Laxman’s 281 one of the best innings in Test history - Jason Gillespie

Former Australia fast bowler Jason Gillespie says he was sick of bowling to V. V. S. Laxman by the end of his career.

V. V. S. Laxman plays a stroke en route to his 281 during the 2001 Test against Australia at Eden Gardens.   -  V. V. Krishnan

As umpire S. K. Bansal gave Glenn McGrath out lbw on the last day of the 2001 Eden Gardens Test between India and Australia, 100,000 spectators revelled in unbridled, full-throated jubilations.

The scene from that fateful March evening in Kolkata is a sepia photograph filled with memories. For some, those memories include ecstasy, for others, anguish. But all agree it was an experience that was both enriching and exhausting at once. “A wonderful place to play, Kolkata. We embraced it and enjoyed the challenge,” recalls former Australian quick Jason Gillespie, who was part of that historic Test.

The messianic fervour of that match ended up creating one of the most uplifting cricketing stories in decades. Having been bowled out for 171 in its first innings, India was sent back in to bat early on Day Three with the tourist holding a 274-run lead.

The decision appeared to be vindicated when India was four down for 232 in its second innings, needing another 42 runs to avoid an innings defeat. It was then that Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman produced an extraordinary partnership of 376.

But even as Dravid and Laxman’s counterattack began wresting the initiative from a rampant opposition, Gillespie said Australia believed it was still very much in the contest. “We certainly felt the chance of winning was slipping away. However, we still believed that saving the game was very possible. Whilst we were confident of being ahead of the game, I don’t believe complacency was an issue.”

Flapping arms

Laxman batted 10-and-a-half hours for 281. Dravid was run out for 180 after nearly seven-and-a-half. By the time the stumps were drawn on that fourth day, India had a lead of 315, with 589 for 4 on the board. Gillespie offers a glimpse into the mood in the Australian camp at lunch, tea, and at the breaks, “The talk was basically that they were playing well, however, it only takes one ball or one poor shot and we can get a wicket. Unfortunately, the poor shot didn’t eventuate! Haha!

“I did try to distract V. V. S. by flapping my arms like a bird as I was running in to bowl to put him off! It didn’t work! Haha!,” he says.

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Laxman, a regular tormentor of Australia for a decade, dealt with the spin threat of Shane Warne with such timing and elegance that former Test captain Ian Chappell later labelled his performance “the best playing of spin bowling I’ve seen.” For Gillespie, it was a flash of deja vu as Laxman approached his double hundred. “One of the best innings in Test history. A superb knock,” Gillespie says. “I remember my first trip to India with the Australian Under-19 side and V. V. S. was hitting hundred after hundred back then too. I was well and truly sick of bowling to him by the end of my career (laughs).”

Laxman scored 59 and 281 as India went on to win the match and the series. Between August 1999 and February 2001, Australia had won 16 straight Tests. But India’s 171-run victory ended that juggernaut. In the years since, Steve Waugh’s decision to enforce the follow-on has been much-debated. Waugh’s team-mate Gillespie opened up on the call. “Easy to say in hindsight [it wasn’t the correct choice]. Statistically, it was the right decision,” says Gillespie. “However you could look at it from a different perspective and say when would the best time have been to bat? Would this have given the bowlers a chance to freshen up as well? It’s a good discussion!”

Change of strategy

Gillespie feels the 2001 series set the template for future Australian teams to win in India. Three years later, when they toured India again, the Aussies managed to win a Test series in India for the first time in over 30 years. Gillespie was the leading wicket-taker for Australia. “We knew as bowlers that we had to change our thinking of how to bowl to Indian batsmen in India,” Gillespie says. “In 2004, we decided to bowl straighter (this is to Indian batsmen’s strengths as they are very strong through the leg side) and set in/out fields on the leg side with close catchers and sweepers. We wanted to test the techniques and fitness of the Indian players by constantly challenging the stumps.”

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Twenty years down the line, the great batting feats of Kolkata, the energy-draining sessions and a landmark win continue to regale a generation of cricketers and cricket lovers.