It was Harbhajan Singh vs Australia!

With figures of 15 for 217 in the match, Harbhajan’s tally in back-to-back Tests was a mindboggling 29. He ended up with 32 in the three-Test series in which the next highest wicket-takers for India were Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar with three wicket each! The 20-year-old off-spinner almost single-handedly won the Border-Gavaskar Trophy for India © Getty Images

March 22, 2001. The final day of one of the most remarkable series ever contested. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the Chennai Test against Australia that gave India the series after a heart-stopping climax.

After incredible fluctuations of fortune across the entire expanse of possibilities, the most riveting series of all entered the last day.

On the third evening of the second Test match, the Australians had all but stepped beyond the threshold of that famed final frontier. The Indians had been made to follow on and reduced to their last recognised pair. Another blow and champagne would have flowed in the Australian dressing room.

And the blow did not materialise till the morning of the fifth day. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had worked their combined magic, and then Harbhajan Singh had skittled the visitors out to engineer an unbelievable U-turn.

The four days of swinging fortune

With the series locked 1-1, the final day of the final Test at Chennai witnessed a titanic tussle for supremacy.

The balance had swung wildly across the four days full of frenzied tumult and drama. Matthew Hayden had capped a supreme run with a double hundred. Australia had made the match almost secure, ending the first day at 326 for three.

But, things had turned quickly. At 340, the ball had threatened to go on to the stumps off his pads, and Steve Waugh had stopped it with his hand. Ricky Ponting had stretched out to the first ball, missed a straight one and been stumped. The last seven wickets had been lost for 51 runs. Harbhajan had finished with seven for 133, taking his tally in the series to 24.

In response every batsman of the Indian top order, apart from captain Sourav Ganguly, scored heavily.
Sachin Tendulkar led the way with an impeccable 126, bringing up his century with a straight hit into the second tier. Sadagoppan Ramesh drove crisply and flicked with grace. Shiv Sunder Das played the sheet anchor, sometimes executing mighty slogs against the spinners. VVS Laxman continued on his mesmeric journey, stroking the ball with silken grace. Rahul Dravid built on his return to form with a solid 81, imperiously on-driving Jason Gillespie for six. The Indian total trickled beyond the 500-run mark.

On the fourth morning, the Australians decided to counter the deficit with aggression. Hayden and Michael Slater put on 82 in just 18 overs. But, Harbhajan continued to run in and the Indians fielded out of their skins.

When we look back at the series, we remember it for the miraculous willow of Laxman and the tale of the “Turbanator”, along with some epics scripted by Dravid and Tendulkar. However, the Indian fielding on the fourth day had as important a role to play in the final outcome.

The biggest blow was dealt when mighty Hayden slogged Nilesh Kulkarni. The left-handed opener had scores of 119, 28*, 97, 67 and 203 thus far in the series. He was batting on 35, in the form of his life, and another hour of his powerful willow might have taken the game beyond the hosts. Now, Kulkarni, who had done precious little in the match, tossed it up, and Hayden went down on his knee to swing it to mid-wicket. The ball flew off the top edge, and Zaheer Khan, running in from the boundary threw himself forward, coming up with a spectacular catch.

There were two superb takes close to the wicket as well. Laxman tumbled in the slips to hold Langer one-handed to his right, and Dravid flung himself to the right at backward short-leg to catch a genuine glance played by the dangerous Mark Waugh.

As the day wore on, Harbhajan kept pitching on the boot-marks, the odd ball jumped and turned. One after the other, the Australians fell. The day ended at 241 for seven, the visitors 131 ahead with Steve Waugh still there on 43.

Day 5 Drama

The match was precariously poised, with the tilt slightly towards India. The Australians needed to bat for a couple of hours to swing the pendulum of fortune back to the origin. But, it was a tough ask on a fifth day wicket against a rampaging Harbhajan.

Captain Steve Waugh could not improve on his rather ordinary second innings record. Harbhajan’s tossed up delivery hit the boot marks yet again, turned, bounced, went off the tentative edge and pad, and landed in the hands of Das at short-leg.

Jason Gillespie defended stoutly for three quarters of an hour before Harbhajan pitched one on the rough from round the wicket. The ball bounced disconcertingly, hit the glove and flew to Dravid at backward short-leg.

Colin Miller, in the team as a second spinning option alongside Shane Warne, selected the wrong ball to sweep. Up went the umpire’s finger and Harbhajan had 15 for the match. He stood on the strip he had conquered with his spin, legs wide apart, right hand reaching for the sky in a fist, a photographer’s dream.

It was a bowling performance glittering of unreal excellence, 29 wickets in the last two Tests, 33 in the series. The next spot in the list of top Indian wicket-takers of the series was shared — with three wickets each — by Zaheer Khan and, well, Tendulkar. The young man had shouldered the bowling virtually without any support, but for the final afternoon at Eden when Tendulkar had made the leg-breaks and googlies whizz and turn.

The figures of 15 for 217 in the match was second only to the famous Narendra Hirwani debut Test on the same ground 14 years earlier. The two other spinners used by India, Kulkarni and debutant Sairaj Bahutule, together accounted for just three batsmen. The 20-year-old tweaker walked back to standing ovation. India needed 155 to win. Harbhajan still had a role to play.

The chase

It was one of those targets that look tantalisingly close, but suddenly seem to shift far away with the loss of a wicket. A champion team was always going to make things difficult, and Australians were the best unit in the world.

Glenn McGrath charged in and bounced. Das, riding on the rush of adrenaline, went for the pull. The ball flew off the top edge and the bowler waited patiently as it dropped in his safe hands. India had a fight on their hands.

Ramesh and Laxman batted beautifully. Miller came on to try and turn it on the wearing track. Laxman leaned forward and drove him against the break, the ball sped through the covers. The Australians knew the symptoms too well from Kolkata.

And when Miller pitched short, Ramesh leaned back and late cut him past the slips to the fine third man. Soon Laxman was lofting Miller over mid-off. At the other end McGrath was being played with calm composure.

Warne was put on, in the last leg of his second nightmarish tour of India. Laxman cracked him through point for four. The next over he tried to pitch outside the leg stump on the rough. Laxman helped it along to the fine leg fence.

Gillespie ran in now, and Laxman caressed him to the long on fence with a gentle flick of the wrist. And when the bowler retaliated by pitching short, the Hyderabadi stylist moved back with lissom grace and pulled him arrogantly to the boundary. The stand was already over fifty, and India were cruising.

And then there was the moment of brain-freeze. Warne pitched short and Ramesh rocked back to cut. The ball went to cover, timed perhaps better than expected, travelling fast. Ricky Ponting rushed in. When they batted it was all sublime grace. When they ran it as a different story. Ramesh was halfway down the track, Laxman’s voice pleading him to go back in concerned entreaty. The throw streaked in like an arrow, and the opener walked back disgruntled. It was 76 for two.

Laxman took it in his stride, creaming Gillespie through the off-side. At the other end Warne dared to pitch short to Tendulkar and was punished, first to square-leg and next to point. Gillespie ran in, straying down the leg side and the master helped himself to the fine leg for four. The hundred was up. Surely there could be no further twist in the tale of this fantastic series.

However, there was. These Tests were made to perfection in the heaven of cricketing entertainment. A one-sided romp home was not on the cards fate had drawn.

Stung by the boundary Gillespie came round the wicket and made the ball cock up. Cramped for room, Tendulkar could not take his glove away. Mark Waugh held the catch at second slip.The Australians erupted. There were still some runs to play with.

As the Indian skipper joined him, Laxman piled on the torture for Warne. A streaky leg glance took him past his second fifty of the match. Off the next ball, he drove past the bowler with divine timing. A superb pull brought him the third boundary of the over. The shock of the Tendulkar dismissal seemed to have been absorbed.

But, it was not so. Gillespie ran in, and after a couple of valiant but failed attempts, Ganguly finally managed to snick it to slip. It was the end of a terrible series with the bat for the left-hander.At 117 for four, the Australians had more than a whiff of chance.

Miller was brought back for the next over. Dravid went for the drive with the turn and closed the face of the bat too early. The ball looped off the leading edge and Steve Waugh at mid-off ran to his right, and flung himself to hold the catch — 122 for five.

Laxman was joined by wicketkeeper Sameer Dighe. An experienced and capable batsman, but making his debut at this level. The tail was a strike away. There were still some runs to get.

A confident cut gave three to the newcomer, soothing the nerves of the millions of Indians. The stumper was not giving in without a fight, after all. At the other end, Laxman was striking the ball as sweetly as ever. The players went in for tea at 132 for five. Just 23 runs remained, but each and every one would have to be earned with tooth and nail.

The final stretch

The second over after tea shocked the country to silence. Miller pitched short and Laxman pulled hard. Eyes strained towards the boundary. And Mark Waugh at mid-wicket flew to his right and plucked the ball from thin air. The batsman stood there, open mouthed, unable to believe it. The tail was in. There were still 20 runs to be scored.

Bahutule was a genuine all-rounder at the domestic level. Now, on his debut, he had sat in the pavilion, nerves strained, hands wiping off anxious sweat from the worried brow, eyes looking on in apprehension and prayer. Now he walked in and edged the third ball to Warne in the slips — 135 for seven.

Zaheer Khan was a much lesser batsman, but he displayed the required composure. Dighe did not refuse singles. And Zaheer defended. Dighe drove Miller hard, and it flew off the edge to the fine third man boundary. The blonde bowler clutched his head in frustration. The next ball was short and slashed away for four. Dighe was religiously following the adage “If you cut, cut hard.” And it was paying dividends. Nine more were needed.

The spectators sat on the edge of the seat. Thousands of Indian fans did not move from their positions, lest by some quirk of chance it affected the batsmen. As knuckles were cracked and the teeth worked furiously on the nails, Zaheer Khan played a maiden off Gillespie.

And McGrath was back. Twice the ball struck Dighe on the pads, uncomfortably close to the off stump. Twice the Australians went up in desperate appeal. Twice the nation held its breath. And twice the umpire remained unmoved. And Dighe tapped the last ball of the over to third man for a single.

Gillespie ran in and pitched short. Once again Dighe cut and cut hard. The ball flew off the edge, past the slips, to the thirdman boundary. Four more were required.

In the next over McGrath pitched up. It was too good for Zaheer. The edge was snapped up by Mark Waugh at second slip. The Indian medium-pacer had survived 14 balls, and helped Dighe put on 16. The commentators said “well played” as he walked back, perhaps the only time such a phrase has been used for a duck.

So, with 32 wickets in the series, Harbhajan Singh was out with the bat to ensure that his gargantuan effort did not go down in a losing cause. The last ball the over almost brushed the off stump as it went through.

This was the time for seasoned, hardened men. Turning pitch or not, with just a stroke between victory and defeat, Steve Waugh stuck with Gillespie. Dighe pushed the first ball to point and the batsmen scampered a run.

The next ball was short. Harbhajan essayed a curious stroke that looked incredibly like a forehand cross court return essayed by someone from the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Mid-off was unforgivably deep, and the sprinting off-spinner beat the throw. Two more were required.

Gillespie kept the next two balls on target and ended the over with a brace of bouncers. Several onlookers wondered whether the two would risk a run to the ’keeper. But, Dighe ducked and stayed rooted. Later he confessed that the only thing he had told Harbhajan was: “Let us not get run out.”

McGrath charged in again, keeping the ball up, almost at yorker length, on the off-stump. Harbhajan brought his bat down.Off it went past point. The stadium erupted. The batsmen scampered down as the stroke pierced its way into the outfield, and then they turned for the second. Up went Harbhajan’s fist punching the air as he ran. India had clinched the extraordinary series after three gruellingly fought Test matches.

It was indeed a superb comeback after losing the first Test within three days and following on in the second. At the start of the fourth day of the second Test, India had been down and out — one wicket away from surrendering the series. And now, after seven exhilarating days of Test cricket that had followed, they had triumphed over the number one side of the world.

A tale of turnaround fit for compilation with the legends of knights and dragons, elves, goblins, the princess and Rumpelstiltskin.

Brief Scores: Australia 391 (Matthew Hayden 203, Mark Waugh 70, Steve Waugh 47; Harbhajan Singh 7 for 133) and 264 (Michael Slater 48, Mark Waugh 57, Steve Waugh 47; Harbhajan Singh 8 for 84) lost to India 501 (Sadagoppan Ramesh 61, Shiv Sunder Das 84, VVS Laxman 65, Sachin Tendulkar 126, Rahul Dravid 81) and 155 for 8 (VVS Laxman 66) by 2 wickets

In Photos — India vs Australia 2001, 3rd Test at Chennai