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The first two misses in this series of great misses - India's failure to pull off a run-chase at the Oval in 1979, and to bowl out the Aussie tail and then mount a small fourth-innings chase at the MCG in 1985 - were falls at the last hurdle. But for the third entry in this series, there is no one such moment of failure (as there wasn't in the recently concluded India-South Africa third Test). Instead, a series of small fatal errors added up, ultimately corroding India's push for a win, which would have ranked, in terms of historical significance, right up there with India's 1979 Oval Test. I feel the failure in this Test all the more keenly because along with the Bridgetown Test of 1997, it is the Test that I witnessed the greatest proportion of in the flesh: I spent four out of its five days at the SCG.
Welcome then to the SCG in January 2004. India had already pulled off a great miss in the MCG Test, where they had subsided from 278 for 1 to 366 all out, and the later, in the second innings, when, chasing a lead of 192, they had moved 61 runs ahead, with six wickets in hand, on their way to setting Australia either an awkward target or saving the game, they suddenly subsided to 286 all out.
Thus India had failed to protect their 1-0 lead by the time they got to Sydney. When they left Sydney, they had failed to pull off an epic win, one which would have done for Sachin Tendulkar what the Oval Test could have done for Sunil Gavaskar. They failed to dramatically end the Waugh era with a dethroning that would have ensured a dramatic crowning for the Indians. They had failed to pull off a series win against an Australian team reckoned the greatest in the modern era. (Yes, McGrath and Warne weren't playing; the perfect time to pull off an ambush was at hand!)
The first note of worry came, ironically, after India had piled up a gigantic first-innings score. Did India delay their declaration? When India failed to bowl out Australia on the final day, that became the refrain amongst the cognoscenti. But I didn't think so then. As I walked home that day from the SCG, worrying about the declaration, I consoled myself with the thought that pressing on for 700 could perhaps help the Indians attack more, set more aggressive fields.
Later, with hindsight, as I saw Hayden and Langer open, I realised that the Aussies, who were not about to be cowed down by that score, would have had a harder time opening late on the 2nd day.
That Hayden-Langer opening stand (which made mincemeat of Agarkar's bowling figures) was the beginning of the end. As the pair attacked, I sensed some panic on the field. India looked bedraggled all of a sudden; was this really a team defending 700? I suspect the memory of that assault struck fear into Ganguly's heart.
Still, by the end of the third day, India had taken some vital steps towards a win. They had prised out six vital wickets; Australia were still 164 runs away from saving the follow-in; two days were left; India could push aggressively in a variety of ways on the last two days to win this game.
Things went wrong soon after Lee fell early on the fourth day, for Katich and Gillespie frustrated the Indian advance. When Australia were finally bowled out, though they had not saved the follow-on, they had removed it a possibility. Ganguly was not going to subject his bowlers (and fielders) to another stint on a flattish wicket after they had bowled 117 overs.
To their credit, India batted positively in the second innings, rattling up 211 at almost five an over. Again, the timing of their declaration might have been disputed: why didn't Ganguly declare half an hour earlier, giving the openers an awkward moment or two, while remaining confident about his ability to prevent Australia from scoring 400 or so? Here, the memory of the Hayden-Langer stand played a vital part in dampening any such adventurousness.
On the last day, Ganguly appeared bereft of ideas other than getting Kumble to bowl from one end, as he sent down 42 out of the 94 overs eventually bowled (Pathan only bowled eight overs in the second innings). Ganguly's' fields were excessively diffident; at any given moment, the fear that Australia might suddenly launch an attack and pull off the unlikeliest of wins appeared to be uppermost in the Indian captain's mind. At one point in that dismal, overcast afternoon at an SCG that was, surprisingly, not packed to capacity, I realised that India would be very, very happy with a 1-1 drawn series.
And so it came to pass, that a glorious opportunity to ensure all sorts of cricketing immortality was missed. Tendulkar's twofer of 241 and 60 (both not out) would have passed into cricketing lore as the greatest of all batting achievements by an Indian. Would anyone have doubted his ability as a matchwinner? (What would we think of Laxman's 96 in the Durban Test if the Indian bowlers hadn't bowled out the hosts?) More importantly, a series win over Waugh's Aussies in Australia, in Waugh's final test? Be still, my beating heart.
As the Test wound down, the Indians appeared caught up in the Farewell to Waugh[tm], all too happy to be sharing in the glory of his final test, seemingly unaware they had missed out on a chance of glory for themselves. It was Waugh's last act of mental disintegration.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets hereFeeds: Samir Chopra
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Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch