VVS, Dravid and the Wonder of Eden
Eden Gardens was to have been Australia's theatre of dreams. Instead, it became their worst nightmare. The Australians were gracious enough to acknowledge that they had been laid asunder by a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but you could see that they were gutted. To their credit, they didn't carp or nitpick about a couple of questionable umpiring calls on the final day, nor did they offer any such fantastic excuse like the English.
It's 12 years to the day, but it seems as if it was only yesterday that Harbhajan Singh trapped Glenn McGrath in front to signal the end of one of the most fascinating Test matches ever. India have played host to some dramatic games, including only the second tie in the history of Test cricket, but for sheer drama, emotion and bouncebackability, the Test at the Eden Gardens in 2001 will remain unparalleled.
Even in isolation, India's sensational 171-run triumph was memorable. Having conceded 445 to Australia despite Harbhajan's hat-trick, the first by an Indian in Tests, India were rolled over for 171, and promptly asked to follow on by Steve Waugh. To come back from the dead, as it were, and fashion the most extraordinary turnaround will go down as a seminal moment in Indian, indeed world, cricket.
For a day and a bit, the Aussies just couldn't get VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid out. They tried everything at their disposal - and they had the resources, make no mistake - but the new No. 3 and the man with whom he swapped places, as Dravid dropped down to No. 6, thwarted every design, gradually transforming themselves from the hunted to the hunters, and doing it with a grace, felicity and dexterity that gradually demoralised Australia.
From 232 for 4, they batted on and on and on for over 100 overs, adding 376 of the finest, most celebrated runs in Test cricket. It was a partnership that was to change the face of the game.
It was on the back of the alliance between the two old friends that India found themselves in with an outstanding chance of pulling off victory. Only thrice previously had a team fought back from being asked to follow on to end up on the right side of the result. Laxman and Dravid set up the platform for the fourth such instance, and Harbhajan, with no little help from Sachin Tendulkar, applied the finishing touches. Sourav Ganguly, the Prince of Kolkata, had become the King of India.
The legend of the greatest game ever played in India grows further when you factor in the circumstances under which the teams came into the match. Australia were sitting on a record 16 Test wins, and had crushed India inside three days in the previous game in Mumbai, with only twin half-centuries from Tendulkar preventing a complete, humiliating rout. India had managed just 176 and 219 in the first Test, and everyone was reconciled to another humbling as India's first innings was halted at 171 in Kolkata. The Final Frontier was about to be conquered, and Waugh's cherished dream hours from becoming reality when the follow on was imposed.
Eden Gardens was to have been Australia's theatre of dreams. Instead, it became their worst nightmare. The Australians were gracious enough to acknowledge that they had been laid asunder by a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but you could see that they were gutted. To their credit, they didn't carp or nitpick about a couple of questionable umpiring calls on the final day, nor did they offer any such fantastic excuse like the English, who have in the past blamed the smog, the constellation of stars, famine in Africa and the absence of human life on Mars, among other things, for their failures in India.
But the loss had obviously stung. Australia seldom enfored the follow-on in the aftermath of that defeat, and set a trend that quickly spread across the cricketing world. And, as they were to discover a couple of years later in Adelaide, the Laxman-Dravid masterclass of Eden was definitely not a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Dravid came into the Eden Test slightly under the weather, Laxman under a cloud. "I had been down with fever and had no practice for two days before the game," Dravid once told me, almost horrified that he had gone into the game without a hit. "I just went straight into the Test match. That knock took a lot out of me and at the end of the day I needed drips. It was a tough battle, it drained me physically more than anything else, but it was also particularly satisfying."
THAT knock, of course, was a magnificent 180, complementing Laxman's 281 quite brilliantly. Apart from for obvious reasons, it was also a knock that pleased him no end, especially because it came after he was demoted to No. 6. "I was a little disappointed to bat at six, but Laxman had batted well in the first innings," Dravid said. "I felt it was just three innings (in that series) where I hadn't made runs (9, 39, 25). I had got a lot of runs in the series before but I could understand the thinking behind pushing Laxman up the order. Maybe John [Wright, the coach] felt it was a chance worth taking, and it most certainly paid off."
Uncharacteristically, almost unthinkably, Dravid celebrated reaching his hundred by angrily punching the air and pointing animatedly in the direction of the commentators' box. "It was a combination of things that led to that reaction, I know it has got talked about a lot," he laughed. "More than anything else, it was my own relief because I hadn't scored runs in three innings, but there was also a lot of pent-up emotion that needed release after a demanding battle. I needed to get runs both for the team and myself, and you could say the reaction was a direct result of having got the job done."
Laxman, like his great mate, seldom loses his cool either - Pragyan Ojha might have a different tell to tale after getting a rare dressing down during the Mohali game of 2010, also against Australia. As much as anything else, during that association, the message they sent out was loud and clear - that nice guys can finish first, that aggression doesn't mean foul language and indecent gestures, that there is nothing that steely resolve can't help overcome, that Australia are as prone to succumb to pressure as anyone else.
The Eden Test of 2001 was an 'I was there' occasion, the kind you relish recalling and discussing at length, boasting to your friends about, telling your grandkids. I wasn't there, and that will remain one of my eternal regrets. But like every Indian, I feel a strong emotional connect. And when I am a little down, or when the Indian team is doing badly - like it did in England and in Australia not so long ago - I bring out the DVD. For two hours, the world becomes a beautiful place.