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Clearing The History Test
Suddenly, the Indian cricket team doesn't look like a One-Man-Army anymore. Suddenly, it doesn't seem that only Sachin Tendulkar can win us matches. Indian cricket's most inspiring revelation in recent times came at Calcutta's Eden Gardens against the redoubtable Australians last week. It happened when Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, a 27-year-old wristy Hyderabadi, executed a flawless and gargantuan innings of 281 over ten-and-a-half exacting hours at the crease. It happened when Harbhajan Singh, a 21-year-old right arm off-break bowler from Jalandhar, spun magic to claim India's first hat-trick and 13 wickets in the Test match. It happened when the stodgy Rahul Dravid overcame a lean trot and posted a fine 180 and kept Laxman company in what turned out to be the 16th highest stand for any wicket in Test history. It happened when Shiv Sunder Das, a plucky 24-year-old batsman from Bhubaneshwar, picked up some sizzling catches.
The high noon of the comeback kings climaxed with India scripting an improbable, spectacular and one of the greatest wins. It couldn't have come at a better time: it halted Australia's record 16-on-a-trot Test victories and squared the series at a win apiece. For the demoralised Indians, caught between depleted bowling, shoddy batting and a captain battling his personal demons, this was a great shot in the arm: the team had come back from the dead and numbed the world's greatest team with a shocking win, only the third side in cricket history to win a Test after following on. No wonder Sunil Gavaskar, whose 18-year-old record of the highest Indian score of 236 not out was eclipsed by Laxman, exclaimed: "What a thrilling win! The mind boggles at it all!!"
It truly does. For more proof, consider the odds that were stacked against our comeback kings. Laxman, the studious son of doctor parents who scored 98 per cent in science in his school-leaving examinations, had been in and out of the playing eleven in recent times. Harbhajan won a Test recall after playing against New Zealand in the third Test at the Motera in Ahmedabad in 1999-2000, and in the past, his beleaguered career has been marred by allegations of chucking and misdemeanour. The fact that the ageing Venkatapathy Raju, the third comeback man who didn't quite get to be king, was wearing the national cap after three seasons only highlighted the paucity of quality left-arm spinners in the country.
But, in the end, the win belonged to Laxman and Harbhajan, with Dravid and Das playing killing cameos. Laxman scripted the epic comeback almost singlehandedly. It has been a long, strange trip for the batsman so far. Fourteen months ago, when he was struggling against the Aussie bowling Down Under, he opened up about his lack of confidence to former Australian off-spinner Gavin Robertson. "Robbo, I just can't play on these pitches," Laxman told him. "They're too fast and too bouncy." Robertson replied: "They're great pitches for batting if you just adjust to the pace and bounce. Trust yourself." Laxman acted on the advice and made his first Test century—he went on to score 167—with a range of cracking backfoot shots.
That innings proved Laxman could play at this level. His 44-fours-studded 281 at Eden Gardens was much more important and convincing. India had to save a Test and get a billion bitter critics off its back. There's an interesting aside about how the batsman's never-ending innings transfixed Calcutta: the city's crime rate plummeted sharply last Wednesday when he batted through all three sessions to produce his and India's highest Test score. After play ended on Wednesday—Laxman, then 275 not out—incredulous journalists ended up demanding his autograph. He did not last long on the fifth morning, no doubt exhausted by 12-and-three-quarter hours of batting in two innings over three days. When he finally holed out, it was difficult to tell who was the most surprised—the batsman, the bowler, Glenn McGrath, or the fieldsman, Ricky Ponting. The fittest tribute came from prominent sports writer Michael Donaldson: "Laxman has made his giant score against the best bowling in the world. There's no argument here. He's faced up to McGrath, Warne and Gillespie and beaten them hollow. He's scored more runs in one dig than many teams make against Australia in an innings." Cricket writer Peter Roebuck, waxed lyrical, Aussie style: "It resembled a glass of beer taken as the sun set across a pleasing landscape."
Then there was the magic realism of Harbhajan's turners when critics had begun to bemoan the lack of a genuine spinner after Kumble. Like Laxman, it hasn't been easy going for him too—in fact, his career was in tatters not so long ago. Harbhajan was barely out of high school when he was called for national duty. He impressed many with his flighted deliveries, but the Punjab off-spinner's career was in jeopardy because of a chucking charge levelled against him. The Indian cricket board didn't stand behind the youngster when he needed support the most, unlike the Sri Lankans, who backed Muthiah Muralitharan when the International Cricket Council (icc) levelled similar charges against him. The young bowler, however, found support from senior Indian cricketers, including Bishen Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. There was another twist to the controversy when Kapil Dev disclosed that he was not consulted on the affair in spite of being a member of the "throwing committee" of the icc.
South Africa's Peter van der Merwe, match referee for India's home series against Australia and the triangular series featuring Zimbabwe at home last season, was the first to express doubts about Harbhajan's action. Subsequently, Sri Lanka's Ranjan Madugalle, who officiated in the same capacity for the triangular series between India, Kenya and Bangladesh, also submitted a report along similar lines to the icc. Harbhajan finally landed up at Fred Titmus' clinic in England and ironically, the former English spinner found nothing wrong in his action. In two days, the bowler was back in Mumbai and knocking on the selectors' door.
Today, all that would seem like a bad dream to the bowler. At Eden Gardens, he entered the record books with some intelligent bowling on a slow turner. "I simply bowled a good line and length. The Aussies made all the mistakes," he said.
For skipper Ganguly, the Eden resurrection comes as a major reprieve from persistent reports of a troubled personal life and sliding form (see box). The gum-chewing, hard-talking Aussies had been giving him a difficult time. Last week, he took a couple of catches, juggled his bowlers around and produced an utterly committed effort from an almost broken team. Ganguly admits the performance of Harbhajan and Laxman only highlighted the team's overall capability. "It was a brilliant team effort. India have found the right balance," he said.
So can India work the magic again at Chepauk next week, wrap up the series and make critics eat crow? It is difficult to say, because the team remains notoriously unpredictable on field, swinging between the extremes of pulling off incredible surprises and kow-towing to the gentlest of pressures.The fielding remains patchy and players continue to spill sitters. On the face of it, the decision to include Mumbai-based left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni and leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule is a step in the right direction as the pitch in Chennai traditionally helps spinners. Javagal Srinath should also be returning to the squad after an injury lay-off. Steve Waugh possibly boasts of the world's most balanced, professional and talented team. But India's maverick executioners are on a song and telling the world that the team need not be a One-Man-Army anymore. That is good tidings for Sachin Tendulkar—and a billion people, for whom cricket's still a religion.