In his humorous take on English cricket in The Last Flannelled Fool, Michael Simkins, quite conveniently, classifies his life into two distinct eras. He prefers to call these BC and AD – Before Cowdrey and After Denness.
On a more realistic note, there do come certain watershed moments in cricket that turns a new table, sets up a fresh benchmark, and changes the future decisively and permanently. For Indian cricket, one such moment arrived on March 14, sixteen years ago. Records were broken, history was rewritten; Team India was reborn in the longest format of the game.
The backdrop could not have been any better. Eden Gardens is quite unlike Lord’s – there’s no Father Time on the weather vane, no Long Room, no quiet, sombre ambience in the stands – but it remains as close to a cricketing Mecca as an Indian can hope for. Etched in history – of which the proceedings of March 14, 2001 make up a considerable fraction – it inspires awe and demands reverence.
Few of those 50,000 thronging the stands of Eden Gardens that day, however, could have anticipated the action that was to ensue. Steve Waugh’s Australia had been on a rampage. They had been unbeaten in 16 straight Tests coming into this match. Further, they had strangled India into a position from which chances of even drawing the Test looked bleak.
As clouds of despondency loomed over Indian cricket, fans across the country prayed for a miracle. India was being dragged by No. 3 VVS Laxman and No. 6 Rahul Dravid in the second innings after Australia had imposed follow-on. At 254/4, Sourav Ganguly’s men were still 20 runs behind, with only one recognised batsman to follow.
A VVS masterclass
Both the batsmen were batting at unusual positions. The reason for this swap of positions wasn’t hard to guess though. While Laxman had appeared to be in sublime touch during his composed half-century in the first innings, Dravid had been dealing with his demons for quite a while now.
Prior to the inning, Dravid had scored only 73 runs in three innings in the series at an agonizing strike-rate of 17.9. His first innings at the Eden had lasted for 115 minutes, and he had never managed to cross 30. On the other hand, Laxman had seemed to be batting on a completely different surface during his 83-ball 59. The next highest score in that innings was less than half of his score – 25.
Once Laxman had walked into the middle, shouldering the responsibility of leading an improbable turnaround for the team in the second innings, one could almost sense the determination behind those steely eyes. Whether that would be enough against a line-up consisting of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Shane Warne was the lingering question, come Day 4.
Laxman had already scored his century, but this time, India needed him to do a lot more. With Dravid holding fort at the other end, Laxman embarked on a journey that would easily find a place in any list of the greatest comebacks of all time.
Halfway into the first session, India had moved beyond 300. Laxman was crafting a very special innings with the skills of an artist and the precision of a surgeon. He dared to take leaps of faith when the opportunity arose, and fortune favoured him, because who likes to cut short a piece of poetic brilliance in progress?
Laxman was unbeaten on 171 as the players walked out for lunch. By tea, he completed his double hundred and took India beyond the 400-run mark. Waugh tried everything and everyone – as many as nine Australians rolled their arms at Laxman. The latter was not only difficult to break, he was invincible.
He danced down the track to Warne, cleared him over the extra cover fence, drove the ball past midwicket, and drowned the Australians’ hopes slowly but surely. It was a fantastic display of poised strokeplay and unbelievable wristwork. In no time, he crossed Sunil Gavaskar’s record of 236 runs and then went on to become the first Indian ever to score 250 in an innings.
Dravid’s solid innings
At the other end, Dravid was conquering his demons with the same determination and calmness. His wasn’t a popular name in the Indian media for the last few days and the pressure of performing was escalating with each passing innings. With the team needing him now more than ever, it was time for the Bangalore lad to stare into the eyes of defeat and steer a fightback along with Laxman.
Dravid wasn’t as fluid as Laxman initially, but as the bowlers wore down, he grew in confidence. On reaching his century, Dravid reacted in a way he hadn’t ever – thrusting his bat in the direction of the press box. Much had been written about him, many questions had been asked, and now, he had answered them all with his bat.
The miracle that everyone had prayed for
But the job wasn’t done yet. Laxman and Dravid went on to script individual records, ensuring that their partnership set a few milestones too. The duo put on 335 runs batting throughout the day. As they walked back towards the pavilion at the end of the day, they knew they had not only broken the Australians but also given India more than a fighting chance in this Test.
The scoreboard showed 589/4 – a comfortable lead of 315 – with Laxman unbeaten on 275 and Dravid unbeaten on 155. Neither of them could carry on for long on Day 5, but Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar’s efforts with the ball earned India a memorable victory.
Interestingly, Laxman could never outscore himself in the years that followed till his retirement although his romance with Eden Gardens continued to remain as strong as ever. It was that match that changed the dynamics of Indian cricket and laid the stepping stones for becoming the No. 1 side that they are now.
The whole cricketing world woke up to a new sun post the Eden Test. Indeed, the iconic image of Laxman and Dravid walking off the field, helmets off, drenched in sweat, and soaking in the adulation of 50,000 remains one of the most defining pictures of the game even to this day.