x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Lookback at series with Australia in March 2001 lends Indian cricket hope

As the cricketers plot their way back to the top, they have the belief they found on this day 12 years ago.

India's VVS Laxman, left, and Rahul Dravid reflect on their record partnership of 336 at Eden Gardens. Hamish Blair / Allsport
India's VVS Laxman, left, and Rahul Dravid reflect on their record partnership of 336 at Eden Gardens. Hamish Blair / Allsport

For most history buffs, the Ides of March – the equivalent of March 15 on the Roman calendar – bring to mind Julius Caesar's assassination in 44BC.

For Indian cricket lovers, however, it is the day that marked the beginning of a decade of relative success, one that culminated in the No 1 ranking in Tests and a World Cup win on home soil.

To understand why victory at the Eden Gardens was so important, you only have to look at the identity of the team that they beat.

Australia arrived in India having won 15 Tests in succession. On the eve of the first game in Mumbai, Sir Donald Bradman passed away. Wearing black armbands, they steamrollered India inside three days.

Consider these numbers to put that winning streak into context.

The New Zealand All Blacks of the 1960s and Nick Mallett's Springboks of the late 1990s both won 17 rugby matches in succession. Spain's footballers won 15 in a row between 2006 and 2009.

Before Waugh's team came along, the cricket record was 11, set by West Indies in the 1980s.

Ranged against that Australian side was an India team that was just a year on from the match-fixing scandal that caused Mohammad Azharuddin's career to finish on 99 Test caps.

They had won the previous home series against Australia 2-1, with Sachin Tendulkar in resplendent form, but a subsequent visit down under had seen them drubbed 3-0, a result predicted by a pessimistic board secretary during a candid moment.

After three days in Kolkata, they were four wickets down in the second innings, needing another 20 to make Australia bat again.

On March 14, 2001, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, who had swapped positions in the batting order - Laxman came in at Dravid's usual No 3 slot - added 336 runs in 90 overs.

The best bowling line-up in the game tried everything, but two batsmen playing the innings of their lives would not be denied.

When Australia went to tea on the final day at 161 for 3, the draw seemed the likeliest outcome.

But Harbhajan Singh and Tendulkar, who atoned for his batting failures with the crucial wickets of Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne, had other ideas. Victory was clinched just before a fast-setting sun went down.

A week later, the series was won in Chennai.

"It [the win in Kolkata] changed our mindset as a team," said Laxman in an interview with Wisden India last month. "It instilled in us the belief that we must never give up. If 167 [at Sydney in 2000] changed the way I viewed cricket, 281 altered the cricket world's perception of India.

"To have played my part in that process, and to have scored consistently heavily against the best bowling attack of my time, against the best team of that era, is a memory I will cherish forever."

In the decade that followed, India's gradual progress up the rankings was almost akin to an Everest trek. Before Eden, they had not won even a Test in South Africa or Pakistan. Their only win against a full-strength Australian side had been way back in 1981.

You had to go back another five years for their last successes in West Indies and New Zealand.

To put it bluntly, they were rabbits in the headlights of a ten-tonne truck when they left home comforts.

Now, the era of plenty has passed. This anniversary of the Eden win marks the first time that neither Laxman nor Dravid have been part of the Indian set-up.

Laxman is in the commentary box, Dravid in the nets preparing for a final Indian Premier League season with Rajasthan Royals.

As in 2001, the team are closer to the foothills than the peak. But despite demoralising losses home and away to England, and a 4-0 thrashing in Australia, there are shoots of optimism.

Cheteshwar Pujara, seen by many as Dravid's true successor, got to 1,000 Test runs in 18 innings. Only Vinod Kambli (14) has got there quicker.

Pujara is such a poised and self-assured young man that there is very little danger of him going the Kambli route to obscurity. Virat Kohli, who took a while longer to find his Test-match feet, will eventually take Tendulkar's position at No 4. Ravichandran Ashwin has 81 wickets from just 14 Tests, while Umesh Yadav - once he returns from injury - has the pace and hustle to be a nuisance on friendlier pitches in South Africa and England.

They are no golden generation. Not yet anyway.

But impatient fans would do well to remember that Dravid and Laxman were not considered to be part of one either, till the magic of Eden.

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