The 2001 Eden Gardens Test against Australia kick-started a glorious decade for Indian cricket.

Well always have Kolkata The greatest fightback in Indian cricket history PTI
Features Book Excerpt Monday, December 26, 2016 - 17:38

It was March 2001, World Champions Australia was touring India to play a three-match test and five-match ODI series. After winning 15 Test matches on the trot, the Steve Waugh-led Australian side in their baggy greens were nothing but clear cut favourites to take home the Border-Gavaskar trophy. To add to India’s woes, just before the series, current Indian coach and ace spinner Anil Kumble was ruled out due to injury.

In the first Test in Mumbai, the Aussies stayed true to their form and defeated India by a margin of 10 wickets. But there was hope for skipper Sourav Ganguly in Kolkata as his team played the second Test in front of a packed Eden Gardens crowd.

Coming on to bat first, Australia piled on 445 runs in the first innings and forced India to a follow-on after making them all out for a mere 171. But to everyone’s surprise, a relatively unknown Hyderabadi VVS Laxman chose that fateful day to turn himself into a superstar, scoring a double century in trying conditions. An equally applaudable batting feat from Rahul Dravid saw India set up a target of 386 with 75 overs of play left.

Two lifelong fans turned authors, S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath, recreate that historical Test in their latest book “From Mumbai to Durban: India’s Greatest Tests”.

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By S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath

In 2001, Steve Waugh and his team had the swagger of an allconquering army. Australia had won 15 Tests on a reel, and the only country where they had not won a series since 1969 was India. Waugh called the Indian tour the ‘last frontier’. On the other hand, India was on the floor, still recovering from the match-fixing shake-up. In 14 Tests in two years, they had lost seven; they won only against Zimbabwe and New Zealand at home and against Bangladesh at Dhaka. Tendulkar had resigned from the captaincy in 2000, after a loss to South Africa, and some suggested it was a protest against bringing the ‘tainted’ Azharuddin and Mongia back into the side. Now they had a new captain in Ganguly, just three Tests into the job, untried and untested. A new coach, imported from New Zealand, was being resented by former Indian coaches Kapil and Anshuman Gaekwad. The Australians were enjoying this chaos. Their talk was a deliberate mix of claims, potshots and jibes, all part of their strategy that Waugh famously called ‘mental disintegration’. Like always, the Aussies’ focus was on the rival captain: throw him off balance and the rest of the side will be cooked. They did not know what they were getting into. To be honest, not many knew Ganguly, and the steel he was made of.

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Slater and Hayden took Australia to lunch at 24 for no loss off 12 overs. After lunch the two carried Australia to 74 before Slater was consumed by Harbhajan. Langer and Hayden took Australia past 100 by the 28th over, at which point Langer was caught close-in by Ramesh off Harbhajan. A snaky arm ball from Raju trapped Mark Waugh leg before. With the score at 116 for 3, there were 44 overs left. Steve Waugh joined Hayden and for almost an hour they played untroubled cricket, although Ganguly dropped Waugh. Then Harbhajan broke throuh, as substitute Hemang Badani, an agile fielder, took a sharp catch to his left at leg-slip to dismiss Waugh.

That dismissal burst open the dam gates. In India, and especially in Kolkata, on the fifth day, the pressure on visiting teams can be unbearable. Eden Gardens with over 80,000 excited spectators roaring as their spinners preyed on visiting batsmen has been one of the most gladiatorial sights in world cricket. On that fifth evening, Australia’s middle order experienced their most intimidating batting environment, and wilted. From 166 for 3 in the 46th over, Australia collapsed to 174 for 8 by the 51st over. Once Waugh got out, Ponting too went, caught close-in by Shivsundar Das, 166 for 5. He had a poor tour, his pinched expression throughout that series the only memory for Indians until his aggressive behaviour in Sydney in 2008. Some Australians like Benaud, Harvey, Gilchrist, Steve Waugh and Warne are remembered with affection by Indians of a certain generation, some like Ponting unfortunately are not.

At the other end, in an inspired move, Ganguly brought on Tendulkar, and in three consecutive overs after Harbhajan’s twin strikes, Tendulkar landed three crushing blows. He claimed the oak-like Hayden first and the dangerous Gilchrist in his next over, both lbw. Then in the 51st over of the innings, Tendulkar disposed of Warne with a googly for zero. His ability to land and turn his legbreak, googly and off break sent the crowd into raptures. John Wright wrote: ‘Th e crowd and the Indian players feed off one another…wickets tend to fall in clusters...delirium reigns and the stands literally shake.’

With 25 overs to go, just two wickets remained. Th e crowd was on edge and could not wait, expecting the next ball to deal the blow. But Kasprowicz and Gillespie defended and with every passing over, the oohs and aahs got more pronounced. Th en in the 60th over of the innings, Gillespie succumbed to the combination of Harbhajan and short-leg catcher Das. Th e 80,000 people collectively held their breath and exhaled with every ball for the next nine overs. Th e light would fade soon. Then Harbhajan bowled the ball that sealed it – not full, not short, McGrath put his front foot out but offered no stroke. The ball rapped him on the pads, umpire Bansal raised his finger and the stadium erupted. The players raced towards each other to embrace and celebrate. The crowd sent up the biggest roar of the day. ‘The greatest win ever’ was the headline of a column that Australian Malcolm Conn wrote for Sportstar. Vijay Lokapally wrote in Th e Hindu, ‘Whipped by critics, and ridiculed by some former players, this band of young performers silenced one and all with a fabulous achievement against the best team in the world.’

This Test was the making of Laxman and Harbhajan, but more importantly, it kick-started a glorious decade for Indian cricket. Till this game, Laxman had played 20 Tests for an average of 27. For the rest of his career, Laxman scored 7,915 runs in 114 matches, at an average of around 50 with 17 centuries and 51 fifties. He proved to be a fabulous match-winner. Harbhajan too had come from nowhere to become India’s bowling hero, with a match haul of 13 for 196 that included India’s first-ever hat-trick. In Chennai, he won the next Test and the series for India. Th e incredible 32 wickets in this three-Test series earned him the sobriquet ‘Turbanator’. Over the next nine years, in 84 Tests, Harbhajan would take 340 wickets. Still active in the circuit at the time of writing, he is the tenth highest wicket-taker in Test cricket with 417 scalps.

Looking back, one can easily argue this game perhaps had the greatest impact on Indian Test cricket. Not merely because it was one of the greatest fightbacks in history, but because it came at a juncture when Indian cricket was beleaguered, and needed it the most. It gave the billions for whom cricket is a religion hope, belief and conviction. If Indian cricket goes through any vicissitude in the future, it can always go back to Kolkata: Kolkata will always be the wellspring.

‘When India wins at Eden Gardens, the spectators light up their newspapers like torches. I hoped they were the editions in which we’d been written off … I’d played 80-odd Tests and seen a lot of cricket, but nothing to compare with that game. It was a privilege to be in the Indian dressing room that evening,’ Wright wrote nostalgically, in the chapter aptly titled ‘The greatest comeback since Lazarus.’

Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut Books from “From Mumbai to Durban: India’s greatest tests” by S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath.

Available in bookstores and juggernaut.in

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