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From Benaud's brilliance to Harbhajan's humdingers, Australia and India have engaged in some fearsome tussles over the past five decades
By Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
October 4, 2004
After nearly 50 years of riveting rivalry, India and Australia don't have too much to choose between them. Australia dominated the initial exchanges, while India have had more joy recently. But a series between the two teams invariably produces the unexpected. We look back at a tied Test, an offspinner conjuring up a miracle, and much more ...
Australia arrived for the first-ever Test series in 1956 on a demoralised note, after being "Lakered" in the Ashes and "Fazalled" by Pakistan in the one-off Test at Karachi. However, Ian Johnson's Australia dominated the three Tests. Richie Benaud set the tone in the first innings of the first Test at Madras, as his 7 for 72 spun India out for 161. Benaud snapped up 23 wickets in the three Tests and the Australian batsmen, especially Neil Harvey, didn't have too many problems against the spin trio of Subhash Gupte, Vinoo Mankad and Ghulam Ahmed. SK Gurunathan summed it up in the Indian Cricket Almanack where he wrote, "The Australians showed themselves to be a superior side even when their batting failed."
Arriving as captain this time, Benaud carried on from where he had left off in 1956, and his 8 for 76 in the first Test at Delhi (including 3 for 0 in the first innings) engineered the crushing victory. His ally in the mission, which Australia won 2-1, was the left-arm fast bowler Alan Davidson, who finished with 29 wickets in the five Tests. However, Davidson's most successful haul (12 for 124) came in a losing cause at Kanpur as India managed to pull off their first win over Australia. Jasu Patel, an unheralded offspinner with a jerky action, conjured up this completely unexpected win with 14 for 124 in the match, including 9 for 69 in the first innings. Jasu, though, turned out to be a one-Test wonder and the final match of the series, at Calcutta, was his last.
Bobby Simpson's men had just retained the Ashes and were odds-on favourites to win the three-Test rubber. But under Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, India were slowly acquiring some steel, which came to the fore in the first Test at Madras. After Australia were bowled out for 211 on the first day, Graham McKenzie had reduced India to 76 for 5. That was when Pataudi (128) and Chandu Borde shared a crucial partnership of 142, which meant that India took a first-innings lead for the first time in a Test against Australia. Despite losing at Madras, India clinched a thriller in the second Test at Bombay when Borde held his nerve with only the tailenders for support. The third Test was drawn, and as Mihir Bose wrote in A History of Indian Cricket, "There was a real belief that, under Pataudi, India had begun to turn the corner."
The wheel had turned a full circle for Pataudi, by the time Bill Lawry's Australia arrived for the five-Test series. India were undone by the wiles of Ashley Mallett, the offspinner, while Ian Chappell enjoyed a great series with the bat. India were crushed in the first Test at Bombay - only their second defeat there - and the series was sealed with Australian wins in the last two matches. India's only consolation was the win at Delhi. On a dustbowl where 31 wickets fell on the first three days, India comfortably chased down 181 on the fourth day with Ajit Wadekar leading the way with an unbeaten 91.
Depleted owing to the absence of the World Series Cricket players, Australia didn't pose too much of a challenge in a series dominated by the Indian batsmen. Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath piled up two centuries each, while Kapil Dev's 28 wickets produced the crucial breakthroughs at the top. India also found two matchwinning spinners in that series with Dilip Doshi, the left-armer, and Shivlal Yadav, the offspinner, picking up 51 wickets between them. Kim Hughes and Allan Border enjoyed good runs with the bat but, most importantly, as Border was to write later: "This trip to India had been the first true test of my character as a cricketer."
Border came back in 1986 with a young team that displayed a lot of character, as exemplified by Dean Jones's epic innings in an energy-sapping cauldron at Madras. A dehydrated Jones had to fight acute bouts of vomiting, leg and stomach cramps on his way to 210 as Australia piled up 574. Leading by 347 at the end of the fourth day, Border decided to declare overnight and set India a challenging target, which Gavaskar duly went after. At 331 for 6, India were almost there but Ray Bright snapped up three quick wickets before Greg Matthews had the last man, Maninder Singh, adjudged lbw when the scores were level to bring about only the second tie in Test cricket. The next two Tests were drawn, but Australia had greatly benefited from the experience, as was evidenced soon after in their World Cup triumph.
The one-off Test at Delhi marked the institution of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Nayan Mongia notched up his only Test hundred, a fine 152 on a turner, as a Warne-less Australia struggled. Their batsmen also realised why India were such a hard team to beat at home as Anil Kumble, as he did so often in the '90s, got to work.
If 1996 had given the Australian batsmen a sneak preview of Kumble's destructive ability, 1998 was a gory trilogy. With 23 wickets in three Tests, Kumble ensured that India maintained their fantastic record at home, and he was an unstoppable force when bowling with a huge total to back him up. Australia had their moments, though. They led in the first innings of the first Test, until a stunning 155 not out from Sachin Tendulkar snuffed out all hope. And Michael Kasprowicz fashioned an emphatic win at Bangalore, but by then the series was long gone. In the same Test, an 18-year-old named Harbhajan Singh made his debut.
Harbhajan spun India to arguably the most incredible series victory of all time. Australia wrapped up the first Test in three days, with Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist smashing counter-attacking hundreds, and India slumped further in the second Test at Kolkata when they were made to follow on. That was when VVS Laxman, as if in a trance, scripted a fantastic 281 and along with Rahul Dravid (180) put India in an impregnable position. Harbhajan, who had taken a hat-trick in the first innings, took 6 for 73 in the second and India had conjured up a win from strands of straw. Harbhajan took 15 wickets in the third Test, and India scraped home to a nailbiting two-wicket win despite Hayden's double-century.
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