When the Australians under Steve Waugh landed in India in February 2001, the skipper made his intentions clear by calling the three Test contest ‘The Final Frontier’. Australia had not won a series in India since 1969 and with a run of 15 successive victories before coming to this country they reckoned that this was their best chance. And after they won the first Test at Mumbai in three days (by ten wickets) few doubted that they would achieve their objective.
The Indians generally had a good record at home but just the season before they had gone down to South Africa losing both Tests. The apprehension rose after the first Test and especially after going through the Aussie line-up. The batting started with Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden and continued with Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, the two Waughs, Mark and Steve, and Adam Gilchrist. The bowling in the hands of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Damien Fleming (or Michael Kasprowicz) and Shane Warne (or Colin Miller) was no less formidable. They had ridden roughshod over all opposition and were already being ranked as one of the greatest teams of all time.
Continuing their ruthless approach, Australia dominated the first two days of the second Test at Kolkata that commenced on March 11. They amassed 445 and India at stumps were 128 for eight. VVS Laxman’s fighting 59 saw India reach 171 but the follow on was inevitable and shortly before close of play on the third day India were 232 for four. They still needed 42 runs to make Australia to bat again and with two days left the visitors were on course to wrap up the match and series and cross ‘The Final Frontier.’
Not even the most optimistic Indian cricket supporter would have bargained for what happened on the last two days. Laxman, who had come in at the fall of the first wicket, reached his hundred shortly before stumps and he and Rahul Dravid came in unbeaten with India 254 for four. They were still 20 runs behind and a four-day finish was very much on the cards but now started the dramatic turnaround which not only changed the Test but also the series around. The metamorphosis started with Laxman and Dravid batting throughout the penultimate day and at stumps India were 589 for four. Laxman was on 275 the highest score by an Indian in Test cricket and Dravid on 155. But with only one day left a draw was the most likely outcome.
However, there was further drama on the final day, a final twist that culminated in an incredible result. The partnership put on 376 runs – an Indian record for the fifth wicket – before Laxman was out for 281. A little later Dravid was dismissed for 180 and Sourav Ganguly declared at 657 for seven leaving Australia a victory target of 384. At 166 for three well after tea, a draw was on the cards. But Harbhajan, who in the first innings had become the first Indian bowler to take a hat trick on his way to a seven- wicket haul, had other ideas. With a six-wicket haul this time he brought about a sensational collapse and Australia slid sharply to 212 all out leaving India winners by 171 runs, an absolutely unbelievable result. It was only the third time in 124 years of Test cricket that a team had won after following on.
Quite unexpectedly then the teams arrived in Chennai for the final Test with the series locked at 1-1 and this turned out to be another fascinating contest with the pendulum swinging this way and that. Hayden got a double hundred and Australia were cruising towards a formidable total at 340 for three. Harbhajan, who could do little wrong in the series, scripted another collapse restricting Australia to 391 with a seven-wicket haul. India with Sachin Tendulkar leading the way with 126 obtained a first innings lead of 110 runs. With most of their top order batsmen among the runs Australia posted 264 in their second innings. Harbhajan this time took eight wickets and his match haul of 15 wickets gave him the second-best Test figures for an Indian bowler. This left India a tricky 155 to get on a wicket that was aiding spin. The home team however did not falter and in a thrilling finish won by two wickets. They not only denied Steve Waugh his ‘Final Frontier’ but in the process came up with the most dramatic turnaround in Indian cricket history. Till today it is justifiably considered India’s greatest triumph in a home series.
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal)