The Eden Gardens is more than a ground. Some days it’s an author, writing tales of triumph, anguish and revenge. Some days it’s a poet, spurting out verses that effortlessly rhyme. Between March 11-15, 2001, it rubbed shoulders with the likes of Valmiki and Homer to script an epic. Sourav Ganguly, playing his first test in his home ground after being anointed captain, succeeded in striking himself off Waugh’s good books by keeping him waiting at the toss. It seemed like David was going up against Goliath. And all bets were placed on Goliath.
Summer had spread its tentacles and General Steve Waugh and his men landed with war plans to conquer the final frontier. Closer to home, a different kind of war was being fought. The board exams were on, futures lay in the balance and parents rediscovered the neighbourhood temple. If only I had known at that time the transient nature of trigonometry, biology and the periodic table in my life and the ephemeral joy and comfort that cricket would provide, life would have been infinitely simpler.
The first test in Mumbai was done and dusted in 3 days. Waugh and his merry band of soldiers thundered into Kolkata to stake claim to the what they thought was rightfully theirs – a series win and a world record 17 test victories on the trot.
March 11, 2001: Steve Waugh calls right and sends India’s bowlers on a leather hunt for the first two sessions. Hayden, Langer and Slater ensure that Australia get off to a strong start. India were missing the services of its spin warhorse Anil Kumble. His deputy, a young tyro by the name of Harbhajan Singh, who would go on to be Australia’s nemesis in more ways than one over the next decade, comes to the party after lunch.
Australia win the first two sessions. At 250/4, the day was seized by Australia. Well, almost. The first to go was Ponting, lbw. For Gilchrist, coming off a scintilating century in the first match, it was a baptism by fire. First ball duck, lbw. Replays show that the ball edged the bat but thankfuly, referrals were still a decade away. The same fate would be reserved for him in the second innings – a first ball duck. Shane Warne comes to the crease – the spin prodigy vs the eager student. He flicks the ball to S Ramesh standing at slip. Did the ball hit the bat or the pad? Did the ball touch the ground when Ramesh caught it. Eden Gardens doesn’t know nor does it care. It erupts nevertheless. The umpire asks for a replay. Adjudged out. The first Indian to ever claim a hatrick. The stadium erupts like a dormant volcano and the instead of molten lava, ecstasy spreads through the city of joy.
March 12, 2001: Steve Waugh and Jason Gillespie take centre stage at 290/8. A quick ened to the Australian innings is predicted but then Steve Waugh shows the world the stuff champions are made off. Summoning all his reserves of stamina, fortitude and experience, he carves his first century in India. Australia end their innings at a chunky 445.
The ecstasy of the hatrick quickly dissolves into hopelessness as the Indian batting unit disintegrates. Ramesh falls with the score still at zero. Das soon follows suit. Hope makes an appearance as Dravid and Tendulkar are at the crease. Hope beats a hasty retreat as Tendulkar is adjudged lbw to Mcgrath. The decibel levels at the ground are on mute. In walks the prince to assuage the despair that has spread among his citizens. A rare misjudgement by Dravid costs him his wicket. A superb catch at gully ends Ganguly’s brief reign. As wickets tumble, Laxman unleashes some of his magic in the midst of the ruins.
March 13, 2001: VVS Laxman’s 59 is the only respectable score on the otherwise abysmal scorecard as India crumbles for a miserly for 171, racking up a debt of 274 runs. Any captain in his right mind would have enforced a follow on and resigned himself to an easy victory and if you were the captain of Australia, who were parading around as the invincibles, victory was a foregone conclusion. Till today, unconfirmed rumors abound of Steve Waugh prematurely ordering champagne to celebrate the victory, which in his mind was a foregone conclusion.
The top order puts up a better performance in the second innings. Laxman is pushed up the order and arrives after the fall of Ramesh. If Gilchrist’s scorecard was a golden duck, Tendulkar picked his jersey number as his Lakshman Rekha by getting dismissed for 10 in both innings. The prince stamps some of his authority on the proceedings but falls two runs short of a well-deserved half century. In walks an out of form Rahul Dravid to give company to Laxman.
This was a few years before the cell phone wave would engulf the country. Live streaming wasn’t invented and checking scores online wasn’t yet a way of life. As always, whenever the Indian cricket team is playing, precious man hours were wasted trying to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. Office goers took a break from their ornery jobs, school kids took a break from their frightening exams, and at the Eden Gardens, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman took center stage.
Laxman reaches his century and his counterpart assiduously plays out his deliveries till the close of play. It is interesting to note that on the same day in 1996, the Eden Gardens bellowed with rage and curtailed a world cup semi-final. The image of tears cascading down the face of Vinod Kambli still rankle. On that fateful day, the Eden Gardens chose to pen a tragedy.
March 14, 2001: Indian begin the day with VVS Laxman on 109 and Rahul Dravid on 7, still trailing by 20 runs. What transpired on this day has been analyzed, over analyzed, written, and rewritten. The stadium wears a deserted look. No one expects a fightback or a miracle. The result has been decided, only the execution remains. My take on Laxman’s masterpiece dwells on the innings a little more deeply. In the zenith of summer, the Indian team scaled new heights. One guy dealt in magic, the other, in valor. They batted, with ice towels draped around their necks, battling the unforgiving heat and the world’s best bowling lineup. Session by session the scorecard careened from despair to hope and finally halted at redemption. VVS Laxman had surpassed Sunil Gavaskar for the highest individual score for an Indian and Rahul Dravid’s poor run of form was history. The scorecard read 589/4. The lead was 314.
March 15, 2001: VVS Laxman inches toward a triple century but gets out to a soft dismissal in the morning for 281. By this time, the match is beyond Australia’s reach. Laxman walks back to a warm applause, his feat yet to sink into our collective consciousness. Rahul Dravid falls to a run out and India finally declare at 657, setting Australia a target of 384. Given the caliber of the Australian batting line up which featured the likes of Michael Slater, the Waugh brothers, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden, a draw was on the cards. The spin duo of Venkatapathy Raju and Harbhajan Singh attempt to spin India to a victory. Australia begin strongly. At 160/3, everyone braces themselves for a draw.
Then the epic changes course.
Harbhajan dismisses Waugh and Ponting in quick succession. Out of nowhere, Indian cricket’s folk hero, Tendulkar, emerges from the shadows. He accounts for the scalps of Gilchrist, Hayden and Warne. Harbhajan returns for a final bow and takes the final wicket of Glenn Mcgrath. The Eden Gardens exploded, no erupted. No one knows what happens of the champagne bottles.
Some rate Kolkata 2001 as the greatest test matches ever played, Laxman’s innings as the best innings ever played. Dravid’s 148, Harbhajan’s 13 wicket melee and Tendulkar’s belated outburst, all seemed to find each other and come together for a magnum opus.Unwittingly, the test laid the ground for the future and opened the doors to what is now fondly referred to as the golden era. On March 16th 2001, I wrote the last of my board exams. School had well and truly ended. Playtime was over.
A chapter closed. But the epic lives on.