A couple of days earlier, Steve Waugh would have scoffed at any soothsayer warning him to beware of the Ides of March — no matter how grey or long the accompanying beard. After all, at the end of the third day, India, following on, had been struggling to stave off innings defeat.
However, it was a match in which a series of rare miracles graced the world of cricket.
First it was the VVS Laxman magic, casting a spell on the Garden of Eden, turning it into a paradise of heavenly stroke-play. The brilliance sparkled all through that sublime and monumental work of art that grew in stature till it stood as the greatest innings ever essayed by an Indian batsman. Behind it was the rock solid effort of Rahul Dravid, in a landmark innings of his own.
The two batted through the fourth day, as the Australians toiled on the field. They had come together on the third afternoon at 232 for four, still needing 42 to make Australia bat again. When Laxman cut Glenn McGrath straight into the hands of point on the fifth morning, the score stood at 608. The partnership had been worth 376 runs, put together in 104 overs. Tens of thousands of hearts were broken as the artist walked back for 281 runs of sheer genius —a ten- and-a-half-hour effort that had performed the alchemy of turning defeat into victory. People had flocked to watch the first triple hundred scored by an Indian batsman, but that would have to wait till Multan.
Dravid was run out for 180, the selfless man going for quick runs after the long, long battle waged against Australian bowlers and Indian critics. His innings had been a 446 minute marathon that went almost unnoticed.
The lower-order was allowed to swing their bats for a while, feasting on an Australian attack dazed by the sense of unreality that accompanied a wicketless day. And finally the declaration came with five hours remaining in the day. With a target of 383 runs to score from 75 overs, the Australian juggernaut of 16 wins on the trot was certain to come to a grinding halt. But, would it be jolted, cracked and taken apart as well?
The Australian start did not suggest so. Matthew Hayden and Michael Slater played through to lunch with casual, carefree strokes executed with immense ease. The pitch offered turn but had not become unplayable by any means. There was a gradual beeline of spectators heading home. They had got their money’s worth from the last two days. These men would soon be kicking themselves.
It was perhaps the winning habit that played against the visitors.The top order batsmen were reluctant to forsake adventure that accompanied their approach. Harbhajan Singh, with six first innings wickets under his belt, bowled a testing line, flighting them into the boot-marks left by Zaheer Khan.
Slater was the first to go, done in by the flight, turn and bounce, taken in the leg-trap.
Justin Langer came in, fleet of feet and light of heart. The august Australian bats seemed to have forgotten the virtues of batting out time — which a few years earlier Allan Border would have performed in his pyjamas. The Western Australian left-hander skipped down the track and hoisted two sixes off Venkatapathy Raju. It was a delightful 21-ball cameo, but Australia needed much more than that. He was caught at short fine leg off an ill-advised sweep for 28, yet another victim of Harbhajan.
But, even as he walked back, it seemed to be a minor hiccup. Eight wickets remained, most of them of might and fame. Few thought further miracles were in store.
And now Raju, bowling in the final Test of his career, struck his only blow of the match — and what a telling one. The ball came in with the arm, defeated the flashing bat of Mark Waugh that played for turn, and struck him in front of the wicket.
Steve Waugh was back at the crease, after that characteristic dour hundred of the first innings. “A man of crisis who will soothe the nerves,” onlookers muttered wisely as he shepherded Australia to tea with just three wickets down. But, it was a myth. Waugh possessed an atrocious second innings record.
He was dropped, in the leg trap off Harbhajan. And Waugh rattled off a modified version of the famed line he had uttered to Herschelle Gibbs in 1999. “You’ve just dropped the Test match,” he taunted.
It’s good to quit when one is ahead. This time Waugh found his bat failing to match the talk. He was out soon enough. Harbhajan flighted the ball, Waugh turned it towards the leg. He wasbrilliantly held by substitute Hemang Badani, one of the posse of men on the leg side positioned close enough to pick the renowned handkerchief from the hip pocket.
In came Ricky Ponting, looking a shadow of himself under the mid-day Indian sun. Slow stuff, turning in and bouncing unevenly was not exactly his favourite fare. He was out in a manner that would have embarrassed a schoolboy cricketer. A late attempt at a tentative sweep looped to the short-leg off his edge and shoulder.
The crowd had gone wild by now, the noise deafening. Each ball cheered in ear splitting applause, a dismissal sending powerful vibrations across the maidans that stretched outside.
With Raju proving ineffective, Sachin Tendulkar was brought on from the pavilion end.
The master had not got runs in this Test, the rarest of occurrences against Australia. Now he ran in with incredible relish, hurling down leg-spinners, turning the balls by a degree not approached by the best leggies of the great land.
And he went on to produce three deliveries in the space of four overs, absolute gems each of them.
The dangerous Gilchrist was the first to go, missing the line, hit on the thigh as he crouched to sweep. He looked unhappy, but the ball seemed adjacent. Maybe it was the unfamiliarity of the situation. The Australian wicketkeeper had played 15 Tests till then and his team had won all of them.
Hayden followed in almost exactly the same manner, the biggest thorn in the Indian flesh removed for 67 as he tried to sweep the troubles away. It was 173 for seven and the tail was in.
Tendulkar ran in again, releasing the ball from the back of his hand. Shane Warne, the leg spinning maestro, did not pick the wrong ’un. The pull swished far from the ball and the pads were struck yet again. Eight wickets were down with 25 more overs remaining.Indians sniffed victory and men on the field crept in closer and closer to the bat.
Michael Kasprocwicz and Jason Gillespie fought back. They were the first in the Australian outfit who attempted to bat for time. The great team had finally come to terms with the fact that they were struggling.
And the tail adapted itself admirably for the ordeal. Balls turned, fielders appealed every time the pads were struck, some 80,000 more roaredeven whenthe ball came resoundingly off the middle of the bat. More and more men were added to cling on to any edge, prod or nick, the slightest of blemishes. However, Gillespie and Kasprowicz batted on.
And finally, with 15 overs to go, Gillespie deviated from his constant offer of the deadest of defensive bats. The attempted push was edgy and held well by Shiv Sundar Das in the short-leg.His six runs had come in 38 balls.
The final blow
Glenn McGrath walked out and Tony Greig summed it up on air, with the supreme accuracy of one who had been there and done it. ”Thousands of Bengalis bearing down on you as you walk out, wanting to see your head chopped off.”
Harbhajan had already picked up twelve wickets in the match, including that hat-trick on the first afternoon. At the other end, Tendulkar made the balls rip, turn and bounce. But, Kasprowicz and McGrath hung on. Over after over flitted by. Fielders waited for that final catch. McGrath grew in confidence and even drove down the ground. Kasprowicz looked almost impregnable.
And now, with eight overs to go, in a last ditch effort, Sourav Ganguly bowled an over from the High Court End. Two runs resulted, the two batsmen not troubled at all. But, it allowed Harbhajan to change over to the Pavilion End. Tony Greig described the move with tongue firmly in cheek: “Bringing Harbhajan on from Umpire Bansal’s end.”
Yes, SK Bansal had raised his finger for four leg-before shouts. Peter Willey for none. However, to be fair, all the dismissals had looked plumb.
Harbhajan pitched the third ball marginally outside off, turning it in, and McGrath dangerously thrust his pad forward, bat held far back, not at all keen to get anywhere near the action. The sky almost shattered in shreds as 11 Indian fielders and thousands of spectators appealed in unison. Umpire Bansal raised his finger for the final time. India had won. On the air Tony Greig remarked, “And Adam Gilchrist doesn’t know what to do.”
Only for the third time in the history of the game had a side won a Test match after following-on. England had done it in 1894 and 1981. India now emulated that rarest of feats in 2001. Each and every time, the team at the receiving end was Australia.
The mood of the moment was caught by one inspired cameraman of ESPN. As the final wicket fell, the camera zoomed in on a moustachioed policeman, in his official uniform, his duty to keep the crowd in order.
As the people around him rose as one, bustling with elation, there appeared under the austere moustachea huge smile of triumph. The arms of the law reached for the sky. The noble representative of the force leaped up to celebrate, one with the populace. Duty, responsibility and authority had given way to spontaneous joy.
He had been supposed to stand with his back to the game, facing the crowd. But, as far as is known, the negligence of duty telecast worldwide did not earn him any reprimand. The entire nation celebrated, and he was the ideal citizen, caught in the emotions of a miraculous win.
Brief Scores: Australia 445 (Matthew Hayden 97, Justin Langer 58, Steve Waugh 110; Harbhajan Singh 7 for 123) and 212 (Matthew Hayden 67; Harbhajan Singh 6 for 73) lost to India 173 (VVS Laxman 59; Glenn McGrath 4 for 18) and 657 for 7 declared (VVS Laxman 281, Rahul Dravid 180) by 171 runs.
(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)
First Published: March 15, 2013, 9:10 am