Editor's Note: The global coronavirus outbreak has brought all sporting action to an indefinite halt. While empty stadiums and non-existent sports news make for an unusually grim sight, we take it as an opportunity to look back, and - to paraphrase poet William Henry Davies - stand and stare. In this latest series 'My Favourite Match', our writers recall the sporting encounters that affected their younger selves the most, and in many cases, helped them fall in love with the sport altogether. Happy Reading!
India vs Australia, 2nd Test in Kolkata, 2001
13 March 2001. Day 3 of the second Test between the Sourav Ganguly-led India and Steve Waugh’s near-invincible Australian side. It was the first time in my life that I was getting the opportunity to watch a cricket match live at the stadium. Little did I know that I, along with nearly a hundred thousand others in attendance as well as the millions watching on their TV sets, would witness one of the greatest games of cricket ever played. A Test that would later become a watershed moment in Indian cricket.
I had been watching cricket for a few years — with some fleeting memories of some of the contests in the 1996 World Cup, and becoming properly hooked to the sport a couple of years later. While I had fallen in love with the game watching it on the television set, going to a venue and watching the cricketers in person felt like a whole new adventure altogether, one that induced as much excitement as a visit to Nicco Park or Science City (in Kolkata) did back then.
My father managed to get his hands on a couple of single-day passes for the third day, and one of his junior colleagues gladly agreed to accompany me to the game. I remember being awestruck by the size of the imposing structure that was the ‘Mecca of Indian cricket’ after finally reaching the venue, and milling our way through the sea of humanity that had gathered to watch their team face the world’s best side of that era.
After getting decimated by the Australians at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, which took the visitors’ Test-winning streak to a staggering 16, Waugh and Co were breathing down their necks in Kolkata and looked all but certain to conquer the ‘Final Frontier’ — winning their first Test series in India since 1969.
Australia had survived a middle-order collapse after opting to bat, a collapse triggered by a memorable Harbhajan Singh hat-trick, before Waugh’s 133-run ninth-wicket stand with Jason Gillespie rescued them to a formidable 445. India then endured a horrendous evening session on the second day, losing seven wickets for less than 100 runs.
The third day began with VVS Laxman walking out to resume the Indian innings alongside Venkatpathy Raju, India’s overnight score reading 128/8 with another 118 to needed avoid a follow-on. The noise in the Eden crowd had been starting to build around the time the umpire signalled the start of play, but got muted not long after as Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne grabbed the remaining wickets to bowl India for a meagre 171.
India, under Sachin Tendulkar’s captaincy, had been swept aside by Australia in the three-Test series Down Under a little over a year ago, and it appeared as if they were to meet a similar fate in front of their home crowd. While the hosts began their second essay on a more promising note, reaching 254/4 at the end of the day’s play, the prospect of the game going into the fifth day remained bleak.
The mood of the fans could be gauged by the reactions I got from my dad’s colleague as well as some of the spectators surrounding us when I tried to feed them some cricketing trivia — from what Shane Warne’s middle name is to his figures in the World Cup final against Pakistan. The Calcutta crowd being Calcutta crowd — ask those who attended the 1996 semi-final — they were in no mood for anything other than cursing their idols for failing to mount a proper challenge, though thankfully they didn’t resort to throwing trash at the boundary-riders or setting things on fire. The Aussies, meanwhile, would break into premature celebrations after the day’s play, thinking they had one hand on the series trophy already.
No one in their right mind would’ve imagined Laxman and Rahul pulling off a once-in-a-lifetime heist on the following day against an attack that comprised McGrath and Warne — the latter getting enough assistance from the surface by then. The odds, therefore, on the pair batting through the day and taking the game away from the opposition’s grasp altogether wouldn’t have been very different from that of Leicester City winning the Premier League at the start of the 2015-16 season.
The stylish Laxman, who had been struggling with his fitness in the build-up and nearly didn’t play that match, toyed with the likes of Warne on a turning pitch as he constructed the innings of a lifetime, at times hitting against the turn to weave the ball through the gap between midwicket and mid-on. In the process, the Hyderabadi went past Sunil Gavaskar’s record for the highest individual score by an Indian batsman. The ever-resolute Dravid battled fever as his 180 played the perfect foil to Laxman’s 281, making an emphatic statement with the bat after having gone through a lean patch in the 1999-00 tour Down Under.
Their fifth-wicket partnership of 376 was at that time the second-highest stand by an Indian pair in Test cricket. Records tumbled that day as the pair carved a special place for themselves in the legacy of India’s oldest cricketing venue. The duo was administered drips after the day’s play, having batted through the day in the hot and sticky Kolkata weather, and no amount of physical discomfort seemed adequate to stop them from batting the opposition out of the game. It was a testament not only to their batting prowess, but to their courage and determination that has made them the legends they are today.
— ICC (@ICC) March 14, 2018
I was of course, back to my TV set at our residence in Alipore on Day 4, and couldn’t have been more gutted to have missed out on the festivities that broke out among those at the Eden who had witnessed the sudden turn of events. That, however, is not to state that I do not cherish watching the Indian team pull off the unthinkable in the company of my family, which remains one of the most defining cricketing memories from my childhood.
Harbhajan Singh (6/73) tore through the Aussie batting line-up on the final day, bowling them out for 212 at the fag end of the final session to help the hosts register a 171-run triumph — only the third time in the history of the game that a team emerged victors after being asked to follow on.
The nation of a billion-plus people broke into celebrations, and suddenly copying Laxman’s stance and Harbhajan’s action had become all the more popular in gully cricket. Meanwhile, the Australians had suddenly been stopped on their tracks after winning 16 consecutive Tests, getting dominated in the last two days of the game that was almost a taste of the medicine that they had so frequently dished out to opposing teams.
Ganguly had taken over the reins of this team after the fallout of the match-fixing saga around a year prior to this match, but it was with this victory that he had finally announced himself as a leader, and ushered in a new era in Indian cricket.
To read other pieces from our 'My Favourite Match' series, click here
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