VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid.(BCCI/Twitter)
VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid.(BCCI/Twitter)

Eden ablaze: from the agony of 96 to the ecstasy of 01

Indian cricket's greatest low and highest high both came in Kolkata in March, separated by just 5 years.
UPDATED ON MAR 16, 2021 06:57 AM IST

It is a curious thing that for a country obsessed with round-figured anniversaries (50,000 weeks of DDLJ at Maratha Mandir or whatever that wholesome number may now be) and equally obsessed with co-incidences, the Indian cricket team’s most heroic victory across formats has seldom been seen in the light of it’s ugliest loss across formats; especially when both took place at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, five years apart and almost to the day. Once you see it, it is rather hard to unsee. The metaphorical truth could well be that when Sachin Tendulkar sprayed about a bottle of champagne in the dressing room after the miracle of 2001 -- the win celebrating its 20th anniversary on March 15 -- he was only dousing out the fires lit by the Eden crowd in 1996 -- that default exit from a home World Cup semi-final having marked 25 years of ignominy on March 13.

A silver jubilee anniversary, then, for all the restrictions imposed on Indian cricket fans, who simply wanted to watch a match from the stands in these last 25 years and ended up being stripped off their essentials (the comedian Andy Zaltzman once quipped that even a cloud was stopped from crossing over Ferozshah Kotla Stadium in Delhi because it was “carrying water”) and self-respect too. Blame that on March 13, 1996 – when men and older men occupying the expensive seats in the lower tier of the Clubhouse End showered the outfield with glass bottles. But this isn’t to say that the upper stands were seating saints; in these nosebleeds anything that could burn – newspapers, posters, tickets and plastic chairs – burnt, sending great coils of smoke into Kolkata’s night air.

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But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That day began with some commentary gold by the late Tony Greig, who somehow always managed to sound patronising and charming at the same time. “The Bengalis are going beserk,” a hysteric Greig said in his usual vowel-stretching and singsong ways, soon after both Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya – then the most fearsome openers in the world and the World Cup – were dismissed in the very first over of the match by Javagal Srinath. All the players from that team have said over time that because they had planned so extensively for the openers in the team meetings leading up to the semi-final that they were terribly blindsided by Sri Lanka’s middle order. All the players, barring Vinod Kambli that is. Last-man-weeping Kambli wasn’t sure until recently why Mohammad Azharuddin had chosen to bowl in the first place (Azhar’s rebuttal to Kambli’s sensational claim was “he must have been sleeping in the team meetings”).

Anyway, blindsided they certainly were by a terrific Aravinda de Silva, wearing the most 90s equipment of them all – a visor-less helmet with plastic ear-shields. The commentary belonged to simpler times as well, when an Indian player could be criticised in India without being lynched on social media. When de Silva cut a short and wide ball by Ashish Kapoor to the fence, Geoffrey Boycott groaned on air. “Bad ball. Terrible ball. That’s about as bad a ball as you can bowl on this pitch, I tell you,” said Boycott as de Silva led Sri Lanka to a total of 251 – as good an ODI score as it then got in the business end of big tournaments.

The lakh or so spectators crammed into the concrete terraces of the Eden Gardens perhaps didn’t hear it, but it was Boycott who planted the first seed of doubt in the minds of the millions watching India’s, scratch that, Tendulkar’s chase. In the 22nd over, the team score was 89/1, with Tendulkar batting on 60, when the Yorkshireman said: “He scoring most of the roons. If Tendulkar was to get out, India could be in big trouble here.” An over later, that prophecy came true as the two men dismissed in the first over of the match combined to all but end the contest – S Tendulkar stumped Kaluwitharana bowled Jayasuriya 65 (“That’s a big wicket for the little Sri Lankans,” said who else but Tony Greig).

Less than 12 overs later, India had gone from 98/1 to 120/8 and Eden was ablaze. For about half an hour the players left the field as the security forces established enough peace in the stands to get match referee Clive Lloyd thinking of a resumption. “It’s subsiding really. I would still like to finish the game and so I’ve asked the groundstaff to pick up the bits of broken glass from the outfield,” the first World Cup winning captain said, still hoping for better sense to prevail. It did, temporarily enough for the players to return to their stations and the bandana-wearing, sideburns-grooming, crosses-for-earrings Kambli even retook his stance. But before a ball could be bowled, outfielder Upul Chandana walked up to Arjuna Ranatunga with a freshly hurled bottle in his hand and it was all over – Jayasuriya grinned from ear to ear and Kambli wept into his gloves.

***

Five years is not a very long time. Yet, everything leading up to Kolkata 2001 seemed more bleak than the build-up to Kolkata ’96 -- and not just because the Test series was broadcast within the grainy framework of free-to-air Doordarshan. A match-fixing scandal had recently spread like a cancer through Indian cricket, consuming, among others, a captain and a coach. Bleak also because the first Test in Mumbai had ended inside three days despite two fifties from Tendulkar, giving Steve Waugh’s Australia a 16th Test win in a row. And in Kolkata, due to illness (Ajit Agarkar) and injury (Srinath), captain Sourav Ganguly was going to be without the services of his entire pace attack from the first Test.

So, for a plethora of reasons, only three players from Eden ’96 were part of India’s playing eleven for Eden ’01 – Tendulkar, Venkatesh Prasad and Nayan Mongia. That’s it. The sideburns survived too, this time on VVS Laxman. This was 2001 after all, when a nation was busy fashioning itself on its latest superstar, Hrithik Roshan. But within the space of just two days (Day 3 and 4) in Kolkata, Laxman would turn superstar himself and sell all the maidan and gully cricketers of India the impossible dream of stepping out to Shane Warne and whipping him through midwicket for a boundary one ball and dancing out again next ball and driving a similar delivery through covers for four more. Everything about that knock and Test match bordered on lunacy and with each passing day the storylines – and hence the improbability of India’s win -- only got more ludicrous.

As David Foster Wallace wrote in his most famous tennis essay, “journalistically speaking, there is no hot news to offer you on Roger Federer.” What he meant was, even by 2006, there was very little left to said on that superhero or his origins story because “it’s all just a Google search away. Knock yourself out.” In an Indian context, the same could be said about Kolkata 2001, which has had more column space devoted to it around this time of the year for 20 straight years now. March 11 (start of the Test and Harbhajan Singh’s hattrick), March 13 (Laxman’s lone grit in the first innings and the imposition of the follow-on), March 14 (Laxman and Rahul Dravid’s day-long heroics) and March 15 (the win itself) are all red-letter days in Indian cricket. Laxman’s promotion, Dravid’s demotion, coach John Wright’s role in it – it’s all just a Google search away, so knock yourself out.

What always leaves a bigger impact on me during my annual mid-March watch of this match are the little things. Like Mongia walking out to bat in a yellow helmet. Or Jason Gillespie spreading out his arms in the middle of his run-up to break Laxman’s concentration. Laxman simply worked the ball through the leg side and smiled – his partnership with Dravid was worth exactly 300 runs at that moment. Or even the electronic board congratulating Laxman for equalling and surpassing Sunil Gavaskar’s 236 (India’s then highest Test score) with wristy flicks off medium pacer Matthew Hayden.

Even the little things in the soundtrack to the Test match are pure vintage. Like Sanjay Manjrekar, having recently made the transition from player to pundit, trying to teach the world the correct pronunciation of the most famous last name in cricket – “Thayne-dulkar”. That and good old Greig having worked himself into a frenzy on the fourth day morning, when Laxman took the attack to Gillespie with a flurry of fours. “Through the gap again. Through. The. Gap. Again. Vee Vee Ess Lax-man is havin’ a ball.” Or just how annoyed Ian Chappell had gotten about the fact that Ganguly hadn’t declared the magical innings all the way until lunch on the final day. “Really, the declaration should come now,” said Chappell at the fall of Laxman on 281, with the team’s lead on 334. “It’s pointless to wait any longer.” Ganguly waited, for a good 50 more runs.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how late Ganguly had indeed left the declaration, given that India needed seven Australian wickets in the final session of the Test match. To rephrase that into hard perspective – Matthew Hayden, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist were all still around at the tea break and the might of Australia’s batting only needed to see away the 32 mandatory overs in the last session. It took Tendulkar’s arm to get rid of Hayden and Gilchrist – centurions from the Mumbai Test – and Warne to boot to even give India a hope. Sometimes it’s also easy to forget the role that Tendulkar played in the victory, just because he didn’t contribute with the bat.

But because he was one of the few to have been there then and now in Kolkata, the great low of 1996 was perhaps always a reference point, a palimpsest, on which the greater high of 2001 was built. Some things, though, never did change with the passage of time. Like Greig’s commentary during the climax of Glenn McGrath’s dismissal by Harbhajan, which went: “Oh he’s given him, umpire Bansal has given him… The whole of Bengal is on their feet.” Some of those on their feet at the ground were torching newspapers and posters and ticket stubs too. But in 2001, these fires were sparked by joyous firecrackers, so they weren’t put out or even frowned upon.

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