March 15, 2011

A forgotten anniversary

While the senses are riveted on the World Cup, the 10th anniversary of a landmark day in Indian cricket - the famous Kolkata stand between Laxman and Dravid - has gone unheralded, unacknowledged even

While the senses are riveted on the World Cup, a landmark day in Indian cricket has gone unheralded, unacknowledged even. Ten years ago, on March 14, the foundation for the golden age of Indian Test cricket was laid by two remarkable men. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid looked defeat in the eye and refused to blink.

Faced with a follow-on and an opposition which had won 16 Tests in a row, they batted on and on and on till hope and spirit drained off the Australians. For the record, they batted out the day, put on 376 runs for the 5th wicket, and the next day, which is ten years to the day today, Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar spun out Australia for 212 to secure the improbablest of wins.

This would remain the defining moment of Laxman's career, but the feat would have been less significant had it just remained a freak event. But not only was this match and series turning, it also changed the course of Indian cricket. The momentum carried India to a win at Chennai, the confidence derived from beating the one of greatest-ever Test teams carried them on a journey that ended with them becoming the No. 1 Test team in the world.

I should confess that I didn't remember the day myself. But then I am hopeless with dates. It was Jaideep Varma, the rationalist half of our Running Between the Cricket team, who messaged me breathlessly from Eden Gardens. He was chuffed already to step in to one of cricket's iconic venues for the first time in his life, but when he realised what day it was, he couldn't believe his luck. "What an honour to be here today," he wrote, "on the 10th anniversary of the greatest day in Indian cricket."

I had a busy afternoon and it was quite late when I got around to reading his message. I then messaged Dravid, asking him teasingly if he knew the significance of the day. He replied a couple of hours later. No, he hadn't known till late evening when a journalist from Kolkata called him.

But would you have guessed who his dinner guests were for the evening? VVS Laxman and family. It was a coincidence. Laxman's wife had spent the day at Dravid's house, and Laxman, who is in Bangalore to train at the National Cricket Academy, joined them for dinner. There are things you can plan, but some things are just meant to be.

Earlier this evening, I spoke about the day to John Wright, who is in Mumbai on duty as the New Zealand coach. The day before Dravid and Laxman's partnership, with India 254 for 4 after following on, Wright had been counting his days as India's first foreign coach. "That day, that Test, changed my life, and Harbhajan's."

We spoke for a while. I asked for one memory, and he gave me half a dozen. "It's all so vivid still." The fire in the stands after the win ("and then I looked back, and it was gone"); the noise when the wickets were falling ("I was asking myself how intimidating it must be for the opposition batsmen"), Laxman driving the first balls after the lunch and tea breaks for four ("just how can anyone manage to do that coming out of a break?"); and driving back with Sourav Ganguly after the press conference ("we were quiet, but a great weight had lifted off our shoulders").

India is a different country now. And Indian cricket is unrecognisable from then. Victories are now expected, taken for granted even. But Indian fans must find a quiet moment, rewind to that day, and feel grateful for it.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo