own music - adagio and allegro somehow in harmony - they didn't talk much. Mostly it was just encouragement, "keep going."
It was what Laxman and Dravid did for 16 years. Kept going. They were the constant, driven and key components of Indian cricket's most successful Test decade; their stardom defined by accomplishment way over 'brand value.' They represent an age and an era that Indian cricket could do well to fall back on - of intense competitiveness being balanced by reasonable conduct. Not the other way round. Dravid and Laxman produced their best in a high-altitude, highly strung, highly ambitious, highly competitive environment. Without a swagger, without an aura but with the sheer weight of their skill, pride, and ambition.
Had they not taken to cricket, with a surging, deep, fundamental love for the sport, each would have easily found a niche elsewhere: Dravid, a tie-wearing, multinational executive supporting social causes, Laxman in a doctor's coat, nodding patiently as patients complained well into the night. They came to the team that was to become their own, survived through the mid-90s, past the horrors of match-fixing, and became the reasons how and why India was able to, as The Doors described it, "break on through to the other side."
To us on the outside, of cricket, the team, its internal dynamic and whatever makes it work, the absence of Dravid, RS and Laxman, VVS, on a Test match scoresheet for India will take some getting used to.
Sixteen years after all is an entire generation - in 16 years, toddlers turn into teenagers, teenagers into the thirty-somethings, yuppies into the weary middle-aged. Sixteen years can be life-changing. Like that partnership in Kolkata. They did it, remember? Turned 'bat the whole day' from idiom to reality.
It is why the first stirrings of India's 2012 10-Test home season will contain, before everything else, the hollowness of departure. Like the turning away from a farewell handshake, the shutting of a door, the quiet after a goodbye on the telephone.
Dravid and Laxman, Laxman and Dravid. Gone.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo