Laxman, Harbhajan script sensational Indian victory
Thursday was a day for drum beats and celebrations at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. India beat Australia by 171 runs in one of most thrilling Test matches of all times and levelled the three-match series with one game to play. At the end of the second day, India were down and out, able to make just 171 in their first innings. In a knock of 281, described by Steve Waugh as "some of the best batting I have ever seen", VVS Laxman galvanised the Indians.
It has been long since an Indian has taken the attack to the opposition in such strident fashion. Laxman stood up and delivered the goods when it was most needed - the hallmark of a true champion surely. But wait, let us not forget Rahul Dravid, who shared a 376-run partnership with Laxman on the way to making a belligerent 180. Let us not also discount Steve Waugh's magnificent hundred - his first on Indian soil. And then there is Harbhajan Singh, who with match figures of 13/196, including a hat-trick, would have been the man of the match on almost any other day. Then again, this historic win, after being asked to follow on, would never have been possible if not for Laxman.
Looking for that elusive triple hundred Laxman perished early in the morning, slashing hard at a short and wide ball from Glenn McGrath to be caught by Ricky Ponting in the gully region. Laxman's 281 came in over 10 and a half hours. When the Hyderabadi was dismissed, the roar that went up showed how much his innings meant to the crowd at the Eden Gardens. If this were the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium in Hyderabad, his home town, the cheers wouldn't have been louder or the ovation more heartfelt. Unfortunately for Laxman, he did not add to his tally of 44 boundaries. When the fifth wicket partnership finally broke, the Dravid-Laxman pair had added a mammoth 376.
Dravid then moved on to 180 (444 mins, 353 balls, 21 fours) before being run out in a bid to push the scoring rate. By then, however, Dravid's dismissal was inconsequential with India leading by a huge margin. Dravid's innings too was an important one, coming at a time when the middle order bat had lost his number three slot. Signalling the end of a lean patch, Dravid came to India's rescue. Zaheer Khan (23 not out) used the long handle to good effect and India declared their innings closed on 657/7, equalling the second highest ever second innings total in Test cricket. The highest, 671/4 declared, made by the Kiwis at home against the touring Lankans was a bit too far away to go for. The other time the same score was made, was by Pakistan against the West Indies at Bridgetown in 1957-58, albeit for the loss of one more wicket.
Set a tough target of 384 off 75 overs, the Australians went about their task most methodically. Matthew Hayden and Michael Slater combined well to blunt the early efforts of the Indians. However, as is often the case on a fifth day wicket, it wasn't to last forever. Slater (43) was undone by a Harbhajan Singh off break - he was the first, but certainly not the last to perish in that manner.
Mark Waugh, whose dream was a double hundred on Indian soil, disappointed once more. The elegant middle order batsman was trapped plumb in front by an arm ball from left arm spinner Venkatapathi Raju before he could get off the mark. With Justin Langer having left earlier, the Australians were 116/3 and the Indians began to sense a window of opportunity.
The safest batsman in the world in these kinds of situation, Steve Waugh, joined Hayden out in the middle. Stroking the ball well around the park, the pair added 50 for the fourth wicket. Then the procession began. Let off by Ganguly just before the tea interval, Steve Waugh repeated his mistake, turning the ball around the corner. The second time around however, the man at backward short leg was the agile Hemang Badani. Moving to his natural side, the left, Badani snapped up a smart catch, sending the Australian captain on his way. Steve Waugh's 24 helped boost Australian hopes, but did not do enough for the team total.
As expected, the fall of the captain's wicket boosted the Indian morale no end. For its part, the crowd too began to get squarely behind the Indian team. With the score on 166, Ricky Ponting followed his captain back to the pavilion. Attempting an awkward sweep shot, Ponting presented Das with a simple catch at forward short leg. From 166/3 Australia slumped to 174/8, losing five wickets in a 32-ball period that yielded just eight runs.
Adam Gilchrist, having won all 15 Test matches he has played, was brought down to earth in his sixteenth. Trapped leg before wicket by Tendulkar off the very first ball he faced, the Aussie stumper bagged a 'King's pair'. Matthew Hayden (67 runs, 199 mins, 119 balls, 6 fours) played all over a Tendulkar full toss and was adjudged lbw. Tendulkar was not done yet. Bowling a perfectly pitched googly the Indian batting maestro had Shane Warne trapped plumb in front.
In deep trouble, with an almost full-strength crowd lusting for an Indian victory, the Australian fast bowlers attempted to resist the Indian spinners. For a time they did. Not nearly long enough though. When Glenn McGrath shouldered arms to Harbhajan Singh and umpire SK Bansal's finger went up for the fifth time in the day, it was all over. Scuttling Australia for 212, India had won by 171 runs. For the third time in the history of the game a team had won after being asked to follow on. Surprisingly enough, Australia has been at the losing end of all those matches. The first instance was way back in 1894-95 when Australia unsuccessfully enforced the follow on against the touring England side at Sydney. The second time was in Headingley in 1981 with England being let off the hook. Today, India got its name on that elite list.
There was a mad rush for souvenir stumps out in the middle. In the stands the bedlam was much more frenzied. Every placard, poster and piece of paper was on fire. The scenes today could have only been bettered in the bull-rings of old, where gladiators fought each other to death. There was no death here at the Eden Gardens. But those fortunate enough to be present witnessed several rebirths. Harbhajan Singh with 13/196 and a hat-trick has cemented his place in the side. Vangipurappu Venkat Sai Laxman with 281, the highest Test score by an Indian, has made the number three slot his own. Rahul Dravid with 180 has rediscovered form that gave him the nickname "The Wall".
Most importantly, Indian cricket has once more found the will to beat the best side in the world and stamp its authority on world cricket.