Invincible Steve and his mates come to town
Indian cricket had its eureka moment in 1983 when Kapil Dev held aloft the Prudential World Cup at Lord’s, his face displaying happiness and disbelief in equal measure. But as it often happens, one event, one victory, one triumph against adversity, changes everything. So the 1983 victory did for India, setting the country on a journey towards cricketing glory and financial dominance of the game in a way no Oscar-winning screenplay writer could have scripted.
But in 2001, eighteen years after that momentous day at Lord’s, India had not yet fulfilled its destiny, and while it had a team that was confident about its own abilities, it also knew that mere self-belief would not ensure its triumph over the side that faced them now.
Australia had always been a good Test side, but under Steve Waugh, it had become an almost impossibly successful team that was drawing favourable comparisons with Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles and Clive Lloyd’s West Indies side of the 1970’s and 80’s. Coming into the series, the team had won 15 straight Test matches, an incredible achievement. After the 10-wicket victory within three days in the first Test match at Mumbai, the string of wins had increased to 16. 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 first three days at the Eden Gardens
When Steve Waugh won the toss on a beautiful Eden Gardens pitch and chose to bat, Sourav Ganguly captaining the team on his home ground, prepared for the inevitable long hours chasing the cherry. And he was right.
The Aussie score was 193 before both the openers Slater and Hayden were back in the pavilion. A grinding 110 in a five-hour stay at the crease from skipper Steve Waugh was enough to take the Australians to a final score of 445. In the shadow of that total, Harbhajan Singh’s lion-hearted effort in picking up 7 wickets for 123 runs sending down 37.5 overs including India’s first Test hat-trick, would go almost unheralded.
India’s innings could not have had a worse start.
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 elements and Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne kept the pressure up. When Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly found themselves back in the hut in rapid succession, India was gasping at 92 for 6.
At the crease was a certain VVS Laxman, showing none of the discomforts his colleagues were exhibiting. Laxman started taking as much of the strike as possible, but he 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.
Not surprisingly, Waugh imposed the follow-on and in the Australian camp, after sixteen and a half victories, morale was high.
The Indian start was more sedate this time and 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 the 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.
Laxman had been promoted up the order by coach John Wright given the form he had shown in the first innings, or perhaps as Jarrod Kimber would later suggest: “gambling on form, gambling on hope”. In fact, Laxman had not even been allowed to take off his pads after he was last out in the first innings.
Captain Ganguly himself joined him at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket. The pair then took the score to 232 before Ganguly succumbed to a tantalisingly pitched McGrath delivery that kissed his bat on the way to Gilchrist’s gloves. Rahul Dravid, dropped down the order, now joined Laxman.
Dravid and Laxman had made their debuts within six months of each other and they would announce their retirements within six months of each other. In the slips they would stand next to each other and talk “about kids, house construction, plumbers, electricians, running errands” as Dravid would once tell journalist Nagraj Gollapudi. At the crease, they were calmness personified, Dravid responding to the (usually Aussie) sledging with 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.
This then was the pair that took India to stumps at the end of Day 3 in Kolkata.
The Aussies were ready to celebrate. Matthew Hayden recalls: “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.”
On Day Four God created the stars, the sun and the moon
The Old Testament tells us about the 4th 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 the Test match that day in March 2001, two lights came together to generate brightness 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 the essence of it like Jarrod Kimber does in his book Test Cricket: The Unauthorised 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.
But VVS Laxman did not do the damage alone for he was helped along by a Rahul Dravid gaining back form and confidence just watching Laxman’s sublime strokes from the bowlers’ end, his own viral fever all but forgotten.
Laxman flick pulled McGrath and Gillespie through non-existent gaps. Dravid gritted his teeth and blocked his way back into form, and once he had the confidence, he 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 across the break. As the duo took Warne apart, Ian Chappell called Laxman’s effort “the best playing of spin bowling I’ve seen.”
Rahul Bhattacharya writing in Wisden described their partnership in terms of Indian classical music: “The beauty of a jugalbandi, a duet between classical soloists, is in the interplay. A jugalbandi is a duet in the same way as a batting partnership: not simultaneous, but one performer at a time, in improvisatory rotation. The great sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan said the idea was to both showcase and subdue oneself. As he hands over to his partner, the artist must judge how much to dissolve the tune. Dravid and Laxman dissolved into one another more harmoniously, more significantly, than any other Indian duo.”
Steve Waugh at some stage ran out of ideas, but to his credit, he kept trying. Kimber again: “Waugh had one of the greatest bowling attacks in cricket, and he was bowling Justin Langer.”
The duo batted through the day. They scored 335 runs together. 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.
Australia’s Ides of March
On the 15th of March precisely 2055 years after Julius Caesar met his maker at the hands of those he had underestimated, the Australians were facing the prospect of a similar end to their triumphant march to glory. The Ides of March was here.
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 put on 376. 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.
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, and his bowlers the opportunity to take as many wickets as they could. Not even Steve Waugh’s Australia had the will or the confidence to attempt the 384 runs needed for victory even if they thought about it for a while. The match needed to be saved. The cigars could wait.Then Harbhajan Singh got into the act….again. Pumped up by his 7-wicket haul in the first innings, and with a 5th 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.
At 167 for 5 Australia could still have saved the Test with Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist at the crease. Making an inspired bowling change, 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.
Then Harbhajan Singh trapped Glenn McGrath lbw and Australia had been dismissed for 212 leaving India victorious by 171 runs.
As VVS Laxman was to remind us at the launch of my book ‘Spell-binding Spells’ last year, “In the end it is bowlers who win matches. My 281 and Rahul’s 180 would have saved the Test but not won us the match if Harbhajan had not bowled so well and if Sachin had not come in and picked up those 3 wickets.”
The humble gentleman that Laxman is, in this instance he was being magnanimous, for it was his once-in-a-lifetime knock that would give 281 reasons for India to remember a famous victory.
The significance of Eden Garden 2001
India would go on to win the next Test and the series. It would break the longest winning streak in the history of Test cricket. More importantly, it would shatter the veneer of invincibility that had cloaked the Australian side and embolden the opposition with the belief that they could be bested.
Steve Waugh would remain unaffected by his decision to enforce the follow-on and do so the next seven times he had the chance. But he was a brave man. Australian fans, on the other hand, would forever be nervous when their captain took this step, and captains worldwide would hesitate to send the opposition in as the picture of VVS Laxman floated in front of their eyes every time they had to take the call.
The biggest impact of Kolkata 2001 would, however, be on the long-term future of Indian cricket.
Laxman would say: “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.”
Laxman was right.
While Kapil Dev’s team showed India that winning against the odds was possible, Sourav Ganguly and his side made winning a part of the Indian cricketing psyche.
At Adelaide in 2003, the lessons Laxman spoke of would be reinforced when India once again with backs to the wall at 85 for 4 would find Laxman and Dravid coming together. This time Dravid would score 233, Laxman 148. India would win the match by four wickets, her first Test victory in Australia in 23-years.
In 2007, young MS Dhoni would lead a brash young Indian side to an unlikely World T20 victory and in 2011 he would helicopter a shot into the crowd to bring home India’s second World Cup trophy. In 2017, Virat Kohli would lead India to nine successive series win.
And it all started that beautiful spring day of 14th March 2001 at Kolkata’s Garden of Eden.