By Sharda Ugra

After the match-fixing scandal, people were starting to lose interest in cricket. India needed something to inspire people. They found Ganguly and Wright

As far as sliding door moments go, LKYPO would come a close second to Kapil Dev getting under that Viv Richards skier in 1983. This is March 13, 2001. VVS Laxman and Venkatesh Prasad have just entered the Eden Gardens dressing room, after 42 for the tenth wicket. Stirring as it was, Prasad’s gallant 7 (23b) over 45 minutes couldn’t save India from the follow-on. Openers Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sunder Das are getting ready to head out again. In response to Australia’s 445, Laxman has batted for two hours and pushed India along with the tail from 88-6 to 171. He finally sits down, bending to unbuckle his pads when he hears a voice over his shoulder, “Lax, keep your pads on.”

This is India’s first major series after the match-fixing scandal, which ended the playing career of the iconic Mohammed Azharuddin, dragged former coach Kapil Dev and many other big names into the CBI office for questioning. Flamboyant white-ball bat Ajay Jadeja has been cast into darkness. Indian cricket is hollowed out, its hardcore fans betrayed, its casual fan turning away, disgusted. The rampant Australians, 15 Test wins in a row, have the Steve Waugh-branded “final frontier” in their sights. The first Test in Mumbai is their 16th, done in three days. India have not gone past 200 in three innings. Their first foreign coach, New Zealander John Wright, just a few months in, knows his job is already on the line. It’s him on Laxman’s shoulder. “Lax, keep your pads on.” LKYPO.

So, following on, Lax goes in at No.3 against his usual No. 6 spot and begins a time-stopping, mind-bending Indian counter-attack. Not just in the Kolkata Test, where Laxman batted through the fourth day with the redoubtable Rahul Dravid (a viral-fevered 180). Not just the series versus Australia, which India win 2-1 with a heart-stopper in Chennai. Kolkata 2001 marks the turning of Indian cricket’s tide.

Had there been no LKYPO, had India not won that Test in Kolkata and the series, who knows how many heads would have rolled. Eden Gardens was a lightning strike. It changed the landscape of Indian cricket and Laxman’s memoirs mention also “the psyche of Indian players”. If they kept fighting, anything could be made possible. Given the opportunity by the cricketing gods to take control of India’s cricketing destiny, India’s Golden Generation didn’t look back.

The seasons that were to follow had the team shake off its long-serving reputation – heavies at home, lightweights overseas – and offer their fans competitiveness and that insanely magical quality of bouncebackability. Till 2001, India had won 13 of its 155 away Tests across seven decades. They had gone through the 1990s with a lone away win in Sri Lanka, even with young world class talents like Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble. Then came fixing and before Border-Gavaskar 2001, the nadir appeared around the corner. Post Eden Gardens, in the eight years that followed however, India won 18 overseas Tests.

To the post-IPL cricket fan, born in the 2000s, 18 overseas Tests is no big deal. They are living in an age when Virat Kohli’s is called, “one of the great teams in the history of the game”. To hear some fuddy-duddies nearly two decades ago being called the “golden generation” sounds like a gross overstatement. This period covers the onset of the Sourav Ganguly captaincy (ODI captain September 1999-Test captain Nov 2000) and the start of MS Dhoni’s multi-format leadership (Oct 2008), with Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble’s leadership stints in between. It ended with the Border-Gavaskar series of Oct-Nov 2008, when Dhoni carried all six feet of Kumble on his shoulders around Kotla and took over the Test captaincy full time in Nagpur.

GenZ may ask what the heck did those oldies win? Not a World Cup, no. They just reached a final and choked. Test series wins in Pakistan, England, the West Indies and Zimbabwe? Hey, Pakistan is in Asia and series wins in England and the West Indies had been achieved before, and honestly, are we counting Zimbabwe or just clutching at straws? How many express pace bowlers did they have? How many 360-degree batsmen occupied their line up? How did they do on the yo-yo tests? Could they win a series in Australia? Even once? No, right? So what in the benstokes makes them golden?

Well, let’s just say you had to be there to feel it. To watch this grand cricketing adventure stir to life.

O captains, our captains

This period is called the Ganguly era as his captaincy ran the longest at the time. Ganguly’s results as leader feature the 2003 World Cup final, one shared Champions Trophy title (and making the final in its predecessor, the ICC Knockout), drought-breaking Test wins in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, England, West Indies, and first-ever ODI and Test success in Pakistan. In between came Dravid’s captaincy, marred by the Greg Chappell soap opera, featuring Test series wins in the West Indies (after 35 years) and England (after 21 years). In January 2008, Anil Kumble’s team beat Australia in Perth, after the dramas of the Monkeygate Test defeat, the first visitors to win at the WACA after 21 years.

At this time, India played with a clutch of players who ended their careers as greats, its senior leadership core putting the full weight of its talents to their best use on and off the field. What Ganguly brought to this extraordinary talent bank was a distinctive captaincy cocktail: respect for his peers, an eye for match-winners, an informality with a younger generation of cheekier, less restrained players; an awareness of his import in the side tossed with his gung ho cussedness. Ganguly often sought the counsel of the better tacticians in his dressing room, but eventually he did as he believed even if it meant going against the common wisdom to everyone’s chagrin. Eye-rolling was accompanied by, “Daadi, yaar…” And the next day everyone got up and set out again.

The India Test formula was unlike what fans see these days. Bat once, bat big, and give the bowlers enough on the board against 20 wickets. The Indian batting quintet of the time – Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly with the addition of Virender Sehwag with his game-changer edge – were an all-conditions, all-wickets line-up like India had never had before in its history, who made the weight of their runs work.

India would play with four specialist bowlers, Ganguly’s modest medium pace and Tendulkar’s all-sorts acting as their fifth bowler options. The whiteball livewire that was Yuvraj Singh was to play lead roles in India’s biggest ICC trophy title wins in the future, but his ICC Knock Out and NatWest innings were the arrival of a brat-pack superstar.

John Wright was India’s first full-time foreign coach.

While the batsmen got the glory, it was the bowlers – who in India call themselves cricket’s labour class – led by Kumble and Javagal Srinath whose impact was to chart a new course for their colleagues and successors. The bowlers banded together, revelling in generosity, camaraderie and wisdom that Kumble and Srinath had deserved as rookies but not received. Those who followed them -- Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra – carried the idea of India’s bowling brotherhood forward. The Nehra family flat near Delhi airport was a bowlers’ crash pad during long layovers around tours. In a 2003 World Cup team meeting, with the India batting stuttering in its early matches, the bowling unit asked the batsmen to go away and sort out their shambles near a Harare swimming pool. Because we sure as hell are doing our jobs and you are the problem.

Kumble and Srinath, engineers both, were central to getting technology into the Indian dressing room. The team hired its first video analyst in 2000, and it took another round of requesting and explaining to the BCCI officials that the analyst needed to live in the team hotel, not in some random distant three-star. The team’s support staff was a mere count of two: coach Wright and physiotherapist Andrew Leipus, plus a manager. Leipus, it was somehow imagined, was also qualified to be a physical trainer, team doctor and miracle worker. In early 2002, Wright got the Indian team’s first physical trainer Adrian LeRoux on board, whose intervention, discipline and frequent testing were to transform the team’s fitness and nutrition parameters. The importance of skill plus commitment to team remained paramount, but the team of Leipus & LeRoux was to introduce a fitness culture in the side that helped extend the careers of many of the top performers well into their 30s. The Virat Kohli era and the demands of the IPL has led to a steep escalation in the fielding skills of every cricketer today, which were first made visible in the early years of the new Millennium.

All changes great and small

The changes were to come in ways small and large. No chairs (or tea and biscuits) at the nets and because players still shared rooms, seniors and juniors were housed together to break through formality. Every bowler had a “batting coach” to ensure they could hold their own in a crisis and lengthen the tail. The captain was appointed series by series, yes, even Ganguly who had Dalmiya’s support. The team would get roasted by TV commentators (imagine!) with the creation of a popular programme called, “Match Ka Mujrim” (criminal of the match). After every defeat, a group of experts sat before an audience and found a whipping boy, Ganguly often winning the title of chief culprit.

Everyone described India under Ganguly as a “New India” (one, if you take note, comes along every four years) which was “aggressive” and “gave it back”, but honestly there was no snarling. There were the usual skirmishes, including the Mike Denness incident and Monkeygate, but what remained written in stone was that there was to be no backing off a fight – mostly in the cricket itself, sometime in between overs.

During this time, India worked its way through two foreign coaches – the barrier-breaker Wright whose mix of professional involvement and emotional connect helped strengthen the team’s structures – internal and external - and keep its environment on a steady bubble. Noisy, rambunctious, argumentative but when the dust settled, the air was clean. He was to grab Sehwag by the collar one afternoon, and nobody knew until Wright included the story in his memoirs. After India won the Test series in Pakistan around two years later, Sehwag was seen, arm around the coach’s shoulders, dragging him down the Rawalpindi dressing room steps to be part of the team photo.

Wright was followed by the formidable Greg Chappell, whose personality, cricketing stature and knowledge outweighed his limited man-management skills and bore down far too heavily not just on the team but on Dravid’s captaincy too. His fracas with Ganguly ran like a soap opera for months but his emails to media trashing his players became another kettle of smelly fish. India’s shock early exit in the 2007 World Cup – with Chappell’s documentary video crew shooting the team huddles close up – was to become Dravid’s leadership albatross. Chappell lost his job, Dravid led the team to a Test series win in England and stepped away from the job in a final flourish.

Recently, there has been a retrofitting of nobility to Chappell’s involvement in Indian cricket saying that after all today India are playing the way he had wanted them to a decade earlier. That Chappell-Dravid were before their time in emphasising flexibility in batting, supporting younger multidimensional talent and encouraging fielding prowess. Sport, sadly, comes with an urgency that gives no one, player or coach, a decade or so to prove their philosophies. In the debate between right-man-wrong-time vs right-time-wrong-man nobody wins.

Dravid, rock in many a batting tempest, is coach today, Twenty20 has created contemporary skills that had not been seen in the game and there are now two World Cups around the corner. Who knows cricket may end up paying its dues.

What must also be said of that era is that whatever it seems like, little was seamless and efficient. Mostly, it was a manic, wild ride, filled with decision-making errors and selection blunders, batting collapses, conspiracy theories, shambolic fielding days, ghastly bowling days, opportunities whizzing by and chances being grabbed and then, out of a day going nowhere, flashes of magic.

From every corner of the field and the dressing room, leaving every player’s name sprinkled with history’s star dust: Ajit Agarkar in Adelaide (and Lord’s!) and Mohammed Kaif at Lord’s, and Ashish Nehra in Durban and Parthiv Patel in Nottingham and Sanjay Bangar in Headingley and Wasim Jaffer-Dinesh Karthik through an English summer and Irfan Pathan to Adam Gilchirst and in Karachi and in Perth. After what had gone by in the miserable 1990s, in the melee that was 2000-2007, what was always visible was progress.

It had begun in 2001 with a much-loved series win. But 2001 has been upended on every “greatest ever” scale by Australia-India 2020-21 because nothing will ever compare to 36-9 and an injury turnover from nightmare central. If Eden Gardens was a flamboyant hat-tip to seizing and owning the unpredictable, 2021-22 two decades on, was the entire production.

And finally…

One of the most significant developments out of this era was the introduction of contracts for the players in 2004. Kumble was the leader of the senior group who worked with the board – old hand Ratnakar Shetty and BCCI chief Dalmiya – to ensure that India players would receive retainer contracts, plus match fees and medical coverage as was happening in Australia and South Africa.

It was the first step to finding a formula where all players would receive a share of the BCCI’s growing revenues. As BCCI’s revenues from broadcast rights began to skyrocket, a gross revenue sharing agreement with the players also arrived, but it’s static and today, nearly two decades on, is fundamentally deceitful. The suggestion even of any change or amendment becomes an invitation for a blackballing by BCCI. A third attempt at the formation of a player association formed in November 2002 remained short-lived, which has only led to the majority of Indian players being short changed by their Board. Now buffed by IPL money, the stars are happy to look after themselves and rock no boats.

Today, even as BCCI’s revenues increase by hundreds of percentages, they send bogus gross revenue-sharing calculations to the players. Why, even this year, domestic cricketers were asked to produce invoices for their gross revenue share earnings — of 7,000-ish out of the BCCI’s gazillion dollar earnings. That this is happening under BCCI president Ganguly’s watch is a blow to his legacy as a cricketer and that of the team he played in. Golden boys who break barriers do not always grow up to be men who continue to blaze a new trail.

(Sharda Ugra is one of India's most respected sports journalists and has been in the profession for over 30 years. She has also written several books)

2001 - 2006