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Looking back at the greatest Test match of all time


India_Australia_greatest_Test_match_CricketIf we look back at Test cricket’s history, there have been many matches that have left an indelible mark on the game. One such Test happened in March 2001 between India and Australia. Almost 18 years have gone by, and those who witnessed and were a part of it still maintain that it was the greatest Test ever played. It was one of the truly epic events in cricket history. The more time goes by, the more remarkable it seems.

The match isn’t memorable just because it had a lot of drama, thrills and excitement. It altered the course of Indian cricket forever. Its significance in the annals of the country’s sport, hence, is paramount.

Before the epic contest

When Australia arrived in India for a 3-Test tour in March 2001, they were at the peak of their powers. Led by that shrewd tactician, Steve Waugh, the Australian Test side were the best in the world and were on a 15-match winning streak. Even the great West Indies side of the 1980s had managed only 11 on the trot.

This Australian unit was truly special. It had the likes of Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, and Ricky Ponting – all proven champions. Under Waugh, Australia were an imposing Baggy Green machine and were overwhelming favorites against the home side. Waugh had called the Indian tour the ‘last frontier’ and the Aussies looked determined to claim it.

India, led by their new captain Sourav Ganguly, had been dealt a body blow right before the start of the series: their lead spinner, Anil Kumble, was ruled out due to injury.

The first Test was at Mumbai where the Australians walloped India comfortably by 10 wickets and extended their unbeaten run to 16 Tests. 0-1 down, things looked grim for India as they stepped inside the iconic Eden Gardens at Kolkata for the second Test. Another slip up here would have meant curtains for the series for the home side.

They needed some magic. They needed something special.

Second Test, India v Australia, Eden Gardens Kolkata, March 2001

Day 1 – Harbhajan’s hat-trick saves the day

After winning the toss, Steve Waugh decided to bat first on a good Eden Gardens surface. Openers Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden gave the visitors a solid foundation with a 103-run stand.

The Indian bowlers, led by young off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, hit back with some quick wickets towards the end of the day. The hallmark was Harbhajan’s outstanding hat-trick, where he claimed the wickets of Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne in three consecutive deliveries, becoming the first Indian bowler to take a Test hat-trick.

Australia ended the day at 291-8 with Steve Waugh on 29 and Jason Gillespie on 6 at the crease.

Day 2- Steve Waugh puts Australia in control; India capitulate

India began day two of the Test hoping to curtailing Australia to within 300. That was not to be. Captain Steve Waugh stood firm and played exceptionally well with the tail to score a splendid hundred - his 25th Test ton. He was the last man dismissed for 110, but by that time Australia had accumulated a massive 445. India’s bright spot in the bowling department was Harbhajan Singh’s fantastic 7-wicket haul.

The home side needed to put up a strong reply to Australia’s total, but within no time they collapsed horribly and were reduced to 97-7. India ended the second day on a miserable 126-8 and were looking down the barrel of another heavy and demoralizing defeat. They had no answers to the sustained pressure created by Australia. The opposition seamers were all over the Indian batsmen, with McGrath taking 4-18.

At close of play, VVS Laxman was at the crease, unbeaten on 26, and with him was tail-ender Venkatpathy Raju on 3.

Day 3 – Laxman shines; India shows a semblance of fight

The beginning of the third day looked ominous for India. The usually raucous Eden Gardens crowd was very thin in numbers, expecting a very quick capitulation by the home team. VVS Laxman, who had played 20 Tests for an average of 27 prior to this and was struggling for a place in the side, began the day with some crisp strokes. He played fluently and struck 12 attractive boundaries in his knock of 59 from 83 balls – the top score in India’s first innings.

India folded for just 171 – still 274 runs behind Australia’s 1st innings total. With such a massive lead, and the kind of form the Indian batting was in, Steve Waugh had no hesitation in asking India to follow-on.

India began their second innings with a lot more determination and discipline. The openers, Shiv Sundar Das and Sadagoppan Ramesh, put on a solid 52 runs. After Ramesh was dismissed for 30, the Indian team management decided to send the in-form Laxman to bat at the No.3 position. It was a decision that would change the complexion of the game.

It seemed as if Laxman simply carried on from where he had left in the first innings. Using his wrists to great effect, Laxman began flicking and driving the ball with great aplomb. The drives through the covers were sublime caresses and the cuts and punches were a soothing balm for the soul.

Laxman had a good 117-run partnership with captain Sourav Ganguly (48) for the fourth wicket and went on reach his second Test hundred by the end of the day. It was a sparkling knock and gave India something to cheer.

India ended the day on 254-4 with Laxman on 109 and Rahul Dravid on 7. Despite the good show, India were still trailing Australia by 20 runs and had only six wickets in hand.

But now there was a semblance of hope. At least, at long last. some fight had been shown. Some spark had finally been ignited. The Indian fans hoped for their team to continue their resistance the next day.

Little did they know what was in store.

Day 4 – Laxman, Dravid and the greatest fightback of all time

The crowd was markedly better at the Eden Gardens at the start of the fourth day’s play. There was a sense of anticipation in the air. The Kolkata crowd expected a good show. But what they got was something truly epic.

And thus began the greatest fightback of all time.

Laxman began confidently – smacking the balls delightfully all over the park. Dravid, meanwhile, took his time to settle in. He had been struggling with a string of low scores and wanted to make the most of this opportunity.

Laxman’s attack frustrated the Australians as he whipped the balls elegantly and effortlessly and kept growing in confidence. Dravid, too, struck some superb strokes and managed to reach his half century. By Lunch, India’s score had swelled to 376-4, and they now led by 102. Laxman was going strong on 171 and Dravid was steady on 50.

Word soon spread around all over Kolkata of Laxman and Dravid’s marvelous show and the crowd began thronging the stadium.

The pitch had really eased out following lunch and the ball came on to the bat nicely. The two batsmen did not give an inch to the opposition bowlers and despite the terrible March heat and humidity of Kolkata, Laxman and Dravid marched on. After Dravid completed his 9th Test ton, he opened up and attacked as well. Laxman, meanwhile, continued his glorious strokeplay and reached his maiden double hundred, nonchalantly pulverizing the Australian bowlers.

After tea, the Australian bowlers were completely exhausted. Steve Waugh had tried every trick in the book, used all possible bowling combinations, but was unable to dislodge either batsman.

The crowd cheered every stroke, every run, and as India’s lead piled on, the frustration was palpable on the faces of the Australians. They had not been prepared for this. The world champions were not used to being treated with such disdain and were left befuddled.

By this time Laxman had crossed the score of 236 by Sunil Gavaskar – then the highest individual score by an Indian Test batsman. He ended the day remaining unbeaten on a sparkling 275, with Rahul Dravid giving him company on an outstanding 155.

India’s score read a mammoth 589-4 at the close of play; they led Australia by a massive 315 runs. Laxman and Dravid had gone through the day without losing their wickets and had put on 335 majestic runs – forming one of Test cricket's great partnerships. India now had a real chance of turning the tables on Australia and this magical performance was being discussed with great wonder everywhere in the cricketing world.

It truly was one of the most iconic days in Indian cricket history.

Day 5

On the final day of Test, India wanted to put on quick runs. Unfortunately, Laxman could add only six more runs to his overnight tally and was dismissed for an epic 281 – a number that will now always be recalled with great pride and fondness by Indian fans. Dravid perished for 180 and India finally declared on a colossal 657-7, setting Australia a target of 384.

The visitors began their chase well and were 74-0 at one stage. But then Harbhajan struck and got Michael Slater. After this, Australia kept losing wickets at regular intervals and were soon reduced to 166-5. In an inspired move, Ganguly then brought Sachin Tendulkar on to bowl. He went on to claim the wickets of Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist. Australia were tottering at 173-7.

The noise at Eden Gardens had now reached a crescendo. The crowd had sniffed an extraordinary Indian win and 80,000 excited spectators roared as the spinners kept the Australian batsmen dancing around on a pitch that was steadily crumbling. Harbhajan Singh was the wrecker-in-chief once again and it was he who got the last wicket of Glenn McGrath, out LBW.

The crowd erupted in ecstasy and the Indian players went delirious with joy. Harbhajan had ended with a brilliant spell of 6-73, which took his tally to 13 wickets in the match. Australia had been bowled out for 212.

India had thus won an absolutely sensational Test by 172 runs. It still remains just the third instance in Test history of a team winning a match after having been asked to follow on. The Australian winning streak had been broken and a new India had emerged.

This victory would easily rank as one of India’s best ever Test wins and is still considered one of the greatest ever fightbacks in Test cricket history.

The aftermath of the historic win

The celebration of this historic Test win was seen in every nook and corner of India. Riding high on the confidence of this victory, India went on to win the third Test at Chennai and with it the series as well.

That Kolkata victory forever changed the course of Indian cricket. From being a team in transition, India, in the following years, began dominating everywhere. This triumph was important too as it came at a juncture when Indian cricket had been beleaguered with the spectre of match-fixing and needed something to rejuvenate it. The victory came as a shot in the arm for the sport in the country and gave the fans reason to cheer and believe in their team again.

So, while today India enjoys its position as one of best cricket teams in the world, the players should be thankful to Laxman, Dravid and Harbhajan for scripting that magical Test win. After all, it was that victory which paved the way for even better things to follow. That Test in March 2001 was what started India’s path to being a formidable team in the 21st century.

Hence, that was no ordinary game. That wasn’t just a momentous Test match. It was a historic event. An event that transformed Indian cricket forever – all 281 degrees of it.

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