(This is Part 3 of Aakash's recollections of India's tour of Australia in 2003-04. Read Part 1 & Part 2)
We were set for Australia — strategies meticulously worked out, team combinations finalised and all of us were buoyant with energy so palpable. A last minute touch-up was important, and psychologist Sandy Gordon's interactive session did the trick. Gordon knew what we needed to hear — his words bolstered our resolve. He gave us a good brief on the Australian team, media and the fans, lest they intimidated us.
He also handed out forms that asked us our goals, both short and long term, along with positive affirmations and such like. The team met a last time before the trip officially began and agreed to compose a slogan for the tour — something which would reflect our mindset and our collective goal. After much brainstorming, we settled on Change The Trend.
Earlier that year, the slogan for India's World Cup campaign in South Africa was Now Or Never, resonating the team's mood. We hadn't come close to winning the World Cup for a while and the team vowed to make it happen in 2003. As for us, India had always been the underdog on Australian tours and we agreed to Change The Trend. We decided that whenever the chips were down, somebody would remind all of us of the reason we were present on the ground — to Change The Trend. It also worked brilliantly to lift the spirits and fight once more whenever a session went against us, for changing the trend was also swimming against the tide.
The first Test match at the Gabba was a huge test for everyone. The vows, the preparation and the resolve would have counted for nothing had we fallen short at the first hurdle. And on the contrary, if we crossed that hurdle, the sky was the limit. Doing well in Australia was a lot about how we started. A poor start would have been enough to dampen our spirits and bring back the ghosts.
It was overcast and the track was greenish and damp. Sourav won the toss and elected to field first. We did reasonably well to restrict Australia for 323 with Zaheer taking five wickets. But the real challenge began when we started to bat, since India's abject failure overseas was largely due to poor batting.
We started decently, lost our way in the middle but found saviors in Ganguly and Laxman, who first stabilised the innings and then put India in command. Taking the first innings lead set the tone for the rest of the series. In Brisbane (where Australia remain unbeaten since 1988), we had seen into the opponent's eyes and traded on equal terms for the duration of the game. A draw in this game was as important as a win for us.
Adelaide: The trend changes
Our resilience didn't go down well with the Australians — they weren't used to being dictated. They came hard at us on the first day in Adelaide, made 400-5, and believed that normal business had resumed.
But the team they were up against now was on a mission to Change The Trend. We bounced back, dismissed them for 556, started strongly with the bat, only to lose our way again. But two men played extraordinary innings of skillful batting and unwavering temperament.
Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman batted like a dream and took us to a respectable position, though we conceded a slender lead. The Aussies in their attempt to keep fighting played right into our hands. Agarkar took six wickets and set up the game nicely for us to win. We did the unthinkable by chasing down the 223 needed for a win. Dravid, once again, architected the chase with an unbeaten 72. We had indeed changed the trend.
Melbourne: Hurricane Sehwag
Both Sehwag and I felt like we were in a boxing ring and not a cricket ground. We took several blows on our helmets during the first session. We'd elected to bat first on a dampish wicket because the pitch was expected to deteriorate considerably in the course of the match. The first session was about weathering the storm. Then, Hurricane Sehwag engulfed the Australians. He went berserk in the noon and evening sessions and played a counter-attacking innings people hadn't seen hitherto.
We finished the day strongly at 329/4. A good first session on Day 2 would have tilted the match in our favor but we were in for a surprise. We lost six wickets for 37 runs and, with it, the match. We also realised that every day brought forth a new battle, and it was like playing a brand new Test match every day. You give the opposition an inch and they'll take a mile. The series was locked at 1-1 heading to Sydney.
Fair result in Sydney
This match is fondly remembered for Sachin's momentous 242* and Steve Waugh's farewell. While we dominated most of the match, we couldn't deliver the final blow. The result — a draw was, perhaps, a fitting end to close series. It was like a high-quality heavyweight boxing bout where both players stood their ground till the end.
Every time a team needed a hero, someone stood up and delivered. The quality of cricket was of an extremely high level and every session of every match produced engrossing cricket. Nobody could ever take his strong position for granted.
Let's hope that the series that starts on Monday lives up to its hype and we see quality cricket throughout. India winning the series for the first time in Australia would make it even better.