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Two memorable debuts from the 1996 Lord's Test
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Ten years ago, an Indian cricket team left to play a chilly summer of cricket in England with controversy over one name ringing in their ears. There were other things to be concerned about but then, like now, Sourav Ganguly was the focus. Rahul Dravid was in that team too but hardly anyone seemed to realise. Two completely dissimilar people had walked side by side for a few years, facing disappointment, success, and increasingly better bowlers as they grew up. Now they would take giant steps forward together; Ganguly dramatically, Dravid quietly. It was a sign of things to come.
India had a new coach and a sinking captain. Soon after, both Sandeep Patil and Mohammad Azharuddin would be sacked; one would find the door shut on him, the other would be quickly welcomed back. India took three seamers and four spinners for the coldest part of the cricket season. Midway through the tour, Navjot Sidhu walked out. When he was handed a very convenient six-month ban after that, he told a press conference "Kabhi kisi ko muqammal jahan nahi milta, kisi ko zameen, kisi ko aasman nahi milta." (Loosely: no one always gets what they want.) It was, unmistakably, a sign of things to come.
It was also the first time ESPN was covering an Indian tour overseas and we used to do a programme called Inside Edge in those days. The Ganguly issue came up on one of those. His selection was universally condemned and was seen as further proof of the "quota system" in operation; the same "quota" that had seen Chetan Sharma and Prashant Vaidya come into the side after their sell-by dates. Inevitably, a snigger accompanied any discussion on Ganguly's inclusion.
Predictably, there was outrage in Calcutta and some of us found we had been assigned the anti-Ganguly camp. They were wrong then, as they are wrong now.
It was against this backdrop, and amid more stories of ill treatment of Ganguly leaking from typically anonymous sources, that he walked out to bat at No. 3 in the last of the one-dayers on a very cold day in Manchester. There was a breeze blowing, the full-sleeved sweater was deemed essential, and the ball was seaming. The whisper was that Ganguly had been assigned No. 3 so that it would give his detractors some ammunition in case he failed. He didn't. The ball didn't seem to move as much when he was batting; he looked completely at home, and as I walked out of our commentary hole, I ran into Ravi Shastri, who had been with me on that Inside Edge show, coming out of the BBC commentary room. We raised eyebrows at each other and Ravi said he had just seen a fine prospect for India.
Dravid had played that game too and had thrown his bat around for 22 from 15 balls at the end. And, to complete the irony, he had taken the place of one of his heroes, Sanjay Manjrekar. Dravid was still quiet and unnoticed. Manjrekar would play only one more Test after that tour - a fine career waylaid early.
On this tour, India duly lost the first Test at Birmingham, but Sachin Tendulkar produced one of his finest centuries. In a batting line-up comprising untested youth, out-of-form seniors, and some dubious selections, he provided the pedigree. By the time India went to Lord's, the young guns had to play. Ganguly walked in at No. 3, Dravid slipped in at No. 7.
It was quickly apparent that both belonged there. Ganguly was imperious through the off side and his cover-driving was sumptuous; each shot suggested that his was an inspired, rather than a malicious, selection. Occasionally he would check his cover-drive and play it behind point, and when the ball was pitched short, he told us he possessed the pull shot as well. By and by, the idea that he could get a hundred dawned on us - he got there with a sense of the inevitable. It was one of my happier moments on air.
Dravid played some handsome shots too, but watching him was a bit like rummaging around in the wardrobe and realising that there was an excellent jacket waiting to be worn. Truth be told, till I watched the innings again on ESPN-Star a few months ago, I couldn't remember the shots he played and yet there were some exquisite on-drives and you could easily have mistaken that innings for one of the many outstanding ones he has played since. At 95, he got a little nick, no more than a feather, and walked. Had he scored another five runs, it would have been the first time in history that a pair of debutants had made hundreds in a Test match.
By the time the series was done, Ganguly had scored another excellent century, Dravid had missed another but got 84, and Venkatesh Prasad had had an excellent debut series as well. A pathetic team performance had thrown up three wonderful young players; it happens very rarely.
I waited to interview Ganguly after the Lord's Test. But as he stood 50 yards away waving me towards him, I was prevented by a steward because it would have meant I would have walked on the grass at Lord's; my pathetic feet would have permanently sullied the earth they trod on. But walk I did, putting one foot in the tiny space between the boundary rope and the advertising boards and dragging the other along, and now, after all these years, I must confess that twice I allowed my left foot to stray.
Ganguly's interview that day wasn't anywhere near as exciting as his batting, but in the years to come he became a very interesting person to talk to and took his place among the giants of Indian cricket. So too did Rahul Dravid, even if in a less flamboyant, more measured manner. On many occasions Dravid expressed admiration for Ganguly and not once did I hear Ganguly speak a word against Dravid. Now they face different futures, these two who have walked alongside each other for a decade and a half. But I guess that is how it always is.
Harsha Bhogle is a broadcaster and cricket writer
© Cricinfo Magazine
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