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3rd October 2016

Boria Majumdar

LAST PART

Maturity
The third and final phase in the history of Indian Test cricket started in Kolkata in March 2001 when Saurav Ganguly’s India came back from an impossibly hopeless situation and beat Steve Waugh’s world champion Australians in what can be ranked as the best ever Test match of all time.
Facts before the start of the third day of the Kolkata Test: Steve Waugh’s Australians had won 16 Test matches in a row. India had been decimated in a little over than three days at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
Australia had put up a mammoth 445 in the first innings at Calcutta.
India was reeling at 128-8 at the end of the second day.
What followed still appears unbelievable. Andrew Stoddart in the 19th century; Mike Brearley in the 20th and Sourav Ganguly in the 21st century. Only twice before had a team risen to erase the ignominy of following-on with a spectacular victory.
This was certainly the most stunning comeback in Test cricket history. Man of the Match V.V.S. Laxman’s record-rewriting 281, Harbhajan Singh’s hattrick embellished match haul of 13 for 196 and Rahul Dravid’s determined 180 had made this possible. Not to forget Sachin Tendulkar’s spell in the last afternoon when he picked three key wickets in a matter of five overs.
With Ganguly’s Indians garnishing this victory with yet another close triumph at Chepauk in Chennai, it is not without reason that this series has been labelled as the best Test series ever.
This series was the start of a phase that witnessed India making history across the world. A terrific comeback from behind win at Headingley in 2002 meant India had drawn the away Test series in England 1-1. This was followed by a 1-1 drawn series in Australia in 2003-4 and the first ever away test series win in Pakistan. Saurav Ganguly, captain and architect of this turnaround put it nicely, “When we went to Pakistan each one of us believed Pakistan couldn’t beat us. We were playing at our best and it was the best cricket we had played as a team. This was our real purple patch. In batting we had Sehwag, Rahul, Sachin, VVS and myself and in bowling Anil, Harbhajan and Zaheer not to forget Ajit’s spell of 6-41 in Australia.”
Even when the baton passed from Saurav to Rahul, the momentum carried on. Away series wins in the Caribbean in 2006 and England in 2007 meant India was finally close to the pole position in Test cricket.
The peak was finally scaled when India under MS Dhoni beat Sri Lanka at home in 2009 thanks to some incredibly good performances from Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan.
This phase climaxed when India for the first and only time in history drew a Test series in South Africa against a very strong Protean side winning a famous away victory at Durban. Tendulkar, by his own confession, was batting at his absolute best in this series, which witnessed spectacular knocks from Laxman and Gambhir and magical spells from Harbhajan.
While there was a dip in away performance between 2011-2014 with India losing 0-4 in England and 0-4 in Australia, at home we continued to be competitive except a rare home series loss to England in November 2012. Beating Michael Clarke’s Australia 4-0 at home was the highpoint under MS Dhoni before the baton passed on from Dhoni to Virat Kohli in end 2014 in Australia.
The Virat era
Under Virat there has been a perceptible change in mindset, something prompted first by Ravi Shastri and now Anil Kumble. India now plays to win each and every Test match and has also started to play with five specialist bowlers. This is a serious statement of intent and with Ravi Ashwin stepping up nicely to fulfil the role of all rounder, Indian Test cricket is in good health on the eve of the 500 th Test match.
Virat, who has brought in a new mantra of fitness and passion to the game, is leading from the front and will be desperate to do well in places India has failed in the last few years. India’s test tour of England in July 2018 for example will be something Virat will have set his eyes on. Personally, he hasn’t done well in England that should spur the Indian skipper to rewrite the history books. In Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul and Cheteshwar Pujara he has a very able batting line up and for the first time in a while the fast bowling crop looks fit and healthy. Shami, Bhuvi, Ishant and Umesh can deliver in any condition and Ashwin, Jadeja and Mishra constitute the best spin bowling troika in the world on current form.
It is safe to say on the eve of the 500 th Test that what started its journey towards maturity with mini steps in 1971 is today India’s ‘only’ national religion. Our wealthy, much idolised players, passionate followers and above all, the nation’s advancing commercial power has transformed India into the hub of global cricket. In modern India, no hyperbole is sufficient to capture the importance of cricket in the country’s national life….Cricket is a realm where Indians can flex their muscles on the world stage: it is the nation’s only instrument with which to have a crack at world domination. It is, to put it simply, much more than a ‘game’ for us in India.


(Boria Majumdar is a cricket historian and journalist)