Rarely has a cricket Test been so overshadowed by events centred around one man as the India-West Indies game beginning at the Eden Gardens here Wednesday. And rarely has the game's oldest and longest format been played before a full house recently. But then, neither of the two was unexpected once the two-Test engagement got billed as the farewell series of the "god of cricket".
Ever since the Indian cricket board formally announced the matches, the buzz was that it could turn out to be Sachin Tendulkar's final hurrah. His formal announcement last month calling time on his dazzling 24-year Test career after the two Tests has seen the eruption of a volcanic emotion across India, with cricketing authorities, corporates and politicians vying to devise ingenious ways to bid adieu to the genius.
Tendulkar himself chose his Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium home as the venue for his 200th and last match, to be preceded by the one at the Eden - his "second home".
A party has started at the hallowed Eden, and a cricket - no, Sachin - mania is sweeping West Bengal and its capital city Kolkata. (Check the complete list of events here)
Amid grand plans to accord a memorable send-off to the iconic player, the prayers on every cricket buffs' lips is for a big score from the colossal cricketer.
Dry statistics make the task look uphill. Tendulkar has been without a century for 39 innings and two years and ten months. He has only two fifty-plus scores in his last 20 outings.
But the ageing warhorse, who holds all the important batting records - most number of hundreds, maximum appearances, most runs - has awed fans with his application repeatedly in the past, and he has it in him to do it again. (Also read: Dhoni keeping distractions to a minimum despite hyper around Sachin)
Apart from the magnetism of Tendulkar's last Eden appearance, another intriguing factor could be the wicket itself. The one selected for the match is a virgin track as not even a Ranji Trophy match has been played on it after the ground was relaid last year.
While there are apprehensions of the strip playing slow and low after last week's rains, the ground's octogenarian curator promised a good, firm, even-bounced track, where the batsmen could play their strokes.
"It will be full of runs," said Prabir Mukherjee, overseeing the groundsmen clip whatever grass cover remained on the surface. (Related: Mukherjee shoos away 'prying' Rohit Sharma from pitch)
With the wicket a mystery, the composition of the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led Indian bowling brigade could be interesting. The likely options before the team management would be to either go for a two pacers-two spinners attack or include a third slow bowler by axeing a seamer. In the first case, the choice could be among a fit again Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and uncapped local boy Mohammed Shami to share the new ball with Bhuvaneshwar Kumar. Offie Ravichandran Ashwin and left-arm orthodox Progyan Ojha would deliver the spin variety.
Leg-spinner Amit Mishra stands to make the cut if the hosts decide to rope in an additional spinner, with Ashwin opening the bowling with Kumar.
Most of the Indian batsmen select themselves. The sole point of discussion is the number six slot. But Rohit Sharma has almost sealed a debut after his hurricane double hundred at Bangalore. Ajinkya Rahane most probably will have to sit out.
The Caribbeans, on the other hand, have injury blues with pacer Kemar Roach and offie Shane Shilling missing the practice game against Uttar Pradesh Cricket Association XI due to shoulder problems. However, coach Otis Gibson was hopeful of fielding them.
The Indian bowlers would have their task cut out against destructive opener Chris Gayle and veteran middle order bat Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who is slated to play his 149th Test. Chanderpaul has always relished taking on the Indian bowlers and seven of his 28 hundreds have come against the hosts. His ton in the practice game has served another warning to the Indian bowlers.
As the two teams battle it out in what is turning out to be a Tendulkar show, the iconic ground is set to see a full house of 65,000, with the cricket buffs unwilling to let got the last opportunity to watch the master batsman in action.
The teams (from):
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain), Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, R. Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra, Ajinkya Rahane, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Rohit Sharma, Ishant Sharma.
West Indies - Darren Sammy (Captain), Tino Best, Darren Bravo, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Sheldon Cotterell, Narsingh Deonarine, Kirk Edwards, Chris Gayle, Veersammy Permaul, Kieran Powell, Denesh Ramdin, Kemar Roach, Marlon Samuels, Shane Shillingford, Chadwick Walton.
Umpires: Nigel Long (England) and Richard Kettleborough (England)
Third umpire: Vineet Kulkarni (India)
Fourth umpire: Subrat Das (India)
Match Referee: Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe)
Match timings: 09.00 hrs to 11.00 hrs, 11.40 hrs to 13.40 hrs, 14.00 hrs to 16.00 hrs.