An all-conquering side led by a formidable leader, a team on the run under a beleaguered captain, a Test series that was becoming decidedly one-sided, a longstanding 'Aussie dream' on the verge of being realised.

Then comes the astonishing turnaround, sparked by an epic innings, provided the thrust by some sensational off-spin bowling. The series was now on a razor's edge.

And the final act of the drama unfolded in the dramatic final session on the eventful fifth day of the final Test at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium here on Thursday with India pulling off a nailbiting two-wicket victory to script a 2-1 series triumph.

A great end to a remarkable series. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy was regained by the Indians, who were greeted with rousing cheers as they lapped the ground at the end of it all.

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It was finally left to Harbhajan Singh, the Man of the Series with 32 scalps, to deliver the decisive blow. This time the young Sardar was wielding the willow on a dramatic day, when fortunes swung one way, then the other.

Earlier in the day, he had returned career best Test innings figures of eight for 84, finishing with 15 wickets in the Test, and it was only fitting that he was at the end to see India through.

Two runs to get, two wickets in hand. There was a hush in the stadium as Glenn McGrath came thundering in. Could Harbhajan complete the job? The Punjab cricketer, under excruciating tension, coolly drove the pace ace square off the wicket, and even as he completed his second run, the Sardar exulted in sheer joy, debutant wicketkeeper-batsman Sameer Dighe, who had endured a forgettable time behind the stumps, sunk to his knees in celebration, the crowd was delirious, even as the Aussies took their time to recover from the shock.


Men of the match: Australia's Matthew Hayden and India's Harbhajan Singh shared the award

The emotionally charged day in which passion and pride, skill and temperament were very much on view, concluded with the Indian team members running onto the ground to congratulate the unbeaten heroes. Indeed, it was a sea of emotions out there on the ground.

The 'Final Frontier' remained unconquered for Steve Waugh's men. Sourav Ganguly's men had managed to upstage the world champions in a truly memorable upset.

Dighe had played his part with a gutsy unbeaten 22 against the demanding bowling, in a high-pressure situation, putting behind the disappointments behind the stumps. True, there were some streaky shots, but Dighe put a price on his wicket, displaying character.

Skipper Steve Waugh played all his cards, switching the bowlers around, moving the field, and his men responded. Paceman Jason Gillespie sent down a red-hot burst — 12-1-40-2 — keeping the pressure at one end, off-spinner Colin Miller caused a flutter with three quick wickets in a spell of 5-1-16-3 from the Wallahjah Road end, and India was ambushed...well almost.

Indeed, the home team was coasting at 101 for two, when Gillespie, often looking up to the Aussie supporters for inspiration, went round the wicket, and sent down a well-directed short ball that flew off Sachin Tendulkar's gloves even as he took evasive action for Mark Waugh to pouch the edge at second slip.

Ganguly, seemed a man in a trance, edging Gillespie between 'keeper Gilchrist and Warne in the first slip, and succumbing to the very next delivery, his airy drive being gobbled up by Mark Waugh.

With an off-colour Shane Warne, taken apart by the elegant V.V.S. Laxman, unable to keep the pressure from the other end, Steve Waugh had two options — bring back McGrath from the Wallahjah Road end or go in for the spin of Miller, who had been unimpressive in the first spell. He chose the offie.

And there was immediate reward for the Aussie captain when new man Dravid's ill-advised on-drive against the turn only resulted in the ball spooning up to mid-off, where the Aussie captain did well to dive forward and snaffle the catch.

From 101 for two, India was now 122 for five. The Aussies went to tea with their hopes renewed. The Indians still had a job on their hands...and in a match where wickets had fallen in a bizarre fashion, the heat was on the home team.

Laxman, who during the course of a majestic 66 had driven Gillespie gloriously through the covers off the backfoot, had the responsibility of seeing the side home, but saw his pull off Miller being sensationally held by a diving Mark Waugh at mid-wicket.

The Hyderabad batsman stood rooted to the crease, in a moment of crushing disappointment and the Aussies converged on a smiling Mark. The Test was becoming a thriller.

And things turned from bad to worse for India when the left-handed Bahutule was consumed as much by pressure as by the off-spin of Miller, Warne completing the job at slip. At 135 for seven, the Aussies now had their noses ahead.

Gillespie, generating searing pace by now, beat the out-side edge of Dighe's bat with well directed leg-cutters, without finding the all-important nick.

At the other end, Steve knowing the value of another wicket, invited Dighe for the cut against Miller on a turning wicket — there was no third man or point.

Dighe got away edging the off-spinner to the third man fence even as the crowd roared. Then, the Mumbai player unleashed a cheeky back cut too in the same over, and the target was whittling down.

And then, with eight required, Dighe nicked Gillespie to the third man fence, Steve Waugh looked at the skies, and India needed just four now. The Aussie captain knew he would have to attack from the other end. Gillespie sent down a couple of bouncers to Dighe at one end and then McGrath snared Zaheer — who had earlier survived a vociferous shout for leg-before off the same bowler — outside the offstump, Mark again pouching the snick in the slip.

Dighe showed faith in Harbhajan, taking a single, Harbhajan himself stroked one to extra-cover for a run, and then arrived his winning blow, even as the field was up.

Earlier in the day, the Aussies had been bowled out for 264, which meant India had to score 155 to pocket the series, Harbhajan picking up all three wickets, the crucial one being that of the tenacious Steve, caught by Das at shortleg. The Aussies had one last chance to have a crack at history; no team had scored seven away series victories in a 10-year period.

At the beginning of the Indian innings, S.S. Das chose the wrong ball to pull from McGrath, picking the ball from outside the off-stump and the rangy paceman took a simple return catch.

However, the left-handed Ramesh, and the prolific V.V.S. Laxman seized the initiative with some positive strokeplay raising 58, before Ramesh set out for a single only to see Laxman, who had initially set out of his crease, retracing his steps, and was stranded as Ponting sent in his throw to the striker's end from covers.

Harbhajan Singh was named the Man of the Series, while Matthew Hayden and the off-spinner shared the Man of the Match award. The BCCI president, Mr. A.C. Muthiah, who later announced a bonus of Rs. 15 lakhs for the Indian team, gave away the prizes.

In the post-match press conference, India coach John Wright revealed Laxman's knock in the second Test made a huge difference to the Indian morale, noted Harbhajan Singh, a natural offspinner with turn and bounce, was bowling to a more effective off-stump line these days, and said the Indians had displayed character to fight their way back.

Skipper Sourav Ganguly admitted he was worried when India had lost its seventh wicket, had a word of praise for Dighe, said he did not anticipate the comeback even in his dreams after the second day of the second Test, when India was in the doldrums, and paid tribute to Harbhajan when he said "he is a cut above the rest."

Harbhajan thanked his coach, captain, and team-mates for their encouragement, and also remembered the role played by the injured Indian spearhead, leggie Anil Kumble in guiding him before the series. Harbhajan has indeed taken wing against the Aussies. He is now in a 'rarefied' zone along with V.V.S. Laxman, another man who made it possible.

The story appeared in The Hindu on March 23, 2001