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Every once in a while comes a special sporting contest that leaves behind a whiff of glory and magic. Australia and India played one such Test series in 2000-01; Kolkata was a match for the ages and Chennai not far behind. But ever so rarely comes a series that marks a turning point in history. It may be years or decades before the significance of India's tour of Australia in 2003-04 can be truly assessed, but in this series they announced themselves as a force in Test cricket, after years of living on promise and vain dazzle. They didn't quite end Australia's reign, but how close they came.
To expect anything to match Kolkata was a tough ask. Yet Adelaide, where India came back from the dead to win, was almost a replica. The quality of cricket was admittedly superior in 2000-01, because bowling was a factor then. This was a series decided by batsmen's rare mistakes; injury kept out leading bowlers from both sides, and the rest were blunted by the flatness of the pitches and a galaxy of batting talent. But throughout, the cricket was captivating, grand and redolent with meaning. It ended with a realignment of the world order: the Ashes and the Frank Worrell Trophy could keep their tradition, but the Border-Gavaskar Trophy had emerged as the worthiest in contemporary cricket. And yes, India kept it.
The 1-1 scoreline did not fully reveal India's gains. These have to be viewed through the prism of their wretched past. The last time they had won a Test series outside the subcontinent was in England in 1986, and not since 1980-81 had they won a Test in Australia (where they had lost seven of their last eight). Their previous tour had left deep scars, for they had come boasting a strong middle order and had sunk without a murmur. Meanwhile, under Steve Waugh, Australia had won 21 out of 25 Tests at home, losing a solitary dead-rubber Test against England the previous season. In a pre-series poll in Wisden Asia Cricket, optimists forecast that India would lose 1-3. Rain in the First Test at Brisbane was greeted with relief by many Indian fans, for it offered the hope of squeezing out a draw.
The Indian team was more sanguine. At the pre-series press conference, Sourav Ganguly, a stronger leader than either Mohammad Azharuddin or Sachin Tendulkar, his predecessors on Australian tours, put his and the team's reputations on the line, saying this was a test of their abilities: "After this tour, we will know how good we really are." It was a courageous statement for a man with a known susceptibility against quick bowling, but it was in keeping with the spirit of a team that had learned to shed its diffidence. For Australia, the series meant a great deal more than the chance to keep their impressive home record intact. A legacy was at stake. Waugh, one of the most innovative of all Test captains, revealed beforehand that he would retire at the end of the series - an announcement whose timing would be questioned repeatedly. Waugh insisted that he had done it to end the speculation; cynics saw a design to maximise the commercial potential of a staged farewell. A spectacle it certainly was, with every city according Waugh its own send-off complete with red rags (provided by the newspapers to whom he was contracted), replicas of his good luck charm. It reached a point where Waugh merely had to touch the ball for an eruption of mass sentiment.
This was not unlike the reception reserved for Tendulkar at every ground in India, and Waugh, a visionary and a doer, deserved every bit of it. Yet when Damien Martyn ran himself out to save Waugh's wicket in the First Test at Brisbane, commentators wondered whether his team-mates were letting emotion affect their good sense. Waugh was uncharacteristically testy at the post-match press conference, saying he had been hurt by the "innuendos and conjecture", and remarking sarcastically that "even the red rags are my fault".
But as the series wore on it became clear that what was affecting Australia more was the absence of the injured Glenn McGrath, who had rarely allowed the Indians a start in 1999-2000, claiming one of the openers in five innings out of six. India's opening partnerships on that tour read 7 and 0, 11 and 5, 10 and 22. Also missing from action in the first two Tests was Brett Lee, who on debut in 1999-2000 had harassed the Indians with pace and movement, claiming 13 wickets in two matches. When he did return, for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, he cut a sorry figure, unable to land either the ball consistently on a length or his foot behind the bowling crease. In the first innings of the two games he played, he bowled 28 no-balls, and at the SCG he was reduced to delivering from well behind the line. He did unleash a perfect in-swinging yorker that crashed into Ganguly's stumps on the second day, and he celebrated with gusto. But it was too late: India were 570 for five. If there was less discussion about Australia missing Shane Warne, who was serving a 12-month drugs ban, it was because he had been collared by the Indians before. Warne remained a presence in the Channel Nine commentary box, occasionally straying into the press box to pick a bone with a journalist or two. Stuart MacGill, despite having taken wickets by the dozen against other opponents, turned out to be a poor replacement, and was a perennial source of boundary-balls.
So resplendent was India's top order through the series that it was difficult to guess what effect McGrath might have had. To start with, they had two openers with skill and steel. Virender Sehwag had been pushed up to open in 2002 because no place could be found for him in the middle order and he was too talented a player to sit on the bench. He had expressed reservations about his long-term future in the role, but returned from Australia with his reputation massively enhanced. Once asked, in Sunil Gavaskar's presence, to compare his own technique with the master's, Sehwag insouciantly replied that Gavaskar's technique belonged to that age while he played to the requirement of his. The same insouciance was evident in his batting as he carved the Australian bowlers around the vast MCG, scoring 195 breathless runs in a little over five hours before perishing as he tried to raise his doublehundred with a six. Aakash Chopra, Sehwag's resolute partner, averaged a meagre 23.25, but never failed in any of their first innings.
Chopra and Sehwag put on 61, 66, 141 and 123 in the four first innings. Before them, Waugh's team had conceded only one century opening partnership on home soil. By defying the new-ball bowlers, they eased the path for the middle order, India's best ever - in both substance and panache.
All the touring batsmen shone, none more dazzlingly than the contrasting pair of Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman. Yet India's first saviour was an unlikely one. Ganguly, the presumed weak link in the batting, arrived at the crease in Brisbane with the score reading 62 for three, and Dravid and Tendulkar gone in the space of four balls. He departed nearly five hours later, at 329 for six. His 144 was an emphatic assertion of authority, and Ganguly continued to lead by example through the series: he promoted himself during the dying overs of the third evening at Melbourne to protect Tendulkar's wicket at the risk of his own, whereas, in more favourable conditions at Sydney, he gave up his No. 5 spot to Laxman. The weather ensured a draw at the Gabba, but Ganguly's was a decisive innings nevertheless. Here was a team that looked adversity in the eye.
And so they did in the next Test, at Adelaide. They conceded 400 runs on the first day to Australia, and 556 in all in the first innings, and found themselves looking down the barrel at 85 for four on the second afternoon. Yet the matter was routine for Dravid and Laxman, who forged another 300- run partnership, just as at Kolkata, as if batting in a world of their own.
They so bedraggled their opponents that the Australian second innings was an exhibition of confusion. India, amazingly, were left with a target of 230 to win, which they achieved with another nerveless innings from Dravid. The defeat prompted John Buchanan to write a letter to his squad, questioning their commitment to the baggy green cap. And, not for the first time, a private missive from Buchanan found its way to the newspapers. Like Adelaide, the Melbourne Test was decided by a couple of hours of bad batting. Ganguly bravely opted to bat on a pitch that Tony Ware, the curator, had described as the fastest in Australia. If anything, it was twopaced on the opening day, and Sehwag and Chopra were hit, ducking into bouncers that didn't climb enough. But an hour after tea, with Sehwag having scattered the Australian bowlers out of sight, India were in command and Waugh, in an eerie reprisal of his early dark years, was despairingly bowling bouncers. Even so, he produced the vital breakthrough. Dravid, until then serene and untroubled, fell for the leg trap, jabbing a flick to mid-wicket. From 278 for one, India collapsed to 366 all out.
If the collective splendour of the Indian batsmen captured the imagination, the individual exploits of Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain-in-waiting, invited awe. He had spoken about the sobering effects of marriage: at Adelaide and Melbourne, he demonstrated his maturity with back-to-back double-hundreds. The punch and crispness of his strokeplay remained, but the new Ponting was less impetuous, less prone to collaborate in his own dismissals, and keen to consolidate and work the angles when width was denied. At Melbourne, he hardly ever went down the wicket to Anil Kumble until he was in the 190s, ensuring that Australia didn't blow it. The win at Melbourne set the series up for an extraordinary farewell to Waugh. But Sydney also provided the stage for the redemption of two other giants. From the moment Tendulkar was given out lbw to his third ball at Brisbane, he had had an awful series, with both his driving and self-belief gone astray. He rediscovered himself by limiting his scoring options by one-third: his 241 not out in the first innings featured not a single coverdrive, a stroke that had caused his dismissal a couple of times in the series. After an unbeaten half-century in the second innings, he raised his series average from 16.40 to 76.60. Kumble, a colossus most Indians fail to recognise, harvested 12 wickets, finishing with 24 overall, which made him the most successful bowler on either side. Overshadowing all else was Waugh's farewell.
But the Test, and the series, were drawn. It was ironic that Waugh, whose legacy to Test cricket was the virtual elimination of the draw, ended his career with one. But if India denied Waugh the captain a fitting end, they set the stage for one last scrap from Waugh the warrior batsman. A record fifth-day crowd watched as he made his way in for the final time, with Australia not yet out of danger at 170 for three. He began with a shoveldrive that could have got him out and minutes later the crowd gasped as a sweep flew off the edge to fall a few feet short of a fielder running in from deep square leg. But Waugh soon found his nerve, to hit a string of rasping boundaries, and a child held up a banner on Yabba's Hill: WAUGH RULES, OK.
He didn't rule his last series, but he played his part in saving it. The last hour of the match turned into a giant celebration. Willed on by the crowd and needled by young Parthiv Patel for one last blow ("Show some respect," Waugh countered, "you were in nappies when I made my debut."), he made a charge for the hundred and ended his career with a slog-sweep. It did make for a grand entry in the scorebooks: Waugh c Tendulkar b Kumble 80.
After an emotional parade around the ground on the shoulders of his team-mates, Waugh walked off, with two of his children in his arms, doting wife beside him, to applause heard around the cricket world. A glorious era had ended, and the promise of another was on the horizon. It was one hell of a series.
Match reports for
Victoria v Indians at Melbourne, Nov 25-27, 2003
Queensland Academy of Sport v Indians at Brisbane, Nov 29-Dec 1, 2003
Australia A v Indians at Hobart, Dec 19-21, 2003
1st Match: Australia v India at Melbourne, Jan 9, 2004
Prime Minister's XI v Indians at Canberra, Jan 28, 2004