The English sports fans are a fickle lot when it comes to bare bodies in the summer, as the Indians found out in 2002.
Give them a ten-second view of Rafael Nadal changing a T-shirt on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, and they clamour for more. They beseech him to take it off again well before he feels the need. Give them a charged up Sourav Ganguly waving his shirt with a bare torso from the Lord’s balcony, and 15-years later they are still talking about it in shocked whispers in the Long Room. Never mind that Andrew Flintoff did the same after an English victory at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai earlier that year.
Notwithstanding the selective prudishness, that picture of Sourav Ganguly on the Lord’s balcony remains one of the immortal images of cricketing triumph in the minds of a billion Indians.
To understand the importance of the moment when the Indian captain went against a century of tradition at Lord’s, and told the world in no uncertain times that this team was here to compete hard on the field and off it wearing its heart on its sleeve, we need to go back to the extraordinary events of that day.
It was 15-years ago to the day when Ganguly’s young team broke the mental shackles that had bound Indian cricket, a day that was to irreversibly change the trajectory of Indian cricket for the next two decades.
On a glorious summer’s day at Lord’s when Sourav Ganguly stepped out to the middle for the toss and promptly lost it, he must have thought the Gods were truly against him and his team. Nine times had his talented team reached the finals of One Day International tournaments in recent years, and nine times they had come away second best. Word was starting to get around that the chokers tag had a new home to call its own. To the intensely competitive man that he was, this fact rankled like nothing else in the world.
England goes after the bowling
The approach of England’s openers did nothing to improve his mood.
Marcus Trescothick and Nick Knight went after the Indian bowlers from the start. It got worse once Knight departed playing all over a Zaheer Khan delivery. Nasser Hussain came in took up the best seat in the house as Trescothick flayed the Indian bowling to all parts of the ground, bringing up his 50 in 40 balls by flicking Zaheer for a six over mid-wicket. The introduction of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, India’s famed spin duo did nothing to stop the carnage.
In desperation, Ganguly brought himself on to get a breakthrough, a move that often worked. It did this time as well, but not quite in the way the Indian skipper had imagined. Hussain, who had been struggling with his timing, scored 28 runs from Ganguly’s three overs and signaled his return to form.
Hussain and Trescothick put on 185 from 177 balls before the latter finally had his stumps knocked back trying to sweep a fast Kumble delivery but not before racing to an 89-ball century with six fours and two sixes.
Hussain took over the mantle of scoring with Andrew Flintoff by his side and England was going well at over 6 runs an over at this stage. By the time Ashish Nehra got through his defences, Hussain had scored his first century from the 72 internationals that he had been a part of so far.
As he completed his 100 from 118 balls, the crowd got its first whiff of the drama that was to define this match. Nasser Hussain celebrated by making a series of impassioned gestures towards the Press Box, pointing to the No.3 on the back of his shirt. For the past several months, certain members of the press had been questioning his position in the batting order, and this was Hussain’s payback time. England finished with 325 from their allotted 50 overs at 6.50 runs per over.
India has an Everest to climb
Ganguly’s boys had their work cut out for them. If they were to win this match, they would have to play out of their skins and put on 326, a score they had never achieved in a successful chase. They had the batting to do it, but did they have the mental strength to accompany their talent?
Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag came out to open the innings with the knowledge that a good start was the only way they could give themselves a fighting chance of winning this. Usually, India could depend on Sehwag to provide it, and the English opening attack were acutely aware of this fact, having been at the receiving end of carnage more often than they cared to remember.
But this was a day of unexpected twists and continuing drama.
The blitzkrieg that Darren Gough, Freddie Flintoff and Alex Tudor endured came unexpectedly from the blade of Sourav Ganguly. The hundred came up in 80 balls, and Ronnie Irani’s appearance at the crease as a ‘partnership breaker’ had about as much impact as Ganguly’s own effort had been, with 16 runs the net result of his one over.
Finally, Ganguly perished for a 43-ball 60 with India’s score at 106, and was replaced by Dinesh Mongia. Mongia did not last long, ruled out to a catch behind the wicket on a delivery he had kept a reasonable distance from.
Dravid’s exertions behind the wicket earlier in the day perhaps proved too much for him as he perished early, followed almost immediately by Sachin Tendulkar. A Sachin dismissal in the middle of a big chase almost had an air of inevitability his critics would later say. Be that as it may, India was 146 for 5 in the 24th over, and this looked like a script that had been played out nine times before.
The overwhelmingly Indian crowd had fallen completely silent and were preparing for the now familiar words of disappointment from a despondent Ganguly at the post-match presentation. Fortunately, there were two young men in the Indian team, who, undoubtedly displaying their naivety, had not read this script.
The young guns step up to the plate
Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh, with a combined wisdom of 42 years behind them had come to win a cricket match, unsullied by past baggage. So when the big guns departed, they settled down to a build a partnership exhibiting application that their illustrious seniors like Dravid and Tendulkar would have done well to emulate.
The asking rate kept climbing, but Yuvraj and Kaif went about their job displaying maturity far beyond their years, running brilliantly and converting ones to twos and twos to threes when the bowling was tight, displaying beautiful timing and placement when the bowlers erred, and steadily frustrating the English bowlers who could not wait to open their champagne bottles.
And then they opened up. With some of the cleanest hitting seen at Lord’s in years, the pair put on 121 from 106 balls. Then Yuvraj fell for a superbly compiled 69 to a top edged sweep. A defiant Harbhajan Singh came in and carried on where Yuvraj had left off, and India raced to 314 in the 48th over, with the seemingly impossible within reach.
The entire Indian team was now on the balcony, cheering every run. Then Harbhajan was yorked and Kumble fell without scoring. India needed 12 from 12 balls with Zaheer Khan joining Kaif in the middle. Unbitten nails were in short supply at Lord’s at this stage.
Kaif lashed out at Gough in the 49th over to take 10 and when Flintoff came to bowl the last over, India needed two runs to snatch an unlikely victory with Zaheer on strike. Two dot balls, then Zaheer pushed the third to cover and scampered for a single. The scores were level. But a desperate throw at the stumps went past and the batsmen ran two. Lord’s erupted.
India had conquered their demons after nine ODI finals losses, and the self-belief that had seeped into the young team with the famous Test victory at the Eden Gardens over Steve Waugh’s Australia the previous winter, was to now extend to all forms of the game. It was to culminate in MS Dhoni holding up the World Cup in 2011, sealing the win with an epoch defining six and establishing India firmly as a cricketing superpower.
But it all started that special moment when Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly took off his shirt at Lord’s 15 years ago.