A Sunday to savour
It was around 5:25 pm. A section of the George Headley Stand was swathed in the Indian tri-colour, and with a soothing breeze blowing behind his back, Anil Kumble began to bowl what would possibly have been the fourth ball of the penultimate over of the day. Within the next few seconds Sabina Park - the once-great Caribbean fortress - was an arena transformed; 35 years of hurt overcome.
On April 19 1971, when the last Indian team triumphed here, Watergate hadn't yet entered the lexicon, Greg Chappell was taking his initial strides in Test cricket, Kumble was just over six months old, and the others in the squad weren't even born. It's been a long time coming. Ever since, Indian teams have left these shores either decimated, frustrated, hurt or all of the above. Other teams came here and won - Australia in fact broke the barrier way back in 1995 - but India, both in 1997 and 2002, found it a bridge too far.
India could afford to draw in the final Test of the `71 series - they'd already taken the lead in the second Test at Port of Spain. Garry Sobers's West Indies needed 262 to win the game in the final innings, 7 less than what Brian Lara's boys needed today, but ended up holding on for a hard-fought draw. This match at Jamaica was probably similar to Barbados in 1997, the only game of the series that produced a result and a low-scoring scrap at that. That pitch, like this one, had a vicious streak and India, chasing 120 in the final innings collapsed for a mere 81. India couldn't afford a repeat, they'd fought too hard to let this one slip.
They got a royal scrap alright. With 269 to defend, and the pitch throwing up all sorts of possibilities, India were always favourites to win. Even Dravid, who'd played what he felt were two of his "best innings" and what Lara felt was the "best two innings" he had seen on such a pitch, had been defeated by the surface. Surely West Indies, who rolled over for a mere 103 in the first innings, weren't going to get even halfway there. Surely, from 29 for 3 they had no way out.
No, said Ramnaresh Sarwan, who unfurled some of the most gorgeous straight-drives seen all series during the course of his I'll-go-down-in-a-blaze 51. No, said Dwayne Bravo, who showed that, irrespective of the nature of the pitch, his style would be effective. And no, this was the most emphatic no of all, said Denesh Ramdin, 21 years old and showing the maturity of a man twice his age. They attacked the spinners and rekindled hope, they rotated strike superbly, picked their deliveries, and injected the stadium with hope. They even got the music to re-start. It was a sight to see the pocket-sized Ramdin audaciously loft Anil Kumble to the scaffolding, to watch him farm the strike and regularly back himself even against the good balls. Against two world-class spinners, on a snorter of a pitch, he nearly stole the day.
But wait. You can get past a master once, maybe even thrice, as Bravo did by swiping Kumble for three successive fours in an over, but it's the master that eventually wins. You may be able to hit other bowlers off rhythm, dent their confidence with a flurry of boundaries but such tactics invariably pump up Kumble even more. Bravo tried to swipe one too many, Samuels, Taylor and Collins tried to pad one too many and all were gobbled up by that one untiring machine called "Jumbo". He's been around, this fella, taken criticism after criticism about being a home-pitch bully, and it was most fitting that he was there, right at the end, showing his worth.
Hugging him tight, a few moments after the final wicket fell, was his old mate, Dravid. Their partnership in the first innings, all grit and graft, showed the value of blue-collar ethic, and it was fitting that both had played a large part in one of Indian cricket's finest hours. One mustn't get carried away by this triumph, never forgetting that India were expected to clinch this series. At the same time, it's no point being too critical and saying they should have won by a bigger margin. It's not as if Indian cricket has taken a giant leap, but it's definitely taken a crucial step forward.
There was a cute touch to the three-day finish as well. The `71 series was the first time cricket had been played on Sundays in the Caribbean, in all the games except the opening one at Kingston. A neat circle was completed then when India rounded off the win at the end of an exciting Sunday.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo