“You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no…anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just — exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever… lost.”
—Remus Lupin on the Dementor’s Kiss (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
It has been nine years since Kolkata, and Australian cricket has just about recovered from the 281 nightmares that VVS Laxman had inflicted upon them. Little does Australia know that their personal ‘Dementor’ is not done with them and a last kiss from him awaits when they come to play the first Test at Mohali in 2010.
The Weight of History
When Ricky Ponting goes out to toss, he does not feel anything like the second most successful captain ever in Test cricket that his record shows he is.
Over the previous ten years, Australia have lost more Tests to India than they have won, a decade when for much of the time Australia was the best team in the world. The last time Australia had beaten India was two years earlier at Sydney. Since that time the two teams had faced each other six times. India had won at Perth, Mohali and Nagpur. Adelaide, Bangalore and Delhi were drawn. MS Dhoni has not yet lost a Test series as captain. And VVS Laxman, a decade older and with a sore back, is still around as a thorn in the side of the Aussies.
Australia gets off to a good start
It is a huge relief for the Aussies when Ponting wins the toss and decides to bat on a pitch that is likely to get slower as the match progresses.
Ponting’s smile widens when Shane Watson is put down by Sehwag at gully off Zaheer Khan on the second ball of the match. Zaheer comes right back in his third over with a trademark in-swinging ball which traps Katich plumb in front. Australia is 13 for 1.
But Ponting joins Watson and the pair puts on 142 runs before Ponting is run out. With Watson scoring 126, and wicketkeeper Tim Paine holding the lower order together with a patient career-high 92 in 294 balls, Australia piles up a significant first innings total of 428.
India responds in style
As is to be expected when Virender Sehwag opens the batting, India races to 81 before Mitchell Johnson traps Gautam Gambhir in front of the stumps. Sehwag follows soon after spooning a delivery from Johnson that is angling into him from the leg stump into the hands of the cover fielder. India were 106 for 2.
With four minutes to go stumps, Dhoni sends in Ishant Sharma as the nightwatchman to accompany Dravid. While Sharma has a batting average of 8 which is if anything flattering to his abilities, Dhoni figures that having bowled only 11 overs of the 150 that India had sent down conceding 71 runs, the least Sharma can do for the team cause is offer a dead bat for a couple of overs.
The next morning Ishant is still there and finally gives way with his score at 18 to the only man Australia fears as much as Laxman – Sachin Tendulkar. Dravid finally goes with his score at 77, Suresh Raina plays a gem of an innings to score 86 and Tendulkar in a rare lapse of concentration in his 90’s, misses a leg glance to an off-break and is trapped in front, two short of his century.
Australia’s nemesis VVS has a bad back and is unable to come in until late in the innings, accompanied by a runner. But Laxman does not last long as his back prevents him from stretching forward in defense to a flighted ball outside off which takes an edge to first slip. India is all out for 405 and concedes a 23-run lead.
The match takes an unexpected turn
If the first half of the match has been about the batsmen, the second half will be about the bowlers.
Australia gets off to a good start with Watson and Katich adding 87. Then Ishant Sharma puts on one of the short bursts of unplayable bowling that has kept his career going between extended periods of mediocrity. He runs through the top order taking out Watson, Ponting and Michael Clark in rapid succession. Then Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh get into the act, outing the middle order. The tail has no answer to Zaheer Khan’s swinging yorkers and Australia is all out for 192, leaving India more than a day to score 216 for a win.
India, however, has a shocking start.
Gambhir inside edges a ball from Hilfenhaus onto his stumps, the umpire doesn’t spot it, and India is 0 for 1. Dravid flirts with one outside the off stump and succeeds in handing Paine a catch behind the stumps. Sehwag tries a delicate glide to third man only to spoon a catch to gully, and Raina responds to his nemesis the short ball with the (oft proven and lesson unlearnt) misguided belief in his ability to play the hook shot. India is 48 for 4, the Aussie bowlers have their tails up. This chase now looks like a daunting task.
This time Zaheer comes in as nightwatchman and along with Tendulkar takes India safely to stumps.
The Final Day – A Master-class in Mohali
Nursing a bad back which has only got worse over the course of the match, and accompanied by a runner in the form of Suresh Raina, VVS Laxman walks out to the middle when Zaheer goes early.
When Tendulkar departs with India’s score at 119, and Dhoni follows soon after to leave India tottering at 122 for 7, the Australians celebrate. Harbhajan is then done in by a real snorter from Bollinger, and a signal is sent to the Australian dressing room to put the champagne on ice, for without any recognised batsmen left and Laxman visibly struggling, the innings will not take long to wrap up.
But once again, the Australians have confused the improbable with the impossible. Not for the first time, they have underestimated the resolve of their nemesis.
In 2001 at Kolkata, Laxman had done the impossible. It was an innings which Jarrod Kimber would later describe in Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography thus:
“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 middle, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket by giving up. He batted, they took no wicket.”
For those two days in Kolkata, a fit Laxman at the peak of his prowess had Rahul Dravid for the company as they proceeded to end Australia’s phenomenal run of 15 victories in a row. In Mohali in 2010, it required a different approach for India to do the improbable. Nothing was the same, and yet everything was the same. It was VVS Laxman versus Australia, and when that happened, you made predictions at your own peril.
In going for the kill, the Aussies forget a lesson that every hunter knows – a cornered tiger reacts in only one way. Laxman attacks with authoritative cuts and pulls, the back pain ignored. The Australians murmur their appreciation at the first few. Then they remember Kolkata and they stop.
Bolstered by his bowling success and the confidence his first innings stint had given him, Ishant Sharma then joins the party. As often happens when three batsmen are out in the middle instead of two, there is confusion while running. Dhoni has already been a victim and Ishant barely survives. Then he gloves a bouncer for four. Laxman reaches his 50 off 48 balls. As India goes past 200, Ponting’s nail chewing intensifies.
With 11 runs to get, Ishant finally departs unable to keep a Hilfenhaus delivery from hitting his pads. Without DRS, notwithstanding the fact that the ball was going down leg, India is down to its last wicket.
The only man in the team with a batting average worse than Ishant’s, and significantly more wickets he has bagged in Test cricket than runs he has scored, now joins Laxman in the middle. The senior partner walks down to Pragyan Ojha and gives him a simple message “Survive and give me the strike.”
It goes well for some time, then a seminal moment in Test cricket and VVS Laxman’s career happens. With six runs to get and facing the fourth ball of the over, Laxman plays the ball to mid-off and calls for a run. Raina takes off but Ojha is watching the ball and stays put.
For the only known moment in Test cricket history, VVS Laxman loses his temper.
Laxman speaks later about the moment captured forever on a YouTube video that goes viral: “It was one of those moments when I lost control over my emotions. It was a fantastic Test match. It was so close and I didn’t want to lose the game from that position. It was the fourth ball of the over. Hifenhaus [Ben] was bowling and I wanted to take strike in the next over because Mitchell Johnson was on from the other end and he was bowling really well. Suresh Raina was running for me and there was some agitation between Suresh Rain and Ojha, and Ojha ultimately didn’t take that run. In the heat of the moment, I lost control and started shouting. I don’t want to share the exact words I used that particular afternoon.”
The next over is a pure drama that you could not write for a TV soap opera.
Mitchell Johnson’s second ball traps Ojha in front. In one of those twists of fate, or perhaps as retribution for Gambhir and Harbhajan’s wrongful dismissals, Billy Bowden’s bent finger remains in his pocket. Ojha wanders out of his crease and substitutes Steve Smith throws at the stumps, misses, and the ball goes for four overthrows.
With two runs to get and a nervous last man facing up to him, Johnson ups his pace but strays onto the leg stump. More by luck than design, the ball trickles down to fine leg after hitting Ojha’s body. Raina and Ojha scamper through for 2. India wins.
Laxman turns towards the dressing room and holds his arms aloft. Then he turns and envelopes Ojha and Raina in a huge hug. In a moment captured for eternity, all three are screaming in joy.
Six of Laxman’s 17 career centuries came against Australia. But the 73 not out that delivers this slenderest of victories in Mohali (it was the first time India had won a match by one wicket) will rank as one of his finest acts of defiance in an already remarkable Test career.
On the gilded shelf of Test cricket history labelled ‘VVS Laxman Specials‘, the tale of the Magic in Mohali is added alongside the Legend of Kolkata.