The signs were ominous. The moment was crying out for a historic occasion. Today was the 62nd anniversary of the D-Day landings; it was the 12th anniversary of Brian Lara's epic 501 not out; it was, in all probability, the final day of Test cricket at the Antigua Recreation Ground, a venue littered with unforgetable moments. The nerve-shredding end was probably a befitting tribute to the ARG - the 11th draw in 21 games but arguably one of the most thrilling ever.
On November 8, 2003, Fidel Edwards negotiated 33 balls at the Harare Sports Club to help West Indies avoid the ignominy of losing to Zimbabwe. Today, despite suffering from a hamstring injury, he battled for 36 balls with Daren Ganga as a runner and thwarted India. In both cases he ended up making a solitary run. While he had Ridley Jacobs for company in the Harare humdinger, today he was partnered by Corey Collymore, his childhood mate from Boscobelle. For 19 balls, the duo overcame the tensest of examinations. While facing Anil Kumble, they had vultures prowling around the bat, waiting for the slightest edge; while facing Sreesanth, they had an umbrella slip-cordon to beware of. The slightest of errors would have been snared and the series could have tilted significantly.
One can go on for hours and hours about how this decision or that delivery altered the course of the game. What if Mahendra Singh Dhoni had stumped the dashing Dave Mohammed six overs before close? What if Sreesanth hadn't bowled a wide ball in the fourth ball of the final over? And you can progressively rewind to the earlier days - what if Rahul Dravid had declared half an hour earlier? What if it hadn't rained for ten minutes at lunch time yesterday? What if Edwards' hamstring was far more serious? What if the noise from the adjoining prison had distracted Collymore? You get the picture. There is no end to this what-if business, but neither team can be faulted for too much. At the end of the second day, India would have taken the draw; as would West Indies at the end of the fourth.
Three contrasting innings, all from left-handers, made the difference. Chris Gayle batted with an uncharacteristically monastic calm; Shivnarine Chanderpaul did so with uncharacteristic aggression; and Mohammed - wonder what effect he had on the dressing-room - swished and swatted in circumstances that demanded caution. Gayle chose to defend, preferring to ensure a draw before going for a win; Chanderpaul played the innings of the day, keeping out the good ones and punishing the trash; while Mohammed chose to take on the bowlers when runs were probably the last thing on West Indies' mind. Yet, his innings was worth it's weight in gold and as Lara said at the end of play, attack can indeed sometimes be the best form of defence.
India were denied, yet one must remember the fine part they played in this classic. Sreesanth might have been completely gutted after the final ball - which he re-bowled after stopping in his final delivery stride, adding to the drama - but India were undoubtedly moral victors, if such a thing exists. Kumble's indefatigable spirit shone forth yet again on a pitch that offered little in terms of turn, as did the tireless efforts of Munaf Patel and VRV Singh. One must also applaud the entire team's persistence in fighting it out, willing to prise out wickets, despite the match threatening to peter to a draw. Most importantly, they seized moments, something that couldn't be said of many Indian teams playing abroad in the past, and were one edge away from a historic moment. They have three more chances; if they show similar bounce-back-ability, they won't be denied.
One just needed to observe the patterns emerging from the Chickie Stand to get an idea of the gradual build up of tension, as the day wore on. "Chickie", the main DJ at the ARG, chose to switch on some light tunes for every dot ball towards the end, but hardly anyone appeared to be moving. The jiving could wait, this was getting too serious. It was fitting that people crowded behind the lowly-built walls behind the Carib Beer mound, peeking through the walls to watch the climactic moments. The much-loved ARG couldn't have asked for a more fitting final tribute.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo