July 21-25, Lord's
Start time 1100 (1000 GMT, 1530 IST)
Ninety-nine Tests over 28 series. Seventy-one ODIs. Two Twenty20 internationals. Not one of these matches played between England and India has been for the top prize in cricket. It is slightly strange that in what is essentially a nine-team sport these two teams have never been close to the top at the same time. It isn't all that incredible either, because from the eighties to the later half of the noughties, either Australia or West Indies have been a fixture at the top. Of late India v South Africa has been the premier contest, their last two series riveting. Come Thursday, though, and England v India will not be the same.
This is easily the most anticipated match between these teams. Only the 1987 World Cup semi-final comes close, but even then it was one of the final two hurdles in the way of an India-Pakistan final, never the main event by itself. The Chennai Test of 2008-09 was looked forward to, too, but that had more to do with international cricket's return to India after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11. Right now, it's all about the cricket, and about these two teams, two of the three best today.
Everything around it has set up the atmosphere beautifully. The venue is Lord's. This is the 2000th Test, and the 100th between the two teams. The No. 1 ranking is at stake in the series. As this game often does, this series presents individual excitement too.
Sachin Tendulkar could score his 100th international hundred, better still at Lord's, where he has never scored one. Duncan Fletcher, coaching a team for the 100th time in Tests, is plotting against a side whose resurgence he played no insignificant part in. The man he kept out of his English team, Graeme Swann, is now their lead spinner and the best spinner in the world according to the ICC rankings. MS Dhoni comes with an unbeaten record in Test series. This could be the last time that Lord's gets to watch Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Tendulkar.
Not that this contest, between teams representing the country of the game's birth and the most aggressive consumers thereof, needs any extra individual bite. Not least because India have been a tease of a champion side. There is something beatable about them - the slow starts, the agedness, the regular non-availability of key players - but then again they have stopped recognising defeat when they see it. Some of their memorable away wins have come on seamer-friendly green tracks, involved big second-innings efforts and comebacks in series.
They are up against a side who won the Ashes emphatically, who have been fit, who have no major selection headaches, who have all their best players available, who are playing at home. South Africa were in a similar state late last year, and they welcomed an under-prepared Indian side with an innings defeat. India have had a loosener in the warm-up game against Somerset, but that has never been a guarantee against a rusty show in the first Test. England will want a similar start at Lord's.
Form guide (most recent first)
In the spotlight
In the departmental head-to-head, India are far behind England when it comes to opening the innings. While England have settled openers, one man in the form of his life, the other seemingly regaining some, India are without their best opener since Sunil Gavaskar, and the next-best is also making a comeback. This will be a big test for Gautam Gambhir, who has proved himself in a variety of conditions but has never played a Test in England. He will also have to shepherd the inexperienced Abhinav Mukund, who will make this only the second time India have opened with two left-hand batsmen.
James Anderson can sit alongside Dale Steyn and Zaheer Khan in the top league of quick bowlers today. Anderson is the most complete bowler in the English pace attack: he swings the ball both ways, he reverses it, has a sharp bouncer, and now also the experience of having taken more than 200 wickets. India won't mind if they can keep costing him 32.95 runs for a wicket, his career average against them.
The lead-up to the series has been pretty volatile. At the centre of it lies the confusion around the use of the DRS. Eventually it will be used, but it might take a legal team to work out in which form it is to be used in. It will take one wrong decision for arguments to begin, between players, between commentators, between fans. It won't be pretty either. Start chucking the jellybeans already.
England are so settled and confident they named a 12-man squad four days before the match. The only place open is Stuart Broad's, who went wicktless in three of the four ODIs against Sri Lanka and is competing with the returning Tim Bresnan. England coach Andy Flower recently said Broad needed to work more on his accuracy than being the aggressive "enforcer", which is what Bresnan does. On the eve of the match, Andrew Strauss was undecided. "No one has a god-given right to play in the XI," he said. "We know both Stuart and Tim Bresnan have offered a lot for us over the last 12 months or so. It's not going to be an easy selection to make, but in a way it's a good thing for us."
England 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Andrew Strauss (capt), 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Eoin Morgan, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Graeme Swann, 9 Stuart Broad/Tim Bresnan, 10 James Anderson, 11 Chris Tremlett
India have more to ponder. Tendulkar, Zaheer and Gambhir will walk back into the side, but will Sreesanth and Yuvraj Singh make it? Suresh Raina's impressive show in the West Indies, and the century in the warm-up match, have all but sealed his No. 6 slot, but will India take the gamble of making Yuvraj open? Slightly far-fetched, but not impossible. Whose place will Zaheer take? And Sreesanth, if he comes back, although he took just one wicket in 28 overs in the warm-up game? Praveen Kumar remains the favourite, though, for the final spot.
India 1 Abhinav Mukund/Yuvraj Singh, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Suresh Raina, 7 MS Dhoni (capt & wk), 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Praveen Kumar/Munaf Patel/Sreesanth
Pitch and conditions
Expect a normal Lord's pitch: good for batting, not too quick or bouncy, unlikely to break up alarmingly. The biggest threat for the batsmen remains overhead conditions. Lord's is not expected to be bathed in glorious sunlight, but nor is it expected to be hopelessly drenched. An odd shower is forecast, but things look better than they did earlier in the week.
Stats and trivia
Since January 2008, India's win-loss ratio of 2.57 is the best in the world. They are followed by England's 2.33 and South Africa's 2.12, the only two other teams who have won twice more than they have lost in the period.
India have won only one Test at Lord's, in 1986, and have lost 10 of them.
VVS Laxman, owner of the worst conversion record (16 centuries, 52 half-centuries) in the 8,000-club, has never scored a century against England.
"It helps in hyping up the series, although I don't think this series needs any hyping. It's two very good sides with some high quality players. The recipe is there for it to be a very entertaining series. The wider context is not something we are focusing on. In any Test series every side is hoping to get a fast start, get ahead and then earn the right over four Tests to win the series. All that other stuff is not for us to concentrate on, and will look after itself."
For Andrew Strauss, 2000 is just a number
"It's a special game, playing at Lord's is always special, but overall, rather than thinking too much about the numbers, we can just look at the number and be proud. You can't play 100 games with one nation, but when you have left cricket you can look back and say you played in the 100th between India and England, and 2000th when it comes to history. We can be proud we are playing but at the same time we need to stick to the basics and enjoy the game."
MS Dhoni, though, likes to have his cake and eat it too.