Published on May 25th, 2018 | by Anindya Dutta0
CS Flashback: Opening Foursome – The Story of Test Cricket’s Most Extraordinary Opening Partnership🕓 Reading time:8 minutes
It was a jolly bash for the Indian batsmen at Dhaka……
In May 2007 when India visited Bangladesh for a two-Test series, the hosts were standing at a crossroads. Over a period of 7-years, since the first Test match against India in November 2000, Bangladesh had played 44 Tests and their solitary success had been against Zimbabwe at Chittagong in 2005.
But the cricketing journey had not been without its rewards, much of which had come in the limited overs format. The most recent had been a stunning 5-wicket victory over India at the World Cup which had knocked the sub-continent giants out of the competition after the league stage for the first time in 28-years.
The loss to Bangladesh had been followed by a defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka and the consequent early exit had created turmoil in the Indian cricket fraternity. Coach Greg Chappell finally lost his job after a contentious stint at the helm, several players spoke out publicly about him, and Ravi Shastri was pulled from the commentary box into the dressing room to become the interim coach.
Back across the Padma, there were many who thought that the Caribbean performance was an indication of where Bangladesh cricket was heading. A team that had gone five years without a win had beaten India, entered the Super Eights and beaten South Africa as well for good measure. Habibul Bashar’s young ‘Tigers’ were naturally basking in the glory of these victories which had come barely two months before the Test series, and looking with confidence to put one over the visitors in the longer format of the game.
It all looked good for the dawn of a new era in Bangladesh cricket, and there was no reason to doubt this optimism when the first Test match was drawn. The two teams then travelled to Dhaka to face off in the final match of the series.
Lady Luck is an Unforgiving Mistress
Rahul Dravid brought to the toss the experience of the 108 Test matches he had been involved in. Joining him there was Habibul Bashar leading a Bangladesh team with a combined knowledge of the 44 Tests that they had played until then. While that could be an excuse that exonerated Habibul Bashar and his boys for what happened next, it was unquestionably damning for their coach Dav Whatmore who had broad international coaching experience in addition to a glittering domestic and international career with Australia.
On a pitch that would bring tears of despair to the eyes of the most optimistic bowler, Habibul Bashar won the toss and invited Dravid to bat first. A stunned Dravid walked back to the dressing room with a bemused smile that would only grow wider over the next 3 days. When the inevitable post-mortem was done, Whatmore would say the decision was taken at a meeting between the captain, the vice-captain, the selectors, and himself.
Wasim Jaffer who had been seeking to consolidate his claim for an opening slot in the national side, walked out to open the batting with Dinesh Karthik. The mental state of the two could not have been more different. Jaffer had suffered the ignominy of a pair in the previous Test, while Karthik had scored a half-century and looked in good touch. But this was a batting paradise and Jaffer was in no mood to waste another precious chance.
The opening pair played themselves in while the Bangladesh bowlers toiled in the first session. Karthik was dropped at second slip by Shakib Al Hasan when he was 10 and India 18, and Jaffer offered a chance in the second ball after lunch but Mohammad Rafique failed to hold on. These would be expensive misses.
Karthik then went after the bowlers with his quick feet and flashing blade and single-handedly changed the momentum of the game. He scored 60 from 69 deliveries after lunch but was distinctly lucky to survive a caught behind decision in the afternoon session off Mohammad Sharif. Lady Luck, it seemed, had deserted Bangladesh after the toss.
The Extraordinary Opening Stand
Late May is not the most salubrious time of the year to be playing cricket in Bangladesh. At the stroke of tea, his youth and fitness notwithstanding, Karthik was forced to retire owing to the heat and humidity. The captain walked in. At the other end Jaffer had discovered his domestic magic – driving sublimely, pulling magnificently, he was galloping towards his fourth century. The on-drive that heralded his ton was one of the highlights clips.
But with his personal score at 138 and India 281 for no loss, Jaffer’s mental toughness built upon Bombay cricket’s training that demands all its batsmen be ‘Khadoos’ (“It is an internal thing, a firming up of resolve in the face of adversity, steely nerves in match situations, bringing out all the skill that practice builds” is how Sanjay Manjrekar once described it) met its match in the limitations of his body being able to withstand the heat and humidity. He retired and was replaced by fellow Mumbaikar, Sachin Tendulkar who drove, cut and pulled with impunity, transforming leather hunting into a viable profession for the fieldsmen. Dravid finished the day with an unbeaten 88. Even in the final few minutes of play, he took the attack to the opposition, with a six over long-on off Mohammad Ashraful late in the day showing his level of confidence.
At the end of Day 1, India was 326 without loss. The next best score on the first day of a Test match with the opening pair (or in this case pairs) still at the crease had been 301 by Australia at Trent Bridge against England in 1989. It was also the first time India had not lost a wicket on a fully completed first day of a Test match. With both openers retiring ill, this was also the first instance in Test cricket of four batsmen combining to add more than 300 runs for the first wicket. It had been a day for the history books.
Day 2 would be unusual in that it saw a different Sachin Tendulkar walk out to the middle. Where the Sachin of the first day had been flamboyant and brutal on the bowlers, the man Dhaka saw on Day 2 was dour and diffident, doling out respect to the bowlers where none was due. Dravid, on the other hand, looked ominous as he brought up his 24th hundred, and the two had added 127 runs. India was 408 for no loss, and Pankaj Roy/Vinoo Mankad’s world record 413 for the opening partnership looked in danger of being broken for the second time in five decades.
A year earlier Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, opening the batting against Pakistan at Lahore had faltered at the finishing line, Sehwag perishing with the score reading 410. Here, batting on 129, it was Dravid who spooned an easy catch to point off Rafique. The first wicket stand involving four different batsmen had finally ended, but history would continue being created until Dravid finally declared later that day.
A Mammoth Score
Notwithstanding the batting master classes that were being doled out, the fact that it had taken Bangladesh 108.2 overs to pick up India’s first wicket was no lost on the home fans. Habibul Bashar’s decision to field first had spectacularly backfired.
Dravid’s exit saw a rehydrated and refreshed Dinesh Karthik walking in to continue his unfinished innings of 82. After his century which came with just one ball remaining before lunch, Karthik took on the bowlers. The lofted shots off the fast bowlers and the slog-sweep off the spinners showed the levels of his self-assurance. Finally, with his score on 130, he top-edged a pull off Mashrafe Mortaza and was dismissed. India was now 493 for 2. Sourav Ganguly walked in.
But first a word on Tendulkar. It is true that for Sachin Tendulkar, any failure to dominate an average attack was often blown out of proportion, but the struggles of this phase of his career were never more evident than at Dhaka. On a placid pitch against a tired pedestrian attack, Tendulkar faced 50% of the deliveries during his stay and scored less than 40% of the runs. When Ganguly walked in, Tendulkar on 83 should have taken charge. Instead, he went into a shell, trudging his way to a 37th hundred. Ganguly, in less than stellar form, perished trying to accelerate. India was 525 for 3.
Young MS Dhoni walked in with his long hair and accompanying swagger and proceeded to swing his bat with brutality and sweetness of timing in equal measure. He was providing an early exhibition of the ‘MS Dhoni special’ that the world would come to love and respect over the next decade and more. Dhoni scored 51 off 61 deliveries and a suitably inspired Tendulkar opened up after his century.
At 610 for 3, Dravid called in his men signalling the end of the innings. For the first time in the history of the game, the top four batsmen had been involved in a first wicket stand in the same innings and each of them had gone on to score a century.
The Zaheer Khan Show
If the Bangladesh batsmen had planned to take inspiration from the Indian batting display, Zaheer Khan soon demonstrated to them the futility of such thought. By the end of Day 2, Bangladesh had been reduced to 58 for 5. Standing like the boy on a burning deck, Shakib Al Hasan had scored 30 of them. Javed Omar was dismissed off the first ball of the innings and would repeat his performance in the second, earning himself the dubious fame of a king pair. Early the next day Bangladesh was dismissed for 118 and India had a lead of 492, the highest lead they had ever enjoyed going into the second innings of a Test match. Zaheer’s haul was 5 for 34 and Kumble had chipped in with 3 for 32.
Following on, the brightest spark in the Bangladesh innings was Mohammad Ashraful’s quickfire 50 that came in 26 balls, becoming the second fastest half-century in the history of Test cricket. Siddharth Monga in his ESPN Cricinfo match report described it thus: “The very first ball, when others in his state would be looking to play it out, his bat went high and he whipped it past square leg for one, and the intent was clear. The second ball he faced was defended solidly. From the third, he began an assault that was as breathtaking and delightful as it was hopeless. Zaheer Khan pitched up and was driven through mid-off.
Zaheer bowled a yorker next, which was defended well. Another length ball was driven through extra cover, another boundary came through fine leg, and all of a sudden life had returned to Shere-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in the time span of one over. Everyone knew there was no chance of a contest, yet everyone was engaged. When they bowled length and full, they were driven through the covers; when they bowled short, they were pulled; when they strayed on the stumps, they were flicked.”
Finally, Ashraful tried to loft Anil Kumble over mid-wicket, got too close to the pitch of the ball, and gave an easy catch to Sachin Tendulkar. Bangladesh battled on, Mashrafe Mortaza played a wonderful innings of 70 for 102 balls, but the defiance had come too late and it was not enough.
Just before stumps on Day 3 Bangladesh was dismissed for 253. India had won by an innings and 239 runs. There were four centurions in the match, but Zaheer Khan, for the first time in the last 47 Tests, was adjudged the Man of the Match, rewarded for his 7 wickets that had run through the Bangladesh side.
A Turning Point
The series would be a turning point for India, as often happens when shattered confidence is restored by rejuvenating success. A few months after Dhaka, MS Dhoni would lead a young team with a combined experience of one international match to the World T20 Cup title, reinstating with the lift of a single trophy, the dented confidence of 1.3 billion cricket fans.
The IPL would be born, changing the future of world cricket and the bank balances of thousands of young cricketers. BCCI would become the richest cricket board in the world and take up a dominant position in the sport. The 2011 World Cup would follow, finally wiping away the bitter memories of 2007, and over the next decade, India would enjoy two reigns as the top Test nation in the world, first under Dhoni and then under Virat Kohli.
It all started that 25th day of May in 2007 when four men combined to form the most extraordinary opening partnership in the history of Test cricket.