January 24, 2008

Mega Wins: Perth is the latest but Kolkata was the greatest

By H Natarajan

I was watching Sunil Gavaskar after India’s watershed victory over Australia in the Perth Test and I was quite surprised to hear the great man saying that India’s victory in the third Test was “the greatest win Indian cricket has had over the last 35-40 years."

Gavaskar’s intelligence, experience and expertise of the game by playing, managing and commenting about it over 37 years have few equals. But to qualify the Perth Test as “the greatest…” - even within the time span mentioned – was surprising. Gavaskar himself has figured in some of the greatest Tests and, importantly, played a meaningful part in those epics – the 400-plus fourth innings run-chase in 1976 at Port-of-Spain being one of them. A writer has the luxury of gathering his thoughts and making his point, something a TV or Radio commentator does not have while commenting live. And at times a commentator makes a point on the spur of the moment which may not exactly be what he may think while reflecting back at leisure. But he may accept the occupational hazards and choose to live with his statement than make amendments.

I don’t know if Gavaskar has second thoughts about what he said, but I, and for that matter most Indians, would rate India’s victory over Australia in the 2nd Test at Kolkata in 2001 as “the greatest” ever. If Salim-Javed at their pomp had written the script of what was enacted over five unforgettable days at the Eden Gardens, it would have been rubbished for gross exaggeration – even by Bollywood standards! Only twice before in over 124 years a team won the Test after following-on – in 1894 and 1981, both times by England over Australia. The victory margin of 10 runs and 18 runs respectively suggest the closeness of those contests.

What happened in Kolkata was surreal. Australia had won the first Test and looked set to win the second Test as well - and with it the three-match series - at Kolkata. Batting first, they posted a total of 445 and then, powered by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, shot out India for 171. Following on a massive 274 runs behind, India were hurtling towards defeat, losing four wickets – including Sachin Tendulkar and captain Sourav Ganguly – with still 42 runs in arrears. What one then saw was excellence of a rare order by VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in one of the finest jugalbandis of all time. India just did not go on to win the match, but they won by a staggering 171 runs. India also went on to win the series and script a new rivalry in Test cricket, of which Perth was another great chapter. For me, Kolkata 2001 remains the greatest Test win ever in Indian history.

In the past, India have fought back from 0-2 down in the series to draw level – in 1974-75 against Clive Lloyd’s team at home and against Australia, severely depleted by the migration to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, in 1978-79. In that sense, the Perth Test only enabled India to reduce the deficit. But the victory at WACA is special for a number of factors:

a. The Indians had lost a Test match at Sydney which they should have saved and were traumatized by the happenings on and off the field. The future of the series was in doubt as indeed the future cricketing ties between the two nations.

b. The Perth rectangle was the fastest in the world and a venue that was tailor-made for the Aussie quicks. India, on the other hand, had left home without some of their main fast bowlers and midway through the tour had lost their pace spearhead – Zaheer Khan.

c. The Australian juggernaut was on a world record-equaling run and if you had read any or seen anything in the media before the Test, it all pointed to an Indian annihilation led by Shaun Tait.

The Indians visualized the invisible and achieved the seemingly impossible. And much of the credit should go to Anil Kumble, who could well get an invitation to premier B Schools to lecture on crisis management and man management. The fury within – even at the height of being wronged at Sydney – never found expression in his words or outwards feelings. He weighed his words with care and caution. Because he remained an oasis of calm, the team was spared of undue pressure. Many of India’s wins have been fashioned by flexing their batting muscles. But this time around, it was team effort to near perfection. There were no centuries – in fact, none at all in the entire Test. Again, it was not a Kumble who led the bowling devastation. All the bowlers, barring none, chipped in beautifully. If you look closely at the scorecard, except Wasim Jaffer and Sourav Ganguly, every single player in the Indian team would have reasons to remember this Test for having made significant personal contribution.

There were some huge gains for India from the Test: the Man-of-the-Match winning return of Irfan Pathan and his confidence-regaining magic with the ball; Virender Sehwag’s ominous comeback; Ishant Sharma’s rising stature… The thought of a fit Zaheer Khan having fast-bowling support in the form of RP Singh, Pathan and Ishant Sharma is truly exciting. This should only make the likes of Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, VRV Singh etc to strive harder. All this can only augur well for the future.

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