A series of more than three Tests is a rare thing these days. Its shifting dynamics embrace such abstractions as momentum, luck, form, intensity - karma, even - as if it were a universe in itself. India's tour of England in 2002 captured the ebb and flow, the up and down, of this strange and enchanting realm. The series was played out by sides that were evenly matched at the start, became absurdly superior to one another at different points, and ended exactly level as if to reconcile themselves to the truth of the original equation. Life, it appeared, had come a complete circle within the space of four Tests.
The scoreline, 1-1, was frustrating but fair. Michael Vaughan, who came of age with three princely hundreds, did not deserve to be on the losing side; nor did Rahul Dravid, who matched him for excellence if not for excitement. The series was India's first of more than three Tests in England since 1979, and in those 23 years Indian ready-meals had sprung up in Marks & Spencer, chicken tikka masala had overtaken fish and chips as the national dish and Britain had become more multicultural, or more comfortable in its multi-culturalism. On hoardings and TV screens, the summer was branded as Indian: there were more Indian movie festivals than anyone could possibly attend, plus the opening season of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Bombay Dreams. And the lasting flavour of the cricket was Indian.
It was India who made the larger gains, and did so in more valiant fashion. This may seem harsh on England, who at different times were without three, four, even six of their first-choice players. But that must be weighed against India's entire cricket history, which reveals that winning a single Test outside the subcontinent, let alone drawing a series of four matches, is a less frequent occurrence than national elections. India had never drawn a series in England, and although they had won two, in 1971 and 1986, they had lost the other 11 for a combined tally of 41 Tests played, three won and 22 lost.
By the time they finished this, their second long tour in a row following the five-Test series in the Caribbean, India were barking more regularly outside their own border than at any time since 1971. They showed in the one-day triangular series before the Tests, and again in a magnificent fightback from 1-0 down, that they were coming to terms with the mechanisms of digging deep, scrapping and winning against the odds more than ever before. The new, harder India that the captain, Sourav Ganguly, and coach, John Wright, were determined to create was becoming more than just a good idea. Admittedly, circumstances played their part in making India's effort appear more heroic. Their best efforts came from positions of despair, and from the Second Test onwards, a messy and prolonged row over personal sponsorship twisted and turned till its fortunes were followed back home with as much interest as the cricket. India's cricketers were battling not just against the England cricket team, but the ICC and the Board of Control for Cricket in India as well.
The cricket itself, 19 days of it, could be divided into three sets, each shorter than the one before: a first set of almost nine days, a second of about six and a last of four. In the first, Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher flexed their brains, the England batsmen flexed their muscles and India simply did not know what to do. It began with the First Test at Lord's where, in strangely subcontinental conditions, Hussain employed the grand choke upon the free-scoring Indian middle order, and especially Sachin Tendulkar, to carve out a comprehensive win.
The Indians could not be placated even when Ajit Agarkar, a bowling all-rounder who usually did too little with the bat to justify the title, stroked a frilly second-innings century, bringing a high backlift down in lashing arcs like a lesser Brian Lara. They were still ruing the decision to leave out their greatest perpetrator of batting collapses, Harbhajan Singh, on a pitch that would have encouraged him even though it lacked the bounce that he thrives on. Not even an announcement by Graham Thorpe at the end of the match that he was pulling out of all cricket in an effort to resolve his domestic problems could dampen England's joy at winning three consecutive Tests. The first set carried over to the first 11 sessions of the next Test, at Trent Bridge, where England batted like Australia to hammer out a 260-run lead. Four Englishmen had scored centuries by this point, and the runs had flowed at four an over. India were not even in the frame.
The second set began in the second over of India's second innings in the Second Test, when they lost their second wicket with the total barely into double figures. India were in danger of losing the match by an innings, putting a series win beyond their reach. Dravid and Tendulkar came together. A spectacular sun came angling out through the clouds late on the fourth evening. Trent Bridge looked beautiful. Now was the time.
By the next evening, the Test had been saved. Tendulkar made 92 runs of bona-fide brilliance, Ganguly scraped an equally crucial 99, and Dravid's 115 occupied almost as many deliveries as both put together, which was a fair indication of its value. Even little Parthiv Patel, the 17-year-old debutant wicket-keeper with bright wide eyes and chubby cheeks, hung around for an hour and a half at the end, a performance stirring enough for the battle-hardened Alec Stewart, 22 years his elder, to put a fatherly arm around him as the players made their way off the pitch. Like an alcoholic who had hit rock bottom, Team India had risen and reformed themselves.
They took this self-belief to Headingley where, given usual conditions, it was all but written in stone that they must lose. Here they made a series of bold decisions. First, they committed themselves to two spinners knowing full well the history of a ground where even Shane Warne had an average of 90-odd. Second, they resisted the urge to recall the opener Shiv Sunder Das, who had just made 250 in a tour game, preferring the utility man Sanjay Bangar, who could offer back-up as third seamer. Third, in order to give the spinners last use of the pitch, they batted first on winning the toss, well aware that the first day would be no tea party.
Every piece fell into place: defensive batting and then attacking batting, seam bowling and then spin bowling, close catching and outfield catching. Dravid and Bangar guarded their wickets on the opening day as if the hopes of a billion hinged on them, then Tendulkar and Ganguly steamed to a tantalising 249-run partnership at more than four an over. They rattled England, who proceeded to drop four catches in an hour on the third morning. Robert Key, the chunky opener playing his second Test, dropped two more on top of one the previous evening, as his red face kept turning steadily redder.
When it was time to bowl, Anil Kumble produced his greatest performance away from home, and for the first time in a 12-year international career, reaped the rewards. India won by an innings and 46 runs, their largest overseas win. Such was the power of belief. The questions about the mettle of his team that had been asked of Ganguly were now hurled at Hussain. It was one of the great turnarounds.
The third set, which should have been the decider, was the least remarkable. The teams went to The Oval tied and tired, and left tied and tired. On a surface good for little else than batting for long periods, both sides did exactly that. England finished the first day well placed on 336 for two, and Headingley in reverse was a possibility. But they lost the remaining eight wickets for 179 runs, mostly because of the middle order's unwillingness to seize the initiative as the openers had done. When India passed the follow-on mark, the fate of the series was sealed. The game was a washout even before the last day was rained off.
From Vaughan and Dravid, though, who made 195 and 217 respectively, there were batting masterclasses. This series was meant to revolve around Tendulkar. Speculation at every juncture certainly did. After his three failures at Lord's - in the final of the NatWest series and twice in the First Test - all India was beginning to question his big-occasion temperament. Typically, imperturbably, Tendulkarly, he ended the tour with an average of 66.83 and his reputation restored. But it was Dravid who emerged from the shadows to play the central role. He batted for more than 30 hours and compiled 602 studious and utterly critical runs. If Tendulkar remained India's greatest batsman, Dravid was now established as the one you would want to bat for your life - Steve Waugh with more style. When he lifted the helmet off his sweat-drenched face to kiss the Indian crescent upon reaching his third successive century, you could feel the weight of his efforts, the scrupulous diligence behind every run.
Vaughan scored even more than Dravid, more beautifully, and at a much faster rate. If Dravid showed classical mastery of the art of keeping out the seaming ball, Vaughan was the attacking man of the series. He and Trescothick, when fit, gave England flying starts against the slender Indian seamers, and barely slowed down when the spinners came on. The enduring image of Vaughan was of his driving - with the spin of Harbhajan at Trent Bridge, and more deliciously, against the spin of Kumble at The Oval, where he demonstrated just how a line outside the leg stump to a packed leg-side field must be dealt with. He could even produce the odd magic ball, like the one that pitched way outside Tendulkar's off stump at Trent Bridge, drew him forward for the drive, and then squeezed in through the gate to hit the stumps. Vaughan's one weakness was a vulnerability in the nervous 190s. With weaknesses like that, who needed strengths? It was a summer he will never forget, and neither will those who were fortunate enough to watch him.
For the bowlers, it was a poor series. No bowler who played in more than two Tests averaged less than 30, and the highest wicket-takers, Kumble and Matthew Hoggard, managed just 14 each. There was only one five-for: Harbhajan's at The Oval, which contained just two top-order wickets. Against this were the batting statistics, with 13 players averaging in excess of 40. Through the summer, England managed five scores over 500 in seven Tests, and India scored more than 350 every time but the first. The generally flat pitches could take some of the blame, but not all of it. It would be more accurate to conclude that, as suspected all along, both teams had better batsmen than bowlers.
Bowling cost England more than it did India, because it failed them at the most decisive periods. Not at first: when England wore India down and bowled them out for 221 in the heat, and some dust, of the first innings at Lord's, a semi-makeshift attack carried out Hussain's plan to perfection. Perhaps it was too successful for its own good. The strategy had been to frustrate the batsmen out either by bowling wide of off stump to seven-two or eight-one fields, or by digging in short from round the wicket. Defence, when applied like this, was the best form of attack.
But when the time came to use conventional attacking methods - bowling at the batsmen, making them play as many balls as possible to let movement in the air or off the pitch do the trick - the English bowlers could not do it. They were twice handed a golden opportunity, on the opening day at Trent Bridge and again at Headingley. But they failed to hit the fuller length that greener, more English conditions demanded. It's unclear whether this was part of the strategy; Hussain said during the Headingley Test that "it's not as if there's been any naivety in the dressing-room - we've tried to tell them [the seamers] to pitch it up a bit, but when they have, they've been a bit floaty and hittable". Yet Hussain surely had to take some blame for the line, as he set off-side fields that dissuaded the bowlers from aiming at the stumps for fear of being worked away to leg. And when they did find the correct line, the Indians used judgment. The centuries by Virender Sehwag and Dravid were worth double because they came on the first day, in the most testing conditions of the series.
And so, in his longest summer of captaincy, Hussain was found to be perhaps a little short of ideas, and his stock, feverishly high after the Lord's win, had sunk to normal by the end of the series. There had been a belated recognition of a characteristic found among intense individuals, the benefit of which had hardly ever been granted to Ganguly, least of all by sections of the British press: that their strengths could be, almost in equal measure, their weaknesses. With Ganguly, this meant that the quality which could come across as petulance also provided his team with a rugged, streetfighter edge which they could not previously summon. And so with Hussain, the obsession with attrition as a match-winning tactic, the endless tinkering with fields and continual chat with the bowler could go too far and sometimes be too intellectual and too defensive.
This is not to say that Hussain suddenly ceased to be an excellent captain; just that the warts were now more exposed. Vaughan apart, Hussain had no spark of individual genius to fall back upon, as Ganguly could. This could often manifest itself in little ways. At Headingley, Harbhajan reduced England from 164 for four to 164 for six in two balls to ensure that they could not escape the follow-on. (Hoggard had taken two in two at Lord's, but the second wicket, Ganguly's, had more to do with umpiring.) Then Tendulkar and Ganguly conjured 96 runs in 11 overs amid the gloom on the second evening. An English pair, if they had stayed on the field at all, might have managed around 60.
In the end, Ganguly had hard evidence to throw into Hussain's face. He pointed out that the two teams had squared off on a home-and-away basis within a year and, in the Tests, India had won in India and drawn in England; in the one-dayers, India had drawn in India and won in England. So in his eyes, there was no disputing the winner.
With the bat, too, Ganguly edged past his counterpart, though both showed the ability to score important runs, and score them in more than one gear. Hussain set the tone with a characteristic, fighting hundred on the opening day at Lord's, and followed it with an even more back-to-the-wall century in the last innings at Headingley. Ganguly, however, had a few more runs, and a decidedly higher average, despite being the victim of two dicey decisions. He could rarely summon the seductive grace of his golden coming in England six summers earlier, but as the captain in him has demonstrated, there is more to cricket than charm.
So how far forward or backward had England gone in the series? The columnist Marcus Berkmann spoke for a puzzled nation when he asked whether England were a good team that sometimes played abjectly, or a useless team that occasionally played above itself. At the end of the summer of 1999, England were in the second category. Hussain and Fletcher lifted them from those depths. Now they belonged to the first category, but were finding that the pressure there was greater. For one, they were required to make things happen, rather than stalling till an opportunity presented itself. They weren't there yet; still, it was a tribute to the team's ascent that the nation expected more.
The last day of each Test had an unmistakable Indian flavour, with the tricolours and drumbeats providing an electric, chaotic sense of occasion. Even the MCC, who did their best to maintain the funereal sobriety they believe must accompany cricket by banning flags and instruments, could not quite repress the spirit. So it was ironic that the most glaring security breach of the summer occurred at Lord's, when a 24-year-old Australian scampered playfully on to the field from the members' area and put a sympathetic arm around Tendulkar as he trudged back after being dismissed in the second innings. Unlike the previous summer, though, pitch invasions were by and large non-existent.
The last-day Indian presence indicated a general preference among Asians for one-day cricket over Tests. They book their one-day games in advance, as they did during the NatWest tri-series, but prefer to wait and watch before buying Test tickets. This means their time comes on Monday, when tickets are reasonably priced - and available at the gate.
On each fifth day, the Indian team responded to their support. At Lord's came a great revival in a losing cause, at Trent Bridge a great escape, at Headingley a great victory. And at The Oval it rained great showers, which coincided almost perfectly with the end of the monsoon season back home. It was like some grand, cosmic levelling - with a whiff of India. It went well with the series.