United they triumph
Exactly 105 years ago, on this day at this ground, Gilbert 'The Croucher' Jessop inspired a dramatic Ashes win, pulling off what remains the most successful chase on this ground. But for the Indians on the fifth day, buffered as they were by a target of 444, a quadruple Nelson and a number seemingly ominous in itself, it would have taken something beyond even Kevin Pietersen's blazing bat for the spectre of Jessop to haunt them.
It was a strange day for India, almost like an off-day where they could gain a bonus. On a pitch that Pietersen described would be "great even if we played for a week", India couldn't muster the resources to end on a high. Towards the end it was confusing what they were thinking: oohing and aahing for lbw appeals while eagerly anticipating the final moment. The intensity was bound to drop but you'd say they had done all the hard work earlier to earn this.
When Anil Kumble finished over number 110, at 6:28pm, the fielders, most hovered in an umbrella field, triggered a celebration. He'd bowled the final ball at Kingston as well, when India won the away series last year, but the spontaneity of wrapping up a win wasn't there this time. It's always difficult to go bananas after a draw, especially when you expected it for a good three days. The batch of 1971, that also led the series 1-0 before the final game, probably went through something similar at Port of Spain, when they failed to close it out but sealed a historic triumph.
The position of the close-in fielders towards the end of the game put India's team effort into perspective. Having gone through the whole series as a united bunch, here they were, at arms distance, standing on the threshold of a historic moment. Rahul Dravid's response, when asked if he expected his team to do well collectively, was indicative: "Indian cricket needs contributions from everyone, we need different heroes. That's the great thing of this series."
This was a coach-less team from which few knew what to expect but the combined effort has been unshakeable. The sum has been way greater than the parts. "They [the seniors in the team] have all taken on huge leadership roles in their performances, in their mentoring. Obviously we realised we have to work together. At various stages they gave me a lot of suggestions and ideas. We've not had a coach in the conventional sense, but we have Venky [Prasad], Robin [Singh] and Greg King. Mr Borde too chipped in with his advice. I think we have a great backroom staff, even though we have not a head coach, we had some great guys around. They really worked hard to prepare us and in the end the result shown."
It's the same united front that would have helped Dravid in his decision on the fourth morning, when he was faced with the dilemma over the follow-on. Michael Vaughan, his counterpart, said he would have done exactly the same in the given situation and Dravid explained that he wanted to give his bowlers a rest.
"There will be difference of opinions," he said. "But as the captain of the team I know my players quite well, I know the dressing room pretty well, I know the workload my bowlers had gone into. It is the third Test of the three match series, we have played the same bowling attack right through. May be if I was sitting in a living room or drawing room I might have said the same thing but as a captain I get the pulse of what is happening. I have to back my judgment, that is what I earn my corn for. At that time I felt that pushing my boys through that kind of workload is not the right thing to do, give them a bit of rest and then comeback fresh in the fourth innings and that is what they did today and they gave a great performance."
The celebrations at The Oval couldn't rival those of 1971, when Bella, a baby elephant, joined in, but a whole stand was swathed in tri-colour. It was a fitting time for the flags to flutter, and for the team to take home the recently instituted Pataudi Trophy, named after the Nawab of Pataudi Snr. the only Test cricketer to have played for both England and India, with India two days away from the 60th anniversary of their independence.
"Cricket is special in India, I'm sure they'll be celebrating back home in India as well," said Dravid. "As Indian players, we do understand we bring a lot of joy to a lot of people, we are aware of this responsibility and it's nice to know there'll be so many young kids in towns and villages who'll be smiling today, and who'll be taking out a cricket bat and ball and just enjoying the moment with us." It's been that kind of series. India have had their fun, yet ended up with a joyous place in history.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo.