'The mighty Aussies are coming'
It was 2001 and the Australian team was arriving in India. The papers spent most of their newsprint debating if there were enough baked beans for Warnie this time around, Ganguly's alleged temple wedding with Nagma and of course whether the Indian team under recently appointed foreign coach John Wright, could put up a fight against the 15-consecutive-Test-winning Oz team.
I was a student at St Xaxier's College in Mumbai then, and my annual exams were just about coinciding with the 1st Test that was to be played in the city. Given that all my friends were too busy burying themselves in books, I bought myself a season pass for the Guest Stand at the Wankhede and decided that I'd just have to head to the cricket alone. There was no way that I was going to miss this encounter.
At a glance, the scorecard of the Mumbai Test shows that India were sent packing in just three days. What it doesn't show is the level of excitement, the competitiveness and all the ups and downs that took place. Some of those highlights were McGrath and Warne ripping apart the famed Indian batting line-up, India's comeback with the Aussies reduced to 99/5 led by Harbhajan Singh, a spectacular partnership between Hayden and Gilchrist that sealed India’s fate and of course the highly volatile Michael Slater taking on Rahul Dravid and umpire Venkataraghavan over what he felt was a clean catch.
Sitting in the stands, watching those three days of cricket unfold, little did I know that this was just the appetizer and the main course was up next.
Eden Gardens, Kolkata, March 11th -15th 2001
This time I had to make do with staying glued to my TV. The Australians had now won 16 Tests in a row, a world record that was later emulated by Ponting's Oz team. They were being touted as being unbeatable and most felt the Kolkata Test would see them win that elusive Test series in India, skipper Steve Waugh's 'final frontier'.
Day One of the Kolkata Test was pretty much even-stevens. Solid batting from the Aussies - Hayden in particular, before Harbhajan's hat-trick saw the day close with the visitors at 291/8. On Day Two, Steve Waugh, with his by then famous grit, batted with the tailenders to score a century and take Australia to an imposing total of 445. The Indian batting came undone once again - only Laxman managing to cross the 50-run mark. India capsized on Day Three for a total of just 171 - a whole 274 runs behind the Aussies and the only prayer on every cricket-loving Indian's lips was for their team to somehow avoid the ultimate humiliation of an innings defeat. It was no surprise when Steve Waugh enforced the follow-on in a bid to wrap up things quickly and pop the champagne. But that was the last time a decision to enforce a follow-on would be taken so easily by a captain and what happened thereafter is the reason why. VVS Laxman, the saving grace of India's first innings, was promoted to number three and he struck an unblemished century by the close of the third day. Some solace to dejected Indian fans who then thought when things finally wrap up on Day Four they could at least reminisce about the Hyderabadi's wrist work.
When Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman walked out onto the ground on the fourth day with India at 254/4, still 20 runs in deficit and two whole days looming ahead, even they had no idea about what was in store. Ball-by-ball, session-by-session, in defense and in strokeplay, they nullified McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and whoever else the Aussies could come up with. Neither of them gave any chances or looked in any trouble. At the end of that day, Laxman and Dravid had put on 335 runs, given India a lead of 315 and rewritten all kinds of records in the process. From just trying to save face they had ended up giving their team a real chance of winning. Then on the fifth and final day, armed with a lead of 383, the Indians bowled out the Aussies for 212, Bhajji picking up 6 wickets. They had made the impossible possible and with momentum, confidence and belief on their side won the next Test in Chennai and the series 2-1. The 'final frontier' would have to wait.
The Kolkata Test not only changed the psyche of the then Indian cricket team and teams thereafter, but of the whole cricketing world. Never again was a win taken for granted. Never again could a team's obituary be written before the last ball was bowled. And always and forever will a nation's fan base believe their team has it in them to make a miracle happen - because it did to India, during that Test at the Eden, against the fiercest opposition, 10 years ago.