Classical Kolkata

As befits a city of thinkers and artists, the finest Test played there was a long, slow, examination of skill and character

A young inmate of  the Udayan home for the children of lepers in Kolkata, March 2001

One of the inmates of the Udayan home stands before the plaque acknowledging Steve Waugh's role in the setting up of the wing for girls © Mark Ray

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Australia's series against India in 2001 was Test cricket at its best. High-quality, varied, dramatic. And the middle match, the second Test in Kolkata, was as different from the first as Kolkata is different from Mumbai.

Mumbai had been a blast - on and off the field. The city is famously flash and fast and the first Test was played at a frantic pace. It was all over in three exciting exciting days, the highlight of which was the hitting onslaught by the two left-handers, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, in Australia's first innings.

After a quiet week in Delhi - if there can be such a thing - for a tour game, we arrived in Kolkata in time for Holi. It was my first visit to the city, and as I always did on tours, I spent my spare time wandering the streets with my camera. But with limited time and knowledge of the city, I saw only the central part.

I wandered bustling streets and the busy bookshop area before I ended up on the Hooghly's shore. On one side of the road, opposite small temples where priests and holy men watched the passing parade, I saw the entrance to an impressive set of buildings. Young men were playing cricket in the driveway and as I watched a man came up to me and said: "That is Tagore's school." Back then I knew only a little of the great writer.

On Holi day, the other spare day before the Test began, the Australian media and a few of the players drove in a long convoy of police cars, private vehicles and minibuses to Barrackpore, to the Udayan home for children of lepers. By that stage Steve Waugh had been raising funds for the school for a few years. It was a long drive but there was little traffic. People were preparing for Holi. A few hundred delighted children welcomed us to their home. I can still see Mark Waugh reuniting with the girl he sponsored; Justin Langer, the father of young children back home in Perth, spending most of the day hand in hand with a boy of about five who had latched onto him when we first walked into the school.

At one point, children performed for us and the highlight was a dance by a group of girls. One girl caught my eye - and, as it turned out, the eyes of all of us. She danced beautifully and her eyes and smile glowed brightly. When the performance ended and the press photographers asked to set up a picture, they all asked if that little girl could be in the photo. She was delighted to oblige, posing in front of a plaque marking Steve Waugh's major contribution - a new wing for girls.

On the drive back to the hotel we saw groups of people heading out to celebrate Holi. We passed an open truck with about 20 adults in the back. All were painted in silver - clothes, faces, hair. I couldn't stop the convoy, so I missed getting a photo of them.

As we reached the centre of the city, we asked our minibus driver to let us off. Half a dozen Australian journalists landed in the middle of Holi Day. The city was buzzing, mainly with somewhat inebriated young people, and we attracted quite a lot of attention. It was an insight into a special day in a special place.

The pads and gloves of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid lie on the ground between sessions during their epic partnership, India v Kolkata, second Test, Kolkata, March 2001

Laxman's and Dravid's pads and gloves catch some rays between sessions during their epic partnership © Mark Ray

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The Test match was completely different from Mumbai's. There is something about Eden Gardens that is familiar to Australians. It and the MCG are cricket's only true stadiums, grounds that can hold 100,000 people. The size makes them special. I first looked in awe at the MCG when I was a ten-year-old. My parents and I had driven down from Sydney on holiday and we went to the MCG to watch Ted Dexter's Englishmen practise before the Boxing Day Test in 1962. Eden Gardens was just as impressive on that first visit.

Still, getting into the ground was no mean achievement. After negotiating the massive crowds that curled around the huge maidan next to the ground in snaking ticket queues, you had to have all the appropriate passes to get into the stadium. These passes had to be authorised by the Kolkata police, who were very strict. Channel Nine's Australian news crew had failed to get one of the passes and spent the first two days of the match broadcasting from the street.

I ended up with five passes: one to get into the ground, one to get into the press box, one to get out of the press box and into the outer grandstands, one to get lunch in the press box, and a fifth to get afternoon tea there. A record in my cricket-writing career.

Inside the ground the noise was phenomenal. Not as frenetic as Mumbai, nor as constant as it would be in Chennai in a week's time. At Eden Gardens it was deeper and more powerful, no doubt because of the size of the crowd and because this Test match ebbed and flowed at its own stately pace. This famous match went for five days, turned this way and that and will always be remembered for India's magnificent fightback, thanks to a great partnership of 376 between VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. Not to be outdone, Harbhajan Singh whirled his way to 13 wickets in a thrilling and decisive performance.

This match had a style that reflected the city's, just as the first Test had reflected Mumbai's personality. Kolkata was played at a totally different pace. It was a slower match, more classical, more thoughtful, emotions running deeply rather racing across the surface. In Kolkata, the city of artists and writers and thinkers, this was a classical Test - a long, profound examination of skill and character.

Outside the stadium the great city went about its varied and complicated daily life. So it was after the match, when both teams and the travelling media drove straight from Eden Gardens to the airport to catch a plane to Chennai for the third Test, which would start three days later. It had been an enriching and exhausting week in Kolkata.

Mark Ray is a veteran Australian cricket writer and photographer

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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