June 22, 1996 may not be etched in the memory of Indian fans like April 2, 2011, but it was the day that heralded a new era for Indian cricket. In a typically classical setting at Lord’s, two young men – Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid – served notice on the biggest stage to kick-start the golden generation of Indian batting.
Nishad Pai Vaidya goes down memory lane and recalls that beautiful day at Lord’s
It was a characteristic overcast day at Lord’s with the Indian batsmen engaged in an intense battle with the English bowlers. Little did anyone know that two young men - one a fearless left-hander blessed with enviable timing and a remarkable eye, and the other a disciplined technician with a monk-like temperament – would steal the show. Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid - men who altered the course of Indian cricket – partnered each other for the first time in a Test match on June 22, 1996. A good 16 years later, both have moved on in life, leaving a rich legacy behind them – one that started on that momentous day at Lord’s.
As had been the case in the 1990s, India travelled to England in 1996 with the dubious reputation of being poor travellers. Sachin Tendulkar was known as the lone sentinel in a batting line-up that struggled in alien conditions. At the age of 23, he was an established senior with almost seven years at the top and had been touted as the next Indian skipper. That touring party had a number of familiar names such as Navjot Singh Sidhu – who was sent home following a rift with Mohammad Azharuddin, Sanjay Manjrekar, Anil Kumble, to name a few. The tyros included Dravid, Ganguly, Vikram Rathour and Paras Mhambrey.
In the first Test at Birmingham, India slipped to a defeat and it was only Sachin Tendulkar’s hundred in the second innings which was a saving grace. Such was the magnitude of defeat that one wouldn’t have expected a strong comeback in the next two Tests. With a purpose to change things, the Indian team-managed took an inspired call and handed maiden Test caps to Ganguly and Dravid. Both had already represented India in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) – Dravid made his debut earlier that year and Ganguly’s sole appearance was in 1992.
The whole build-up surrounding the Lord’s test focussed on Harold “Dickie” Bird – the legendary umpire who had been the untiring servant of the game for years. His celebrated career was to end at the Mecca of cricket in an emotional farewell.
Coming to the proceedings, England batted first and found themselves in a muddle at 107 for five. Graham Thorpe and Jack Russell scripted a remarkable recovery and took England to 344, with the latter slamming 124.
On day two (June 21), India’s first innings got off to a rocky start as Rathour was dismissed with the score on 25. In walked the southpaw – one who would be christened as the Prince of Kolkata in the near future. With fire in his eyes, Ganguly set out on a mission to make an impression on the big stage. Players from around the globe dream of playing a Test at Lord’s and here was Ganguly’s opportunity to star on his debut at the iconic venue. In testing English conditions, he had to show resolve and tackle the questions posed by the English seamers. In company of Tendulkar, he ensured there was no further damage and saw India through to stumps.
The next day (June 22) – the one in focus - India were rocked by the dismissals of Tendulkar, Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja. Through all that, Ganguly found his touch with glorious drives through the off-side – which were to become his trademark over the years. He played the cover-drives, drives off the front and back-foot and even attempted to pull a couple of balls in youthful bravado. His fifty came up with a classy square drive off the back-foot and he raised him arms to acknowledge the rich applause of the crowd at Lord’s. The job was only half-done.
In the wake of the three losses, Dravid walked in at No 7 to join the well-settled Ganguly. Test cricket got its first glimpse of a man with a perfectly-balanced stance and possibly the straightest bat. While Ganguly excelled with his fluency, Dravid showed remarkable grit and maintained a disciplined approach. A sparkling cover-drive for four put Ganguly’s name in the record books and the honours board at Lord’s. The helmet came off and he spontaneously pumped his hands in the air. Grinning ear to ear, he had made a statement and set the bar high on his very first outing.
At the other end, Dravid played a few crisp shots and was waiting to get on the front-foot. It was his timing that caught the eye as the ball took off after the full face of the bat stroked it off the meat. There were also a few late square-drives where he would get on to his front-foot and then transfer his weight on the backfoot to hit the ball as late as possible, right under his eyes. As the day drew to a close, Ganguly’s woodwork was shattered by Alan Mullally with India at 296. It was Dravid’s first examination with the tail as India were yet to overhaul England’s challenge. He marched towards the score gradually and continued the battle the next day.
Dravid, batting on 95, lost out on an opportunity to create history the next day as he edged Chris Lewis off a ball that pitched on the corridor of uncertainty. By the time he was dismissed, India were 419 for eight – a clear 123 runs since the dismissal of Ganguly. It was Dravid’s vigil that had helped India take the lead and the combined efforts of the debutants pulled off a fightback that looked unlikely.
In hindsight, the two knocks had signified the players themselves. While Ganguly’s knock was a flashy 131 laced with 20 boundaries, Dravid’s was a determined effort of 267 deliveries. In the years that followed, people looked at Ganguly for entertainment and belligerent displays while Dravid was expected to steer the ship out of troubled waters – just like they did on their maiden outing. The only difference being that Dravid moved up the order to No 3 and Ganguly dropped down.
The Lord’s Test meandered towards a dull draw and the two teams moved to Nottingham for the decider. Tendulkar joined the party this time with a big hundred and Ganguly too notched another three figures. Dravid missed out on a ton yet again as he scored 84. England clinched the series 1-0, but it was India that had unearthed treasures for the future.
If one felt 1996 had emptied its bag of talent, one couldn’t have been more wrong as VVS Laxman debuted later that year in the home series against South Africa. The year 1971 may be the watershed year of Indian cricket, but 1996 heralded the era of the golden generation.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)