The magical victory at the Eden Gardens on 15 March, 2001 was not to be interpreted as a tectonic shift in the balance of cricketing power. It necessitated otherworldly individual brilliance, with VVS Laxman’s masterpiece in the forefront, for an all-conquering Australia to be brought to their knees. Their scarcely believable 171-run win on the last evening after following on, 274 in arrears, had allowed India to square the three-Test series but the final act was still to be played out.
When Sourav Ganguly’s men boarded the aircraft in Kolkata late that Thursday evening, they were greeted by a thunderous, standing ovation from the other passengers and crew. Physically tried and emotionally drained following the events of the past five days, the team was re-energised as the aircraft took off for Chennai. But what were they doing on that late flight, just hours after sealing victory, in any case?
Just two days straddled the Eden Gardens and Chepauk Tests, so those in charge of travel decided it was best that the team reach the Tamil Nadu capital at the earliest. And so the warriors trooped in to Taj Coromandel close to midnight, to another rapturous welcome that further delayed their much-awaited tryst with a bed.
There were two practice sessions before the series-decider started on 18 March; more significantly, there were two days at the disposal of the support staff to ensure that the Eden batting heroes, Laxman and Rahul Dravid, recovered physically to front up to what was sure to be another bruising challenge in the sapping heat and humidity of Chennai.
Laxman, of course, had battled stiffness in the back and listing of the upper body in the lead-up to second Test, while Dravid had approached the game with fever. Their batting exertions, however pleasurable, had taken a toll, so physio Andrew Leipus and the rest of the support group had their task cut out.
“John (Wright, the coach) made it a point that Rahul and myself were well looked after by Andrew. We had massages, we went to the spa, Rahul and I were even thrown in to the Jacuzzi at the Taj,” Laxman chuckles.
“Both nights before the Test, I’d go over to Andrew’s room for treatment to the back. I was a big fan of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and we would watch it on TV even as he worked on my back. Andrew’s biggest concern was that the pain in my back should not radiate down to my legs. He was very clear that should that happen, there was no way I was going to play the Test.”
Laxman and Dravid weren’t allowed to bat at nets during afternoon practice two days out, only on the morning before the game. To be fair, neither man really needed much preparatory batting time.
As overwhelming as the Kolkata Test had been, the job was far from done. There was another Test to play, another game to win, another series to conquer. Wright and skipper Sourav Ganguly took it upon themselves to impress upon the team, if it required any reiteration, that an Australian backlash was inevitable.
“It was very clear that the whole country was talking about Kolkata, but as a team, it was important that we didn’t get carried away,” Laxman acknowledges. “At the team meeting, John lauded our Kolkata heroics, with a caveat, ‘That Test will go down in history as an epic, but our aim is to win the series. Let’s not dwell on Kolkata, this is a fresh game and we need to start afresh. People will remind you about that Test, but you have to forget about it now. Australia will come hard at us, we need to stay strong and aggressive’. Whatever complacency might have lingered quickly disappeared.”
As the Laxman-Dravid partnership had mounted on day four in Kolkata and Australian heads dropped, Indian reserves ferrying drinks cashed in by having verbal shots at the fielders, annoying them no end. A collective decision was made to continue that trend, every individual shouldering the responsibility of trying to unsettle the Aussies. To that end, at the beginning of each session, a ‘captain’ was designated to lead the way and also ensure that in the Chennai heat, the team’s energy and intensity levels didn’t drop.
“We knew that psychologically, they were a little down, and we wanted to keep them there. At warm-ups before toss on the day of the game, a bunch of us would walk past them, making a lot of noise without even looking in their direction! The unsaid message was – We are here, we won’t make it easy.”
The Chennai Test was a fascinating battle of punching and counter-punching, fortunes swinging wildly over five gripping days. Eden Gardens had witnessed a miracle, Chepauk hosted a spectacle. It was Test cricket at its very best: a no-holds-barred contest between the irresistible force and the immovable object.
“What happened in Kolkata was extraordinary, it won’t happen very frequently,” Laxman agrees. “What happened in Chennai will happen often in Tests. The Chennai win (by two wickets) gave us a lot of satisfaction, it showed that Kolkata was not an aberration. Here too, our character was severely tested. As the match progressed, fortunes fluctuated with each session. Chennai was a more competitive Test than Kolkata, with its constant ebbs and flows. It was brilliant; there were contributions from almost everyone, it was more of a team effort than Kolkata. That wasn’t surprising – coming into the game, each of us had tuned ourselves to be at their best for us to win.”
19 years ago #OnThisDay ,had the fortune of playing my part in a memorable Test match victory against at the Eden Gardens against Australia. Was an absolute team effort, and a test match victory I feel very privileged and honoured to have been a part of. pic.twitter.com/9XHops1nnW
— VVS Laxman (@VVSLaxman281) March 14, 2020
No one was more charged up than Sachin Tendulkar, whose batting contributions were restricted to 10 runs in each innings at the Eden, though he did pick up three vital wickets on the final evening. “Sachin was so happy when we won in Kolkata, I could sense that he was desperate to win the match for India in Chennai,” Laxman says. “It came as no surprise that he scored 126 in the first innings. Rahul made runs, as did (Shiv Sundar) Das and Taki (Sadagopan Ramesh). And while Bhajji (Harbhajan Singh) walked away with 15 wickets, the other bowlers played their part too.”
Almost shyly, he admits that he didn’t have a bad game, either – 65 (87b, 11x4) in the first innings, 66 (82b, 12x4) in the second during a chase of 155. “Even though I was desperately trying not to think of the previous innings, I was actually seeing the ball like a football,” Laxman remarks, almost apologetically.
“I was hitting it so easily, the ball was flying off the bat, the bat-flow was surreal. I was in the ‘zone’, everything was just flowing. It was a case of the sub-conscious taking over, and for the first time in my life, I knew what it was to get used to a bowler. I almost knew with certainty, as they were running in, what ball (Glenn) McGrath or (Jason) Gillespie or (Shane) Warne were going to bowl, I had got used to them so much in Kolkata that I could pick up cues from the way they ran in, how they held the ball...
“Being in the zone is the ultimate form of being in the present and following the diktat of the sub-conscious. Often, in that frame, you can get sucked in by the flow and play a shot that you will regret in future, like I did in the first innings when I chased a widish ball. When you are not in the zone, which is most of the time, you get tips from the conscious mind – leave the ball, it’s too wide.”
Having wrested the initiative by bowling Australia out for 264 in the second innings, India faced a modest chase to seal the series on 22 May, the final day of a dramatic series. With Laxman leading the way again, they had cruised to 101 for two when all hell broke loose.
“Gillespie bowled a brilliant spell, got rid of Sachin and Sourav. Then, Colin Miller dismissed Rahul, leaving me as the last recognised batsman. We had an inexperienced lower order, so it was basically up to me. I got a rank long-hop from Miller which deserved to be pulled, but Mark Waugh took off at short mid-wicket and held a sensational airborne catch; we needed 20 at the time, six wickets down. I was shell-shocked, wondering how on earth he had pulled off the catch,” Laxman continues, his awe still evident. “I didn’t budge an inch, I couldn’t, until Ricky Ponting ran up and gave me a predictable send-off. The momentum was now with the Aussies, the ball was starting to reverse, we were in trouble.”
Mumbai ➤ win by 10 wickets
Kolkata ➤ win by 171 runs
Chennai ➤ win by two wickets#OnThisDay in 2001, India completed a dramatic turnaround against Australia, coming from 0-1 down to clinch the series 2-1
Harbhajan Singh picked up 15 wickets in the Test pic.twitter.com/z0OzZOpshM
— ICC (@ICC) March 22, 2020
When Laxman went in to the dressing room, he was met with the sight of Tendulkar praying to the Sai Babas from Puttaparthi and Shirdi, whose photos he had affixed to his ‘coffin’. “I took my place in the extreme right corner of the dressing room to take off the pads and the rest of my gear. Sachin, sitting by my side, forbade me from leaving my seat. I wasn’t allowed to go out and watch the final stages, I could only do so on television. When Bhajji scrambled the winning runs with Sameer Dighe, I could feel the tears streaking down my cheeks. I peeped sideward, and Sachin was also in a similar state. I could only imagine what he must have gone through when we lost here to Pakistan in 1999. I was trying to establish myself then and not much was expected of me. But after the domestic season I had had (when he made upwards of 1400 first-class runs) and especially after 281, I had almost become the central figure in our line-up. I had felt that pressure throughout the match.
“To win in that fashion against an unbelievable Aussie side – that Test showed why they are such a great side. Even when we were 100 at two, not once did their intensity drop. We had to earn every run, it was tough. There was immense satisfaction that we won, and a great deal of relief that the match, the series, was finally over. But the overriding feeling was that, after the events of the previous year when match-fixing had weaned the spectators away, we had finally regained their trust, their confidence. From the time we arrived in Chennai, we started to feel the emotional connect with the fans all over again; by the end of the Test, the reintegration, if you like, was complete.”
At the post-match presentation ceremony, Steve Waugh sought Laxman out and handed over the ball with which Australia had bowled in the second innings. “As he was autographing it, he told me, ‘You fucked up the series for us’,” Laxman laughs loudly. “One of the best compliments I have received.”
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