From magic to harsh reality for India at Eden
Eden Gardens is an iconic Indian venue. When Indian players and captains need a lifeline, they go there. When all else fails, you go to Eden. A lot happens in sport that defies logic, that falls in the realm of the magical. That's what makes us love sport. A lot of the magic in Indian cricket resides at Eden. Wristy batsmen from Hyderabad have rediscovered their timing here, tired spinners have found new life in those fingers, jaded captains have turned into geniuses. And the greatest comeback in Test history was enacted here.
There have been heartbreaks too - you don't need to look beyond that World Cup semi-final and the Test loss after having Pakistan at 26 for 6 on the first morning - but that comeback against Australia in 2000-01 is a seminal moment in Indian Test cricket. For it gave birth to India's greatest period in Test cricket. All the fight and adaptability and class that India showed in Test cricket over the next 10 years can be traced back to those two magical days at Eden.
It is poignant but also fitting that it has all come to an emphatic end at the same venue. Even those living in a fantasy world created by spin doctors they choose to surround themselves with can't turn their backs to this debacle. Sport is a lot about denying. About denying your physical limitations, strong opposition, the elements. You need to psyche yourself up. Openers need to tell themselves they will be all right against the new ball being hurled at them at close to 150kmph. Tennis players tell themselves they can last five hours in the Melbourne heat in January.
India, though, have lived in a different kind of denial for the last 18 months. In their minds they are still the world's No. 1 in Tests and should have won the World Twenty20 but for five minutes of rain. Somewhere down the line this team changed from one that was bitterly disappointed at coming back from South Africa with a 1-1 draw to one that was indifferent to two whitewashes, looking for excuses and not reasons.
It is ironic that it has taken a defeat at their field of dreams, where magic happens, to give them the reality check they desperately need. It was cold. It was logical. It was brutal. It was like VVS Laxman, a man renowned for defying logic, playing the most logical innings of his career, a nine-ball duck at the WACA as India lost inside three days.
And how painful every blow must have been. They kept denying their shortcomings because they had a home record to fall back upon. In Mumbai, they were given a pitch where they used to always win. They lost. In Kolkata, they were given a pitch on which it used to be impossible to beat them. They are going to lose here too.
It was ironic too that R Aswhin took them into the final day, summing up through that late show of defiance all that is wrong with this team. Ashwin is an offspinner suited more to limited-overs cricket, but he became the fastest Indian to 50 wickets through home series against West Indies and New Zealand. He doesn't lack gumption, which showed in his batting in Australia where his was the third-best average among the Indians. With an unbeaten 83 full of shots proper batsmen play, full of the presence of mind to farm the strike to protect the lesser batsmen, he has not promised magic; he has further drilled home the reality.
Ashwin now averages more than 50 in this series; only Cheteshwar Pujara has done better among the Indians. However, that average is 10 units below his bowling average. His bowling - rightly or wrongly - was the source of much of India's confidence that they would beat England at home. Just imagine, here is a bowler doing better than most of the batsmen in his side and yet not making up for the damage his insipid bowling has caused.
Had this happened at some other ground, India would still have Eden Gardens to fall back on. Why, as recently as yesterday Pragyan Ojha said he was confident the "guys will do well" because "we have a good record at this ground". It is good that the spirit of Eden turned its back on India.
When he trapped Zaheer Khan lbw, Steven Finn showed the renowned master of reverse swing how it is done effectively nowadays. The oldest man in the team, going through the worst phase of his own career, is showing half the side how to keep their chin up and field. The spinners are outspun, the quicks outswung, the batsmen 'outpatienced', and the fielders exposed. There is nowhere to hide, there are mirrors everywhere.
Between Kolkata then and Kolkata now, India have given their fans much joy in Test cricket. They got rid of the well-earned reputation of being poor travellers. Painstakingly and through foresight and planning, they earned India respect in Test cricket. It was good while it lasted.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo