February 23, 2001

When Nayan Mongia shone in an unfamiliar role

Even in the days of short tours in the 90s, it seemed inconceivable to think that India and Australia would ever play a one off Test. But that's exactly what happened early in the 1996-97 season. Actually, like the Golden Jubilee Test against England in February 1980, this too was a commemorative occasion. Australia agreed to come to India to play one Test because of their commitment to honour two of the greatest cricketers of modern times - Sunil Gavaskar and Allan Border. The Australian Cricket Board (ACB) had instituted the Gavaskar-Border Trophy for contests between the two countries and given the importance of the occasion and honour due to the two cricketers, the Australians flew over for a tour that comprised only one first class match, besides the Test at New Delhi.

Despite the absence of Shane Warne, nursing an injury, Australia were the favourites on the basis of having the better record over the past few years. India on the other hand had lost a lacklustre series in England during the summer. But there had, since then, been one important change at the top - Sachin Tendulkar had taken over the captaincy from Md Azharuddin - and so the mood was one of expectation as the Test commenced.

The visiting team were handicapped by the fact that their only first class match against the Board President's XI at Patiala was affected by rain and so they made it to the Feroze Shah Kotla grounds short of match practice. Still a batting line up of skipper Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Ricky Ponting, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Michael Bevan and Ian Healy could not be taken lightly. The bowling however in the hands of Glenn McGrath, Peter McIntyre, Paul Reiffel and Brad Hogg did present some problems for the Australians.

The Indians had one definite weakness - the lack of a suitable opening batting pair. Finally they settled on Vikram Rathour, a relative newcomer, and pushed wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia half a dozen slots up the batting order. With Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Md Azharuddin and Rahul Dravid, the middle order was in good hands. In the absence of the injured Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad was given a new partner in his Karnataka colleague David Johnson. Much interest centred around the spin attack for it would obviously hold the key to India's success. Finally the selectors selected for the trio of Anil Kumble, Aashish Kapoor and Sunil Joshi.

On a pitch tailor made for spin, the Australians practically lost the match on the opening day when they were bowled out for 182. As expected, the spin trio took most of the wickets. The Indian innings was sustained by a monumental 152 by wicketkeeper turned opener Mongia, an innings that helped India to a sizeable lead of 179, thus closing all escape routes for the visitors. The Australians fared only slightly better in the second innings before they were all out for 234. Kumble finished with nine wickets in the match. The token target of 56 provided no real problems for the home team who completed a seven wicket victory with a day to spare. Tendulkar thus won his first match as India captain, joining the ranks of Polly Umrigar, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri who had achieved a similar feat.