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Home / Industry / Kolkata 2001—Do you remember the first time?

It was the best of times, and the worst as well. My first Test match as a journalist. Only, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) didn’t consider websites as receptacles of proper journalism. I was lucky, though. The parent company, WorldTel, had TV production rights, which meant I could go in with the crew and watch the match from inside the bowels of the stadium. The press-box eminences were up in the clouds somewhere.

Nothing prepares you for Eden Gardens, for the wall of sound and the collective sullenness when things are not going as planned. Until teatime on the opening day, it was a case of the natives getting increasingly restless. Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden put on 103, and when the final session began, the scoreboard showed 193 for 1. Hayden had batted with impressive assurance and power for 97, but the fourth ball after the interval transformed the match.

Harbhajan Singh, restored to the side before the series after two years of anonymity, had him caught going for a big one, and the middle order subsided in a hurry. By stumps, Australia were eight down, with Steve Waugh having Jason Gillespie for company.

Along the way, Harbhajan had taken the first Test hat-trick by an Indian, to restore some smiles to a dressing room that had seen precious few after the three-day hammering in Mumbai. “I just wish my father Sardev Singh was here today," he said after the day’s play, his voice breaking a little. “He passed away six months back. He would have really felt proud about my performance."

In the days leading up to the game, Sourav Ganguly and Ian Chappell had exchanged barbs on the pages of The Telegraph [the Kolkata version]. Harbhajan’s feat, however, had clearly improved Dada’s mood, and as the young offie spoke haltingly, he peeked in to add, with a cheeky grin: “Talk to him in English. He does not know how to speak in Hindi."

There were no grins, only grimaces, on day two. Waugh, not out on 29 overnight, would stretch his partnership with Gillespie to 133. It’s hard to think of too many lower-order batsmen that could defend as resolutely as the pace bowler they called Dizzy, after the jazz legend. Gillespie blocked and blocked, and occasionally drove. Waugh was serene. India were anything but.

By the time the torture was over, Australia had 445 on the board. In the time left, the bowlers set to work on an Indian line-up whose confidence appeared paper-thin. The metronomic Glenn McGrath led the way, trapping Sachin Tendulkar leg before. At stumps, India were 128 for 8, with only VVS Laxman showing any real defiance. The next morning, he whittled the deficit down to 274, but Waugh had little hesitation in asking India to bat again.

That afternoon, I met – and was terribly in awe of – both Michael Coward and Peter Roebuck at lunch. Neither man was terribly impressed by what they’d seen from the home side. The comparison with 1998, when India had bossed the first two Tests, couldn’t have been starker.

The second innings was vastly better, though the general feeling was that the horse had bolted. Laxman, promoted to No. 3, batted with the same fluency that he had shown in Sydney a year earlier. The footwork to Shane Warne was just magnificent, and the twirls of the wrists magical. The inside-out drives seemed to incense Warne, but a stumps score of 254 for 4 – still 20 behind – made clear just how far behind the game India were.

I had dinner with Tony Greig, one of the WorldTel commentators, that night. We talked of the Grovel series, Botham, World Series Cricket and the ongoing match. “It’ll be over tomorrow," he said confidently. “More time on the golf course."

As it turned out, no one made their tee times. What I remember most from that fourth day is watching from one of the stairwells underneath the stand that houses the press box as Laxman went past Sunil Gavaskar’s 236, then the highest score by an Indian. The applause was thunderous, and belief levels were growing.

Rahul Dravid’s batting was no less poised. It still amazes me that his role is seen as a supplementary one by many. It wasn’t. That day, as India went through the 90 overs unscathed, Dravid matched Laxman nearly stroke for stroke, scoring 148 to his colleague’s 166.

The expectation, however, with India 315 ahead, was that the match would end in a draw. Australia had won 16 on the trot, and the idea of them losing was hardly entertained. India batted on an hour on the fifth morning, added 68 in just 13 overs before the declaration came. A target of 384 in 75 overs was never one, not even for such an imposing line-up, but at 161 for 3 at tea, Australia seemed a safe bet for the draw.

But Harbhajan, who got through nearly half the overs India would bowl that day, kept wheeling away, and had Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting soon after the break. That was when Ganguly pulled out another trump card. Anil Kumble was on the sidelines after shoulder surgery, but India could still call on the legspin of … Tendulkar. When he landed the ball properly, he was nearly unplayable, getting dramatic turn and disconcerting bounce. Adam Gilchrist, Hayden and Warne all fell to him, leaving the bowlers to try and defy India in front of over 80,000 fans that had gone berserk.

Gillespie defied India for 38 balls and nearly an hour, while Michael Kasprowicz put bowling exhaustion behind him with the doughtiest of rearguard. Even McGrath offered the straightest of bats as India’s anxiety mounted. The shadows were lengthening when the breakthroughs finally came. When Harbhajan appealed against McGrath, and SK Bansal’s finger shot up, there was pandemonium.

Steve Waugh would say later that “no one died out there", but all these years later, it’s impossible to overlook the significance of that match. Had they lost in Kolkata, with personal problems providing the backdrop, Ganguly would surely have lost the captaincy. Instead, they would go on to win the series with a thrilling two-wicket triumph in Chennai.

After that, there were Test wins in England, Australia and Pakistan, before Dravid took over the leadership and clinched India’s first series wins in the Caribbean and England in a generation. That batting line-up, or the bulk of it, would serve India for another decade, while Harbhajan totted up more wickets than any Indian spinner apart from Kumble.

Both Greig and Roebuck have now left us. Tendulkar, the last survivor of the ‘golden’ generation, retired more than two years ago. Gillespie is one of the game’s most sought-after young coaches. Dravid led India’s Under-19s to a World Cup final recently, while Laxman can be found in the commentary box. McGrath reprises Dennis Lillee’s role at the Pace Foundation in Chennai.

In March 1994, seven years before that Kolkata Test, Pulp, the English rock band released a song called ‘Do you remember the first time?’ The next line was: ‘I can’t remember a worse time.’ For me, the sentiments were very different. I had to find different vantage points each day, and wait till stumps to get back to the hotel and a computer, but what an experience it was. The first time. The best time.

Mint is in content partnership with Wisden India for 2016 ICC World T20.

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