It looked as if the memories of that epic innings, which turned around one of Test cricket’s greatest ever game, were still afresh. Watching Laxman bat in 2010 against South Africa at Eden Gardens on third day’s morning, my thoughts often strayed to the spring of 2001.
Back then, Team India were up against an Australian team, which had a seventeen match winning streak behind them. Kangaroos had come to the Indian sub-continent to conquer the final frontier. And they were up to the task. Steve Waugh-led-Australian team boasted of the fire power of Glen McGrath, Jason Gillespie and the legendary Shane Warne… a bowling composition, which would be any team’s fancy and every opponent captain’s envy.
Pendulum of fate had already oscillated quite astonishingly before Kangaroos achieved their defining first-innings total of 445. Australia, riding on burly Mathew Hayden’s partnership with Michael Slater and Justin Langer as companions, ensured that things were looking grim at Eden Gardens. Just three short of an incredible century at the Theater of Dreams, Hayden’s 97, laced with 14 fours and three sixes raised fears of India being batted out of the game.
Eden Gardens, which had earned the reputation of being the venue of turnarounds, was awaiting another one, as folded hands in the stands raised towards the sky. Harbhajan Singh answered the prayers of millions of fans and produced a stunning display of off-spin to claim a hat-trick, which included the wickets of Ricky Ponting (6), Gilchrist (0) and Shane Warne (0).
Michael Kasprowicz soon joined the procession as Oz had lost seven wickets in a space of 26 overs and 76 runs, and were 269 for eight. But how could the ‘local boy’ miss out an opportunity, as India were made to toil in the field until an hour after lunch on Day 2 as Steve Waugh dug-in in for more than five hours to lead the recovery. The elder Waugh got a standing ovation from the City of Joy as he had earlier gained huge respect with his charity works for the NGO Udayan in Kolkata.
Replying to the 400 plus first innings total, India suffered a dramatic collapse and all was grim after the home team lost their top three batsmen following-on. Pushed to the walls and snaring at the jaws of defeat, it was the turn of VVS. The calm and composed looking Laxman walked in to be Dravid’s companion in the hour of solitude. Even die-hard Indian fans had started deserting the field. Steve Waugh’s victory streak was cricket’s answer to Alexander the Great.
However, one man had different plans. With Rahul Dravid ‘The Wall,’ Laxman batted as if God had come down to watch him bat. Unfazed by the hole that India had placed themselves in, Laxman kept dissecting the Kangaroo web with ease and re-assured the world that Test cricket has not lost its wrist charm, especially after the retirement of fellow Hyderabadi Mohammad Azharuddin.
VVS’ romance with Australian bowling flourished as he dined on Waugh’s bowlers. And at the risk of being repetitive, I would once again remind readers that the bowlers were no less than Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.
An epic 281 followed from his bat which ensured that the Theater of Dreams was witness to an abrupt end of Steve Waugh’s vision of conquering the ‘Final Frontier’. For those interested in statistics, India won the 2001 Kolkata Test by 171 runs.
Come 2010 and history was re-visited at Eden Gardens as India geared to take on rampaging South Africans. Rampaging Proteas, because a week ago in Nagpur, even Tendulkar’s century had failed to avoid an embarrassing innings defeat.
Dravid had fractured his jaw in a meaningless series against Bangladesh. And like a true savior, VVS Laxman came, saw, negotiated the spin, blunted Steyn’s Yorkers and thankfully kept his date with the Eden crowd. In the end, India eventually managed to win the Test, kept the Numero Uno rankings intact with just 15 minutes to spare on the final ball.
It was not before high drama was unfolded, as ball boys left the guarding job at ropes and tea boys stopped serving beverages in the dressing room and the press box . It took 20 odd overs for Indian bowlers to dislodge the last wicket of Morne Morkel. Dhoni tried every one at his disposal including Sachin Tendulkar. Hashim Amla denied the glory to Tendulkar this time and his calm assurance frustrated India and also rubbed-on the number 11 batsman.
In the end, the contest was once again between Hashim Amla and Harbhajan Singh. Back in 2001 it was the Jalandhar ‘Turbanator’, who had the last laugh against the Aussies, and come 2010, the story was no different. As Eden Gardens got nervous, images of that 20 year young bowler scalping 13 Kangaroo giants kept coming at me. Only this time, I had the extra responsibility of writing a match report, which I had always fancied.
So when Harbhajan had the ball in penultimate over of the day, Eden got right behind the champ. The temper was just phenomenal. The Eden roar could have brought any roof down! One wondered how on earth almost 60,000 Kolkatans on the venue and millions across the globe were rooting for their ‘local’ boy from Jalandhar. Someone needs to go and tell Bal Thackeray about it.
How on earth could have Harbhajan Singh missed his Eden party? The third ball of the penultimate over of the day was wrapped on Morkel’s pad and up went the vociferous appeal. India got behind in the appeal as well and umpire Steve Davis relented. India had won by an innings and 58 runs and the two heroes of 2001- VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh, once again proved that almost a decade later, India haven’t found their replacement yet.
That has always been a hallmark of true greatness. In the end, Harbhajan’s pointed celebrations towards the crowd summed it all up.
Somewhere in the crowd, a little heart was beating with passion, hoping to replicate the same performance at the Theatre of Dreams... some time soon, some time of need.