By Vivek Krishnan

India had Tendulkar but it needed someone to stand with him. Then, in June 1996, it found not one but two batters of genuine class

Cliched as it may seem, there is an irresistible charm about a Test debut at Lord’s. You could be from Mumbai or Melbourne, Delhi or Dunedin, but anyone who aspires to play at the highest level grows up dreaming of a debut at the “home of cricket”. The venue, located in the heart of London, is steeped in history and tradition – the walk to the centre through the Long Room, the mystique of the Lord’s slope, and the desire of getting on the Lord’s honours board spur cricketers across the spectrum.

These are aspects that must have inspired Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid during their formative years too, but they couldn’t have quite imagined the extent to which all of it would fall into place on debut. Nor could they have envisaged the influential roles they would go on to play in shaping Indian cricket’s destiny over the next decade and more.

It all dates back to June 20, 1996 – the start of the second Test at Lord’s. India had been walloped by England in the first Test at Edgbaston by eight wickets – a usual occurrence in those gloomy days on the road. A magnificent century by Sachin Tendulkar in India’s second innings was just as expected, but there was little else to take note of. To exacerbate matters, Navjot Singh Sidhu had returned home from the tour in controversial circumstances and Sanjay Manjrekar was nursing a knee injury after the first Test.

Ganguly and Dravid were scoring runs in the side games alright, but blooding two youngsters in an already fragile batting unit had its risks. Ganguly had played just one ODI for India previously – on the tour of Australia in 1991-92 and came away with his reputation hit after an uncertain innings of three off 13 balls against West Indies.

Ganguly in India’s one-day jersey in the 1990s.

India didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing in the circumstances though, so both Ganguly and Dravid had to play. England were sent in to bat by India skipper Mohammad Azharuddin and posted a challenging score of 344 thanks to a century by Jack Russell. Batting at No 3, Ganguly was thrust into the spotlight early in India’s innings after they lost opener Vikram Rathour with the score on 25. Would Ganguly be up to the task? Would he be able to banish the memories of a forgettable ODI debut more than four years ago?

These are questions that Ganguly himself must have been asking before walking in to bat. But as soon as he played his first scoring shot – a caressing drive for four through the cover region off seamer Peter Martin – he was at ease.

He would bombard the cover boundary with some languid drives several times during the course of that innings (as indeed for the rest of his career), bringing up the three-figure mark to become the third player to score a century on his Test debut at Lord’s in a similar fashion.

By the time that Ganguly etched his name on the Lord’s honours board, Dravid – batting at No 7 – had joined him. Their roles in the batting line-up would reverse as time wore on, but the debutant from Karnataka proved to be the perfect foil for Ganguly at Lord’s. They had come together with India on 202-5 and 142 runs adrift of England’s first-innings total. Another wicket at that stage would have certainly meant England getting a big lead and pushing for another victory, but Dravid’s solidity and watertight technique instantly came to the fore.

His method was straightforward: he respected the good balls and went after those that erred in line or length. These were fundamentals, of course, that would hold him in good stead over the course of his long and successful career. But his temperament was equally eye-catching. Even after Ganguly was dismissed for 131 to bring an end to a 94-run stand for the sixth wicket, Dravid did not seem perturbed. He continued to exhibit patience and discipline and wore down the England bowlers with the help of lower-order contributions from Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath and Paras Mhambrey.

A century was thoroughly deserved – it would have been the first instance of two debutant centurions in the same team in Test history – but Dravid fell for 95 after an outside edge off Chris Lewis went through to Russell behind the stumps.

By the time the Indian innings ended, they had accumulated 429 runs and taken a first-innings lead of 85. But far more importantly, Indian cricket had suddenly found two talented youngsters who could form the core of the batting unit going forward. For far too long in the 1990s, the burden of scoring a bulk of the runs was squarely on Sachin Tendulkar’s shoulders. Suddenly, Tendulkar found that he had able company.

Ganguly and Dravid’s impressive beginning would help India only achieve a draw at Lord’s, but their emergence in the summer of 1996 paved the way for many great wins in subsequent years.

1989 - 2000