Anil Kumble, the gentle giant with a ball in his hand and murder in his eye, had a last hurrah in England — edgy, aggressive and a fighter to the end.
Seventeen years after he made his Test debut in England, having achieved a lifetime’s ambition with a century in the first innings, Kumble was bellicose and intense on his final day of Test cricket in England — but crucially, not incisive enough.
As England shuffled towards safety, the top order largely untroubled except against Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, at first slip, dropped Michael Vaughan off Kumble. It was the 45th over of the innings, Vaughan was on 18 off 45.
Slowly, as the Englishmen stonewalled, blocking everything, the Indians got edgy, excitable and frustrated.
Kumble and Kevin Pietersen bumped as the Indian tried to field the ball off his own bowling, and the Englishman backed up a bit at the non-striker’s end. Kumble spoke angry words and wagged a finger at Pietersen, who retaliated. And if looks could have killed, Kumble would have felled Pietersen.
Kumble, clearly, wanted this one very badly — he wanted to finish with a win in England, he wanted India to win the series 2-0. He wanted to go out of England in triumph, not only the now distant triumph of Trent Bridge but also the more immediate one here at the Oval.
Indeed, it was an English swansong for four others, two of whom turned boys to men on their debut here, and one of whom turned wonderboy to master on his first tour.
By accident, design or a twist of fate, the three had a last tango at The Oval on Sunday — the decision not to ask England to bat again made that possible, but maybe it was destiny.
Maybe it was willed that, Don Bradman-like, Tendulkar would walk back from the middle forlorn and dejected, his stumps utterly demolished by an inswinger from James Anderson.
Maybe it was willed that — 11 years after they found each other in the middle at 202/5, nervous on debut at Lord’s, and found themselves in the course of that 95-run stand — Dravid and Ganguly would have a last stand, in a much bigger crisis, with much more at stake.
Then at Lord’s, Ganguly had come in at No. 3 and Dravid at No. 7; Dravid is now the unquestioned, supreme No. 3 for several years. Ganguly is the lower order straggler who had been humiliated and quarantined by a former coach, and has made it back through sheer doggedness and strength of character.
Ganguly got the glory then with a breathtaking ton, and he got it again on Sunday with an equally breathtaking 57 — intuitive, instinctive and inspiring.
Ganguly’s bugbears are swing and bounce — yet, ironically, even as the others struggled against the swing of Anderson and the bounce of Chris Tremlett, Ganguly was tranquil and yet sizzling. The off-side was packed, and yet the former captain, with the strength of his wrists and unwavering will, began to cream the ball through it with the greatest ease.
The runs came from only one end, Dravid had dropped anchor, seemingly petrified by the score of 11/3, but Ganguly was swinging, a street fighter at work. The former — and most successful — captain’s weapons are the quickness of his eye and the speed of his wrists, which have a very rigid use-by period. But Ganguly on Sunday, briefly but memorably, turned the clock back. The stand between the two this time was 65, of which Ganguly had 57. Dravid’s last Test innings here was less memorable.
VVS Laxman, clutching at greatness over the last 11 years but always missing by a hair’s breadth, was the fifth in this XI who will likely never play a Test in England again. As conditions eased, Laxman played with assurance for his 46, adding 69 with Dhoni.
India killed any hopes England had of victory (when India were 11/3), but they also killed a lot of time and their own chances of a win. Thus ended the hopes of a glorious bow at the Oval for India’s Famous Five.