Renaissance, though defined as rebirth or resurgence, broadly refers to the period in European history that witnessed revival of arts and culture. This coincided with other developments in the field of science, commerce and industry that together resulted in the countries of this continent emerging as the great powers of the world. Every sphere of life witnesses such revivals and sports is no exception. When it comes to Indian cricket, 1971 is generally considered as the year that saw a turnaround in the fortunes of the national side that won their maiden Test series in West Indies and England. Dilip Sardesai, the middle order batsman who held the Indian batting together during the tour of West Indies in 1971, is widely hailed as the “Renaissance Man” of Indian cricket.
However, another renaissance of Indian cricket took place 30 years later, which set off a chain of events that saw the country emerge as the top side in the world in all formats of the game in a decade. The year 2000 was a bad one for the game in India as the side suffered defeats against Australia and South Africa in back to back Test series. Worse followed when the game was rocked by allegations of match-fixing and players taking bribes for deliberately underperforming and passing on inside information about the matches. The fans of the game in the country were shocked as those facing allegations included former captains, who were worshiped as icons worthy of emulation. The popularity of the game and the players nosedived and the performance of the national side also took a beating.
Waugh's final frontier
The all-conquering Australian side led by Steve Waugh landed in India for a three-Test series in 2001. Waugh’s men had won 15 Test matches on the trot and were looking to create history by winning a Test series in India for the first time since 1969-70. When the visitors won the first Test in Mumbai by a huge margin, it appeared that Indians were in no state to stop the Aussie juggernaut from achieving their goal. Indian batting was in a shambles with Sachin Tendulkar alone showing the necessary skill to cope with the Aussie attack led by Glenn McGrath and the legendary Shane Warne. Skipper Sourav Ganguly and his deputy Rahul Dravid appeared to be woefully out of form while others did not inspire any confidence with the bat.
When the second Test match began at Kolkata, knives were out for Ganguly. The large contingent of Australian media personnel who accompanied their side had started targeting the Indian skipper who was going through a bad patch with the bat. He was also the butt of gossip about his relationship with a prominent film actress. In fact his biographer Gulu Ezekial had written that Aussie players would greet him with the question “How is Nagma?” each time he arrived at the wicket to bat!
Australia won the toss and batted first when the Test match began at Eden Gardens on March 11, 2001. Their innings was held together by a workman like century by skipper Waugh and a stroke-filled 97 by opener Mathew Hayden. Harbhajan Singh, the Indian off-spinner, took a hat-trick, and had reduced the visitors to 269 for eight at one stage. But Waugh, in the company of first Jason Gillespie and later McGrath, took the total to 445 before becoming the last batsman to be dismissed.
When their turn came to bat, none of the Indian batsmen could get going. Tendulkar was dismissed for 10, while Dravid and Ganguly made it to the 20s before losing their wickets. The only batsman who tackled the Aussie bowlers with some degree of comfort was V V S Laxman. After the fall of Ganguly, with the total on 88, he took charge and ensured that the scoreboard kept moving, despite the regular loss of wickets. He marshaled the strike when last man Venkatesh Prasad joined him and the duo added 42 runs before Laxman was dismissed by Warne for 59. The Indian innings closed at 171, conceding the visitors a first innings lead of 274 runs. Waugh did not hesitate to invoke the follow on rule and asked the Indian batsmen to bat again.
Indian openers fared better in the second innings and when the first wicket fell with the total at 52, it was Laxman who strode out to the wicket. Both coach John Wright and Ganguly have claimed credit for this decision to promote Laxman to the No. 3 position. Laxman continued from where he had left off in the first innings and settled down straightaway, treating all the bowlers with a degree of comfort that was heartening for the nearly 80,000 spectators who were watching the match at Eden Gardens. Shiv Sundar Das and Laxman took the Indian total to 97 when the former trod on his wicket while facing Jason Gillespie who was the pick of the Australian bowlers. Tendulkar, the next man in, got into his stride quickly but Gillespie snared him into edging a superb outswinger that moved just a fraction. Gilchirst’s happy shout when he held the catch and the celebrations that followed indicated that the Aussies thought that they had the match in their bag once they saw the back of Tendulkar.
Ganguly joined Laxman at the crease at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket. Though not in the best of form, the skipper stuck around gamely with Laxman and the pair added 117 runs for the fourth wicket. Just as it appeared that this pair would see India through the day, McGrath managed to coax the Indian captain to poke his bat at one outside his off stump and Gilchrist made no mistake behind the stumps. India were still 42 runs away from avoiding an innings defeat when Dravid walked out to join Laxman. The two played watchfully and ensured that there was no further loss of wickets before play ended on day three. India ended the day at 254 runs for the loss of four wickets, with Laxman who had reached his century, remaining unbeaten on 109.
The fourth day of this Test match would not be forgotten by any person who was fortunate to witness the proceedings on the ground, see it on television or listen to the radio commentary. Laxman started the day by driving the first ball he received to the fence and this set the tempo for the day. He was in such sublime touch that he repeated this act of hitting boundary off the first ball he faced after lunch and tea break as well. Dravid was more circumspect, which was only to be expected given the fact that he was going through a lean patch. Hence Laxman took the lead and attacked the Aussie bowlers who tried every trick that they knew.
New ball was taken when Indian total crossed 300 but Aussies found that it only helped Laxman to send the ball to the fence faster! Warne went around the wicket trying to bowl into the rough outside the leg stump of the right-hand batsman but Laxman calmly stepped aside and lofted him over the fielder at cover for consecutive boundaries. Dravid reached his half-century mark just before lunch and when the interval was taken, Indian total was 336 and Laxman had advanced to 171.
It was during the session between lunch and tea that fans of the home side first started entertaining the hope that the match could be saved. As Laxman and Dravid ground the Aussie bowling to the dust, Indian hopes started soaring. In the 29 overs bowled between lunch and tea, the Indian duo added 115 run and for once Dravid matched Laxman in the rate of scoring. Both the batsmen reached personal landmarks during this session - while Laxman completed his double century off 304 balls with help of 35 boundaries, Dravid reached his century off 205 balls. By now despair could be seen on the faces of Australians as skipper Waugh tried out as many as nine bowlers to separate this pair, without any success.
Battling it out
The only way in which Australia could have expected a breakthrough during the last session was on account of fatigue getting the better of either batsmen. It was a hot day and the presence of a full house in the stadium must have increased the temperature by another 3-4 degrees, while also pushing up the humidity. It would be an understatement to say that both batsmen were tired. They were completely exhausted but they hung on gamely determined not to lose their wickets. It was an ordeal but Laxman and Dravid remained unseparated when stumps were drawn at the close of day's play with the former remaining unbeaten on 275 and latter batting on 155. India was ahead by 276 runs and discussion had already stated about the timing of the declaration.
It was an amazing day's cricket. The pair of Laxman and Dravid had added 296 runs during the day without being separated. When Laxman crossed 236, he became the owner of the highest score by an Indian in Test cricket, eclipsing the record held by Sunil Gavaskar. But more than the records, the pair of Laxman and Dravid showed that it was possible to stop the Aussie juggernaut which had hitherto looked invincible. Both players collapsed once they reached the dressing room and had to be administered intravenous fluids to help them recover.
India batted for another hour on the last day before Ganguly declared the innings with the total at 657/7. Laxman was dismissed early in the day for 281 but Dravid stayed on and added 25 runs at a brisk rate before he was run out. The declaration left Aussies staring at a target of 384 in a maximum number of 75 overs, an almost impossible one to attain, given the fact that scoring runs briskly is extremely difficult on wickets in the Indian subcontinent on the last day of a Test match.
Australia had to tackle not only the vagaries of the pitch when they started their second innings. They found that Indians had a spring in their stride. The extraordinary batting of Laxman and Dravid had metamorphosed them into a side hungry for success. With the packed stadium lending them remarkable vocal support, Indians went for the jugular. Aussie openers put on 74 runs for the first wicket but once they were dismissed, wickets started falling at regular intervals. Harbhajan was virtually unplayable making the balls to turn and jump and, on occasions, even to spit like a cobra. Skipper Waugh, who had the reputation for sticking it out in such difficult situations, tried to steady the ship but could not keep Harbhajan at bay for too long. The Australian innings quickly unfolded once their captain was dismissed leaving the lower order batsmen and tail enders at the mercy of the Indian spinners. As if make up for his relative failure with the bat, Tendulkar too got among the wickets, dismissing Hayden, Gilchrist and Warne with his mix of leg spin and googlies! When Harbhajan trapped McGrath in front of the wicket to signal the end of the match, a mighty roar erupted from the stadium, which could have been heard by persons following the game in Sydney!
This victory marked the turning point in the history of Indian cricket. Emboldened by this win and the subsequent triumph in the series, Ganguly grew into a strong leader of men who molded the side into a fighting unit that could take on the West Indies, England, Australia and Pakistan on their home turf and record victories. He also groomed a set of youngsters who took Indian cricket to the next level. Indian cricket was never the same again as the team went from strength to strength winning the ICC T20 World cup in 2007, attaining the top Test side status in 2010, and lifting the ultimate prize - the ICC World Cup - in 2011.
Neither Laxman nor Dravid figured in the sides that won the World Cup. But the whole nation would always look upon them with reverence and gratitude for what they achieved for India through their incredible fightback at Kolkata in 2001. To many cricket lovers, including this author, March 14, 2001, would remain the Renaissance Day of Indian cricket and these two players would always have a place in our hearts as the artistes who scripted this miracle.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)