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Although the Australians began the tour with the awesome achievement of 15 consecutive Test wins, they deemed victory in the series against India as absolutely essential if they were to stand comparison with the greatest teams Australia had fielded. Winning in India was, in their eyes, a conquest of the "final frontier", not least because 31 years and four tours had passed since Australia last left there triumphant.
Steve Waugh's team seemed to be on the point of emulating Bill Lawry's when they won the First Test at Mumbai, by ten wickets in three days, and then made India follow on 274 behind in the Second at Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). However, India not only denied them a winning 2-0 lead there, but rallied strongly enough to achieve one of the most remarkable victories in the history of Test cricket. They went on to win the deciding Test in a gripping finish.
The chief architects of the epic win at Eden Gardens were V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid, whose partnership of 376, one of several records in this match, was the basis of the recovery, and the 20-year-old Sikh off-spinner, Harbhajan Singh. His hat-trick in the first innings - the first for India in Tests - was only the precursor to taking 13 wickets in the match. In the next match, he topped that with 15. Harbhajan's and Laxman's glory was the greater for the fact that neither was hitherto established in the side.
Notwithstanding Australia's overwhelming superiority over India in the home series a year earlier, their win in the First Test was something of a surprise - the draw was the favourite - and highly creditable; they went into the match looking as if two warm-up games were inadequate preparation. Moreover, Mark Waugh, his hand injured, played without having had a single innings on the tour, and with very little net practice. The match started two days after Sir Donald Bradman's death, and Steve Waugh promised that his team would play it as the great man would have liked them to.
The spirit of that dedication was exemplified by the manner in which Australia's bowlers - Glenn McGrath especially - vindicated their captain's decision to put India in, and again by the daring and panache with which Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist revived Australia's innings from the rubble of 99 for five. Both hit hundreds, Gilchrist making his in an unforgettable exhibition of unbridled aggression that boosted his career average to 58.35 in 15 Tests, all of which Australia had won. But he was soon to be reminded what a cruel game cricket can be. He bagged a pair in the Second Test, managed only a brace of singles in the Third - and his average fell back to 47.33.
Meanwhile, fellow left-hander Hayden, whose first eight Test appearances had been scattered over seven seasons, raised his average from 24.36 to 40.18. He had not found a regular place until the series against West Indies that preceded this tour, but now he was by far the Australians' main provider of runs. His tour de force was 203 out of a total of 391 in the Third Test. The big Queenslander was originally on the list of players to be replaced for the subsequent limited-overs internationals. But his 549 runs at 109.80 in the Tests were scored at such a high strike-rate - 66 per 100 balls - that he was retained for the one-day games, a move rewarded with innings of 99, 57, 111 and 36. Hayden's presence accounted in no small measure to Australia winning the one-day series 3-2.
The rest of Australia's batting in the Test series was uneven. Steve Waugh looked in excellent form, and completely on terms with the Indian spinners, yet he managed only one score above 50, a gallant century that had its roots in a crisis in the Second Test. His twin, Mark, waited until the last Test to sparkle with a delightful half-century in each innings. Furthermore, the phenomenal catch he took on the last day to dismiss Laxman could well have won Australia both Test and series at the last gasp. Michael Slater and Justin Langer had moderate series and Ricky Ponting a disastrous one, although Ponting's memorable catch, to dismiss a well-set Tendulkar, made a significant contribution to the First Test victory. A century towards the end of the one-day series redeemed his tour.
Among the bowlers, McGrath and Jason Gillespie distinguished themselves by taking 30 wickets between them. Their success set in focus the disadvantage to which Australia were put by the unavailability of Brett Lee. Shane Warne, his level of fitness criticised by coach John Buchanan after the defeat at Eden Gardens, could provide only the odd good spell. The Indians played him with such comfort, and sometimes even disdain, that Waugh did not dare use him during the tight finish of the final Test.
Australia were not alone in being handicapped by the absence of a key bowler. India were without Anil Kumble for the whole series and Javagal Srinath for the last two Tests. The bonus that went with victory was the maturity achieved by Laxman and Harbhajan. A batsman of stately style, Laxman scored 503 runs at 83.83 in the Tests and should be an adornment to the game for many a year. It took much strength of character for Harbhajan to retain his poise and confidence after the ferocious battering he took from Gilchrist and Hayden in the First Test, but he went on to claim 32 wickets in the series at an average of 17.03. Only three bowlers - George Lohmann, Sydney Barnes and Richard Hadlee - had collected more in a three-Test series; Harbhajan was the first spinner to take so many.
Match reports for
India A v Australians at Nagpur, Feb 17-19, 2001
Mumbai v Australians at Mumbai (BS), Feb 22-24, 2001
Indian Board President's XI v Australians at Delhi, Mar 6-8, 2001
India XI v Australians at Chennai, Mar 23, 2001