India's captain will be aiming to improve his batting figures on English soil during the upcoming Test series
Virat Kohli and India can use Dravid-Ganguly heroics at 1996 Lord's Test as inspiration
One of the biggest challenges for any batsman, particularly in a Test match setting, is to succeed against swing and spin bowling.
Just ask Virat Kohli, who even this week continues to be reminded of his past struggles in England ahead of next week’s start to the five-match Test series.
After all, if you want to score runs in Old Blighty, you almost certainly need to negotiate high-quality swing bowling at some point in your innings. And Kohli's paltry record of 134 runs from 10 innings on English soil suggests he has not done that yet.
It is in this context that we look back at one memorable Test 22 years ago, which not only saw the introduction of two young players but became the launchpad for their greatness.
For the best part of his Test career, Rahul Dravid batted at No 3 for India. This – at least in the early years of his development – meant playing as the third opener, because by the time he padded up India would have lost their first wicket.
As a result, the right-hander developed an eye for the new ball and the concentration to bat for long periods of time. He even made leaving deliveries alone an art, and it looked just as good as his trademark cover-drive for four.
But it wasn’t just his ability to play swing that stood him apart, or for that matter his technique. The less apparent reason was the strength of his character.
“You want to know what aggression is? Just look Dravid in the eye,” former Australia opener Matthew Hayden, himself no mug with the bat, is believed to have said many years later.
One batsman who wore his aggression on his sleeve, but whose name we associate with leadership more than batsmanship, was that of Sourav Ganguly.
Ganguly had trouble facing the short ball for much of his career, but the left-hander was nearly as effective against swing bowling as Dravid was. Like his teammate, Ganguly was brave but also tactical.
Their standard operating procedure was to get their eye in before launching a counter-attack, although therein lay the difference between the two players’ batting styles: Dravid – ‘The Wall’ – believed in grinding bowling attacks to dust; Ganguly fancied destroying them with seemingly effortless timing.
The effort behind every one of Dravid’s moves appeared exaggerated, while Ganguly’s batting had a lazy elegance about it. This is akin to comparing Rafael Nadal’s game to that of Roger Federer: both styles just as pretty to look at.
Ganguly and Dravid will forever be bound by their personal histories: they made their Test debuts in the same game, against England at Lord’s in 1996, and it proved to be one of Indian cricket history’s seminal moments.
The duo were brought into the XI by then captain Mohammed Azharuddin, mostly out of desperation: India were down 1-0 in the three-match series after losing the Edgbaston Test by eight wickets.
Vinod Kambli had been overlooked for the trip; Navjot Sidhu had left the tour in a huff; Sanjay Manjrekar had been dropped from the Edgbaston XI due to poor form.
Those were the days when India’s batsmen, barring Sachin Tendulkar, struggled in foreign conditions, especially outside the subcontinent where – to put it simplistically – pitch and weather conditions either favoured swing or pace and bounce.
Batsmen were bred on slower, lower wickets on which spin played a greater role than pace or seam. While they mostly had sound techniques, they were unable to make the necessary adjustments to bat in different conditions.
More pertinently, batsmen except for Tendulkar lacked the temperament for battle outside their comfort zones. Indeed, Tendulkar – still only in his early 20s – had to score the bulk of his team’s runs during the first half of the 1990s.
But all that changed at Lord’s when Ganguly and Dravid were thrown in at the deep end.
Ganguly came out to bat when India were 25-1, needing 320 runs in difficult conditions to go past England’s first innings total. The left-hander’s selection for the tour had been contentious as it came at the cost of the more established but undisciplined Kambli.
Determined to prove his critics wrong, Ganguly went about his innings with quiet efficiency, and even as wickets around him fell at regular intervals, he showed both class and character to keep the England bowlers quiet.
The ‘Prince of Calcutta’ was joined by Dravid after the fall of the fifth wicket, with India still 142 behind. No doubt inspired by what he had seen from the pavilion, Dravid weighed in.
The two showed guts and levelheadedness rare for players of their inexperience, particularly for two Indians batting in alien conditions. By the time Ganguly was out – bowled by Alan Mullally for 131 – the pair had put together a 94-run partnership and reduced the deficit to 48.
Dravid held the innings together before being caught behind off Chris Lewis for 95, by which time India had moved to 419. The tourists were eventually dismissed for 429 before the Test tapered to a draw. A draw that felt like a win for a team in dire straits.
Dravid was understandably disappointed to miss out on a debut hundred, and stat lovers such as this writer still hate the fact that the chance to make history went begging. For it would have been the first time two debutants had scored hundreds in the same Test.
As fate would have it, Pakistan newcomers Ali Naqvi and Azhar Mahmood achieved this feat only a year later, against South Africa in Lahore. But more than two decades hence, few talk about Naqvi or Mahmood, their Test careers having petered out.
On the other hand, Dravid and Ganguly formed the most formidable batting unit in Indian cricket history – one that clinched a Test series in England in 2007.
The tenacity with which these two young men played on that day in 1996 won the hearts of those watching at the ‘Mecca of Cricket’, not to forget the game’s devotees back home.
But what is more important to note is the long-term impact their fightback had on India’s collective consciousness. Young supporters may take for granted the belief with which Kohli and his team play these days.
But those old enough to recall that Lord’s Test will have an appreciation for how far Indian cricket has come since as they prepare for the latest chapter of their rivalry with England to commence on Wednesday at Edgbaston.