There was once a time when the Ashes was the most important series for Australia, a clash against Pakistan the most important for India. Then came the summer of 2001, and it changed the way the nations played and viewed the game.
Reputations were made, reputations were broken; legends were born, and others died a natural death, but through it all the riveting battles between the two nations have stood the test of time as the most important contest of the 2000s. That 2001 series also sowed the seeds for a change of guard which would take a long time to actually happen, 10 years in fact, before India upstaged Australia as the No 1 team in Tests.
Just think of the players who used this platform to make their mark.
Harbhajan Singh was fighting for his place, question marks hanging over his action, in 2001 when the Turbanator had one of the most successful returns by any bowler, taking 32 wickets and single-handedly beating a team that had won 16 Tests on the trot.
In 2001, Matthew Hayden was 29 and given one final chance, boy did he ever take. Hayden’s 549 runs were a lesson for all visiting batsmen on how to tackle Indian conditions, specifically Indian spinners. He used his front leg and giant stride to literally sweep ’em off their feet. And what then of VVS Laxman? Say 2001, and chances are your mind will immediately harp back to the most unforgettable day of cricket in India’s history. The fourth day at Eden Gardens changed the way India played, not just the match and the series but the future of Indian cricket.
Never a dull moment
The battles over the past 10 years have also thrown up some of the most controversial matches in the history of the game. Who can forget the mind-games and back and forth barbs between Steve Waugh and his opposite number Sourav Ganguly in the 2001 series? Ganguly’s elevation to the captain’s role heralded the rise of Indian skippers who gave back as good as they get.
In 2001, Ganguly also managed to get under the skin of the master of mental disintegration, Waugh, making him wait for the coin toss on many occasions.
Things literally came to standstill in the match which will go down in history as the most controversial the game has ever seen, Sydney 2008, or as it’s known now, the Monkeygate Test.
Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds had been rubbing each other the wrong way for a few years when the off-spinner reportedly hurled a racial abuse at the burly all-rounder, calling him ‘monkey’, which was later revealed to be a curse in Hindi which rhymes with monkey. The scandal engulfed both nations in a way that it came close to the Bodyline series of 1932, which soured relations between England and Australia. The Board of Control for Cricket in India even hired a private jet to fly the team back to India before the intervention of two of the game’s most respected names, Anil Kumbe and Sachin Tendulkar, helped better sense prevail.
Just as well that India stayed as at the very next Test in Perth a rookie pacer with a bouncy mane made the man widely acclaimed as the best batsman in the world at the time dance to his tune. Ishant Sharma’s dramatic arrival and tormenting of Ricky Ponting helped India win a match the WACA in Perth, and prove once again that controversies aside, the real action has always been on the field.
Eden Gardens 2001, Adelaide 2003-04, Mumbai 2004-05, Mohali 2010. They don’t need any further expansion, do they? They are more than just venues and dates. They are reference points that have been ingrained in our collective consciousness. All that had to be said about Laxman’s 281 has been already said. His unbeaten 73 while fighting back spasms and having the tailenders for company is equally legendary, if not in volume then at least in terms of true grit.
Rahul Dravid’s 180 in Kolkata and 233 in Adelaide are two innings that have only gained significance through each passing season. It’s not just the big names who’ve made the biggest stage their own. Murali Kartik’s inspirational spell helped seal a classic 13-run triumph and gain some semblance of revenge after Australia conquered the final frontier.
Farewell to greats
The series has also been the final hurrah for many great players. In Sydney 2003-04, Steve Waugh, ever the crisis man, steered his side past troubled waters again one last time. He didn’t get the century he deserved, but those final 80 runs of his career were as important as any he’s scored.
After the match, Waugh bowed out with a victory lap at his home venue.
In the 2008-09 series, two of India’s modern greats, Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly, bowed out. Kumble’s retirement announcement midway through the Delhi Test stunned fans and players alike. A match later, Ganguly called it quits, fittingly with an India win. He scored a first innings 85, but in his final Test innings, the man who 13 years ago started his Test career with a century, ended it with a duck. Adam Gilchrist called it quits the last time India toured Australia in 2007-08. Adelaide was the setting for Gilchrist’s farewell.
Tendulkar versus Warne
Even as the new Millennium saw this rivalry grow into a marquee event, it won’t be complete without a mention of the two greats whose personal battle added sheen to this contest in 1998. It’s a contest everyone still raves about. The best bowler of his time, Shane Warne, against the best batsman of the era, Sachin Tedulkar.