March 14, 2001. As India faced innings defeat at Eden Gardens, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted through the day in one of the most sensational turnarounds in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day runs flowed like a joyous spring and no wicket fell all day.
Steve Waugh’s juggernaut had rolled to the threshold of the famed “final frontier”. Champagne crates had been stacked up in the Australian dressing room, waiting to be uncorked in an euphoric explosion.
In the second innings India were 254 for four, still needing 20 to make Australia bat again. Two full days remained to be played. The last recognised batsmen were at the crease.
Yes, VVS Laxman had looked in sublime touch — caressing the ball with magical timing. He had been the last out in the first innings for an attractive 59 studded with 12 boundaries. When India followed-on he was sent in at No 3, and had used the bat like a wand. At the end of the day he was unbeaten on 109. But, how much longer could he battle alone?
At the other end was Rahul Dravid. He had looked woefully out of touch in recent times. The three innings in the series had brought him a mere 73 runs, and it had been a struggle stretching across 407 tedious balls. A strike rate of 17.94 underlined his plight. He had been pushed down the order, to No 6. Sachin Tendulkar, the man who could have turned things around, was already back in the pavilion. It seemed all over for India. But what unfolded was a watershed moment in Indian cricket, when the latent potential in the batting reserves emerged in a deluge that washed away the bubbly Australian dreams of triumph.
More than 50,000 people turned up in the stands in spite of India’s near hopeless state. And these diehards were treated to a sight fit for the gods.
The Australian bowlers, a formidable lot consisting of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Michael Kasprowicz, charged in for a quick knockout. After a mere five overs in the morning, the new ball was taken.
Nine overs later, the Indian score had passed 300. Australia would have to bat again, after all. Laxman continued to bat as if clad in a cloak of invincibility made of the finest silk.The crisis of the situation had awakened the artistic genius, as it would do so very often along the next 10 years. His 150 was up soon, and he continued to strike the ball with the touch of the divine. Audacious liberties taken with languid ease, hardworking bowlers dispatched to the fence with lissom wristwork. It was a poetic epic scripted when one expected the briefest epitaph.
At the other end, Dravid was cautious but solid. As time wore on and bowlers wore down, he grew in confidence. At the stroke of lunch, he completed his half-century, a fighting effort against considerable pressure — much of it generated by the celebrated inanity of the Indian press.
The duo walked into the break with the score reading 376 for four. Laxman was on 171.
The Australians did not look as upbeat in the second session as the two continued to bat. Runs came freely, in a manner laced with brilliance, often in unexpected angles, the risk covered by finesse and poise. Shane Warne turned to his standard fourth day ploy of coming round the wicket, pitching into the rough. Laxman danced down the track to hit him from outside the leg stump to the extra cover fence. He continued to do so, even as the bowler wised up and varied his line and length. To break the monotony, Laxman sometimes rolled his wrists the other way, to send the ball streaking past the mid-wicket with the same result, hitting against the turn with the same nonchalance and élan.
When the faster bowlers pitched up, he drove. The last-minute magic of those wrists determined the path to the fence. If they pitched short he cut. The field spread. And then spread further. It was almost too good to last. But, it did. India went past 400. Laxman strolled to his double hundred with 35 boundaries.
Steve Waugh turned to everyone, with desperate entreaty to get him a wicket from somewhere. Mark Waugh had been tried already. Now Ricky Ponting bowled. So did Matthew Hayden. Later Michael Slater turned his arm over and Justin Langer. In fact the only men who did not run in were Ian Healey and the captain himself.
A few minutes before tea, Rahul Dravid went past his hundred. He celebrated with his bat thrust in the direction of the press box. This was the only demonstration of anger in the long career of this noble cricketer — none of the other 35 hundreds saw anything remotely similar.
At tea, India led by 217. Laxman was nine short of the highest Test score ever put up by an Indian, Sunil Gavaskar’s 236 amassed in 1983.
By the time the tired Australians came in for the last session, the game had changed completely. Laxman and Dravid marched on. The bowlers went through their motions. The fielders continued to retrieve the ball from the boundary.
The score went past 500. A huge roar reverberated across the stadium when Laxman sauntered across for his 237th run. Another erupted when he became the first Indian batsman to score 250.
Records fell like a pack of cards. Rohan Kanhai’s 256, the highest-ever scored on the ground, was eclipsed. The highest partnership against Australia, 298 runs put together by Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri, was erased. The Gavaskar-Vengsarkar collaboration of 344 at Eden was left behind. Almost unnoticed beside the Laxman effect, Dravid reached 150 with 18 boundaries.
The Australians rushed through the final few overs in a hurry to put the day behind themselves. Laxman and Dravid were still together when stumps were drawn. They had batted through the day, scoring 335 runs.
Laxman was unbeaten on 275 as he walked off to thunderous ovation. During the long day he had played just two false strokes — an inside edge that went for four behind the ’keeper, and a pull played too early that soared over mid-off for three.Alongside him, Rahul Dravid was unbeaten on 155. All of them earned as just reward for his application and that great heart.
The shoulders of the Australians drooped as they trudged away from the arena. The score stood at 589 for four. The lead was 315.
Laxman’s much-anticipated triple century did not materialise on the final day; he fell 19 short of the coveted landmark. Dravid too did not last long, falling 20 short of his double hundred. But the match had been brought back from dead by a heavenly collaboration in the Garden of Eden. Harbhajan Singh left his imprint on the fifth day’s play with a six-wicket haul as India won by a thumping 171-run margin to bring an end to what is hailed as one of the greatest ever matches in the annals of Test history.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)