Cricket

In Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, India tasted forbidden fruit: How a batting partnership undid Australia's invincibility

  • Anindya Dutta
  • March 9th, 2020
  • 9:22:47 IST

In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history

By March 2001 when Steve Waugh walked out to toss with Sourav Ganguly at Eden Gardens, the soft-hearted Kolkatans had long embraced the Aussie as one of their own, given his deep commitment to Udayan, the rehabilitation school for lepers in the city. But Ganguly and the Indian team could afford no such sentimentality. They were facing opponents who were laying claim to being the greatest Test team in the history of the sport — and with good reason.

Bradman’s 1948 ‘Invincibles’ may have gone an entire English summer without losing a single match, but they had not won 16 Test matches on the trot as Waugh’s men had. Those 16 victories had all come within a heady 18-month period between August 1999 and February 2001. Clive Lloyd’s West Indies at their peak had only managed 11. The last of those 16 Aussie victories had been in the previous Test at Mumbai, where the Indians had been blown away by 10 wickets inside three days.

Wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist, whose career thus far was all of 15-Tests long, had never experienced anything but victory. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the juggernaut.

The Aussie formula plays out again

Win the toss. Bat. Grind the opposition to dust. Win the match. Replay.

That had been the Aussie formula for a while, and by the second day, the plot looked familiar. The scoreboard showed 193 by the time openers Matthew Hayden and Michael Slater had been dismissed. Then, eight wickets went down in quick succession. A grinding 110 in a five-hour stay at the crease from skipper Steve Waugh and a 133-run partnership with Jason ‘Dizzie’ Gillespie (later to become the only night watchman double centurion in the sport’s history) proved the collapse to be an aberration and the final score read 445.

In the shadow of that total, young Harbhajan Singh’s lion-hearted effort in picking up seven wickets for 123 runs from his 37.5 overs — including India’s first Test hat-trick — went almost unheralded.

When the Indian innings began, the batsmen appeared to follow the Aussie version of the script. Sadagoppan Ramesh departed without any runs on the board and when SS Das followed him a few overs later, India was 34 for 2. Glenn McGrath was in his element and Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne kept the pressure on. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly soon found themselves back in the hut, leaving India gasping at 92 for 6. At the crease, watching the collapse was VVS Laxman.

Laxman took as much of the strike as he could, but rapidly ran out of partners. He was the last man out when the Indian innings ended at 171. Australia had a lead of 274 runs. Unsurprisingly, Waugh imposed the follow-on. The 17th notch on the column was but a formality.

With pride at stake and their backs against the wall, the Das-Ramesh combine brought up the team’s 50 before Ramesh fell to Warne. Das followed with the score at 92, and when Tendulkar succumbed to pressure for the second time in the match just as he had reached double figures, India was staring at an innings defeat at 115 for 3. When Ganguly departed after a defiant captain’s knock, India was 232 for 4, still trailing by 42 with just six wickets in hand.

A partnership for the ages

When VVS Laxman had walked back into the dressing room at the end of the innings, coach John Wright had asked him not to remove his pads, for he would go back in at one-drop. Wright’s decision was a gamble on form and hope at the same time.

Be that as it may, when the woefully out of form Rahul Dravid, demoted to Number 6, joined Laxman at the fall of the fourth wicket, hope was fast beginning to fade, resignation was writ large on Indian faces, and television sets were being switched off in homes across the nation.

Twitter/BCCI

Rarely, if ever, had a batting partnership been so collectively fruitful, and made a top class bowling attack look so collectively helpless. Twitter/BCCI

The two men out on the 22 yards were oblivious to all this. They were calmness personified, Dravid responding to the sledging with silent dignity, Laxman not seeming to notice it; Dravid perfect with his footwork, Laxman sublime with his artistic ‘bat flow’, wielding the willow like an impressionist brush. The pair was still together at stumps that third day.

The next morning when they arrived at the ground, the Aussies were ready to celebrate. Matthew Hayden later recalled, "On that fourth morning we’d been so confident of preserving our winning streak that Michael Slater had produced a box of cigars, provocatively sniffing one as if to say, ‘This result is so close I can smell it.’ We all saw the humour, as you do when you’ve won 16 in a row and fully expect to extend the margin."

The Old Testament tells us about the fourth day of creation: ‘And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.’

In Kolkata, on Day 4 of this Test match in March 2001, two lights came together to generate brilliance as had never before been seen on a cricket field. They were called Laxman and Dravid.

Of all the descriptions of VVS Laxman’s innings that day in Kolkata, none captures its essence like Jarrod Kimber in Test Cricket: The Unauthorized Biography: ‘Australia first tried to take his wicket driving. He drove, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket pulling. He pulled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with slower balls. He waited, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with ring fields. He pierced, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket in the rough. He smashed, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket in the slips. He middled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket by giving up. He batted, they took no wicket.’

And Laxman did all this with a bad back, frequently requiring attention from the physiotherapist. At the other end was Rahul Dravid, gaining back form and confidence by just watching Laxman’s sublime strokes, his own viral fever all but forgotten.

Laxman flick pulled McGrath and Gillespie through non-existent gaps. Dravid employed the cut with devastating effect. Laxman cover drove Shane Warne’s leg breaks pitched wide outside the leg, leaving Warne distraught, and then Dravid followed up by coming down the track to the same bowler and hitting the ball on the on side against the break. As the duo took Warne apart, Ian Chappell called Laxman’s effort ‘the best playing of spin bowling I’ve seen.’

At some stage Steve Waugh ran out of ideas, but to his credit, he kept trying. He had the world’s greatest bowling attack at his disposal and he ended up bowling Justin Langer.

The Indian duo batted through the day, clocking 335 runs. They did not even offer the hope of a wicket. When the day ended, Laxman had made 275. By himself, VVS Laxman had overtaken Australia’s 274-run lead, and for good measure, Dravid had made 155, roughly half of India’s 315 run lead.

Rarely, if ever, had a batting partnership been so collectively fruitful, and made a top class bowling attack look so collectively helpless.

Eventually, Laxman departed for 281 after batting for ten-and-a-half hours. Dravid was run out from sheer exhaustion after scoring 180, compiled in his seven-and-a-half hours at the crease. Together they had destroyed the will and the ego of an Australian team that had forgotten what a back-to-the-wall situation felt like.

The greatest win

Sourav Ganguly declared at 657 for 7, leaving Australia to bat out a bit more than two sessions of the day to save the Test. Not even Ganguly had victory in mind at the time. A few minutes after tea, the unfathomable had turned into a possibility, for Harbhajan Singh had got into the act — again.

Pumped up by his seven-wicket haul in the first innings, and with a fifth-day Eden pitch deteriorating, Harbhajan spun a second web of spin around the Aussies. This time he bagged 6 for 73, bringing his match haul to 13 incredible wickets. Then Ganguly brought in Sachin Tendulkar. The move broke the camel’s proverbial back.

Tendulkar picked up the wickets of Gilchrist, Hayden and Warne in quick succession, and Harbhajan Singh from the other end trapped Glenn McGrath LBW. Australia had been dismissed for 212, leaving India victorious by 171 runs.

A glorious future

India would go on to win the next Test and the series, breaking the longest winning streak in the history of Test cricket. More importantly, the win would shatter the Australian veneer of invincibility and embolden the Indians with the idea that the Aussies could be bested.

For Indian cricket, the impact of the victory would be felt for years to come. In fact, Eden Gardens 2001 would trigger the next phase in its inexorable progress that Kapil’s Devils had started in 1983.

VVS Laxman’s words explain this best: ‘That match taught us never to give up. If you believe that you can do something and stick it out to the end, anything is possible. It is what changed Indian cricket and how we approached the game then on.’

The psyche of the team had indeed changed. In 2007, a young MS Dhoni led a brash young Indian side to an unlikely World T20 victory; in 2011 he helicoptered a shot into the crowd to bring home India’s second World Cup trophy; and the same year took the nation to the top of the ICC Test rankings. In 2018, Virat Kohli conquered the final frontier, leading India to her first series win in Australia.

And it all started that beautiful spring day in March of 2001, at Kolkata’s Garden of Eden.

Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.

Updated Date: March 09, 2020 09:22:47 IST

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