Even as the team was drenched in the success of an epic victory at the Eden Gardens, the skipper Sourav Ganguly, so demonstrative of his emotions on the field, maintained a stern countenance off it. He was waiting to explode really. His response to every query was measured and he made no effort to hide his anger. "This is a reply to all," he thundered.
Reply to all it was. Hounded long for its non-performance, the team was now getting back at its critics after winning a Test match which saw the mighty Australians suffer a most extraordinary defeat.
The 'Man of the Match' distinction went to V. V. S. Laxman in a most deserving recognition of his awesome contribution. His individual score of 281 was a landmark feat, not to forget the 13-wicket haul by off-spinner Harbhajan Singh."My greatest day," gushed Harbhajan. Laxman, impeccable in his behaviour as always, stressed, "great honour for me no doubt, but I'm more pleased by the fact that my century helped the team win the Test."
Only two teams in the history of the game had won after being asked to follow-on. So none gave India a chance. And with good reason, too. The Australians were on a winning spree with 16 consecutive Test triumphs and there was no sign of their being defeated when the battle resumed after tea on the final day. Australia had lost three wickets, but more importantly Steve Waugh was at the crease.
"I had a gut feeling," confessed Sachin Tendulkar later. Ganguly spoke of how the team was confident of pulling it off. Coach John Wright, under fire after the defeat at Mumbai, drove home the point that they had to play to their strength. Its vulnerability against spin surfaced at a dreadful moment for the visiting team and there was a sensational collapse that left Steve Waugh and his men red-faced.
The Test match had a predictable start. The Australians, not very impressive on the opening day, staged a remarkable recovery through Steve Waugh's 25th Test hundred and had India on the mat when the home team crashed in its first innings. It was a true test of character in the second essay for a team which spoke of batting being its strength.
The failure of Sachin Tendulkar weighed heavily on the Indian dressing room , but the form of Laxman was a constant source of encouragement . When Tendulkar was dismissed in the second innings . India seemed to be staring at certain defeat, but then Laxman and Ganguly launched the resistance. This was followed by the matchwinning partnership between Laxman and Rahul Dravid.
The Australians, always so professional, ran out of ideas as the Indian pair compiled a partnership of 376 runs. "We knew we had to bat long. We kept talking to each other and what kept us going was the tremendous support from the spectators, " remarked Laxman.
For Dravid. it was an innings which took a lot of load off his mind. He did not mind conceding the number three spot to Laxman. "I fee l happy that he grabbed the opportunity," Dravid said honestly. And then he turned his attention towards his critics who had written in length of his obsession with technique. "That"s the way I bat and I can't change it to suit some individuals. I may not present a pleasing picture when I am batting, but the team knows I try hard and in the end that counts more I suppose," he said.
Dravid's emotional reaction, raising his bat towards the commentator's box, was a reflection of his achievement, and of course the sense of conquering one of the best attacks in the world. It was one of the greatest Test matches. The intensity was evident to one and all and the feature of India's recovery was that it was scripted by two youngsters who had been struggling to convince the people who matter that they had the potential.
Laxman's plea for a place in the middle order was granted only recently and Harbhajan prospered because of a caring captain. "I always knew he had the potential and that's why I had always supported his inclusion," said Ganguly on his matchwinning off-spinner.
India had been searching for a quality spinner and the number of those tried and those recalled suggested a dearth in this department. Harbhajan changed that impression with his wily stuff which saw him force some of the best batsmen on the circuit into submission. His 13-wicket haul was as significant as the centuries by Laxman and Dravid.
Another factor that worked against Australia was the abject failure of Shane Warne. He looked most ordinary in this match. The collective effort by the Indians was what stood out. The close-in catching was outstanding and as Ganguly insisted, it was a team effort. "It was such a shame that we were written off after just one Test. To be taken apart by our own countrymen hurt a lot. The victory had two lessons. First to never give up and second to never write anybody off."
Steve Waugh took a balanced view of the defeat. "Of the 16 we won, we did come under pressure in a few. This was not a new experience for us of facing pressure. Once India had a lead of 300 it was in the box seat."
Steve Waugh made no excuses. "In the last two hours we looked pretty ordinary. There was nothing wrong with the pitch and you would expect the ball to turn on the fifth day of a Test match. It was a very good Test pitch. It's not end of the world. Life goes on," said Steve Waugh, disappointment written large on his face.
India's domination in the match was possible because of Laxman's belief in himself and Harbhajan's desire to make an impact at least for the sake of the support that Ganguly gave him. "I had to bowl a steady line because there was some turn on the last day. I am very happy I could contribute to an Indian victory," said the chirpy Harbhajan, a smile returning to his face after a long time.
Laxman was the toast of the nation for his grand knock. "I would like to acknowledge the support from Rahul," said the Hyderabadi modestly. As he recounted those difficult moments in his career when failures outnumbered successes, Laxman gave the impression of a man who was now at peace with himself, having accomplished a task which should ensure a slot of his liking in the team.
The huge first-innings deficit that India conceded did not take away the spirit to fight from a bunch which had vowed to make a collective charge. S. Ramesh came good in the second innings even as Shiv Sundar Das got out after promising a long innings on both his visits to the middle. Das, of course, shone as a close-in fielder.
Tendulkar's failure as batsman was a blow, but then he assumed the role of a spinner at the right time. His crucial strikes shattered the Australian hopes in the last session of the match. "It was great," remarked Tendulkar as he finished with three wickets.
Ironically, it was Ganguly's move to bring Tendulkar into the attack at Mumbai that had invited criticism for the Indian skipper. Here, it became a master stroke. The Australians certainly panicked on the last day when the ball was turning enough to test their footwork. Their obsession with the sweep to deal with the turning ball did not help and a couple of poor strokes hastened the Australian end.
"We knew they would crack under pressure," said Ganguly and credit to him for not going easy on the opposition at any time. A team which had been written off by one and all had staged a sensational comeback. The true character of the side was tested after the first innings collapse and it was good news for Indian cricket that it had discovered some committed players.
The period of transition continues, but as Ganguly pointed out, the team needs backing. "It is just a beginning and we would like to seek the support of our countrymen. We all welcome criticism, but not in the way it has been on us. Please try to understand we are all trying our best and are in the process of forming the right combination," the Indian skipper said.
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Amidst wild celebrations that followed the victory, Wright struck a note of caution for the team. "The players have to keep their feet firmly on the ground and not get carried away with this victory. At this level, you have to work very hard and keep working even harder," the coach said matter-of-factly.
It was one of India's finest achievements. To have come back from the position the team was in at the end of the second day was fairy-tale stuff. "We had never lost hope," Dravid said of the grand recovery. The Eden Gardens, a great Test venue, deserved this contest. And the Indians could not have asked for a better place to begin their revival from. The city of joy had given Indian cricket new heroes even as the victory gave the image of the team a refreshing change. It was a fascinating end to a most intense Test match.
This article first appeared in The Sportstar magazine dated March 24, 2001