Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, Team India trailing by 0-1 or even 0-2 against the mighty Australians on their soil was agiven. So, when in 2003, for the very first time, India were up 1-0 before going into the Boxing Day Test match in Melbourne, the mood was not just upbeat, history was in the making too. The unexpected win at Adelaide had instilled in us a sense of optimism synonymous with victories, which we carefully carried into the tour game at Hobart before the third Test at Melbourne. A win like that can change the dynamics of any team, and soit had a similar effect on the Indian team too.
The tour game that followed the match at Adelaide was played in order to maintaining the tempo and not to find the rhythm. It might sound trivial, but believe you me, it’s worth its weight in 24 carat gold. During unsuccessful campaigns, these tour games work out as selection trials to make the necessary changesbefore the final test. And that pretty much reflects the mood ofthe camp too, for every game has a few new, nervous and also sullen, disappointed faces. This tour game though was about giving practice opportunities to the ones who needed to fine-tunethemselves.
We carried the same confidence into the next Test match too. The pitch was visibly damp on the first morning and most Indian teams from the past wouldn’t have thought twice about fielding first. Let me admit, had we not won the second Test, we probably would’ve done the same too. Fortunately, batting first was the correct decision, for the heat in Melbourne was sure to cause serious deterioration of the pitch as the match progressed. Yes, the first session was likely to test the batsmen but that’s what it takes to win Test matches. And we did the right thing--won the toss and batted first. We, at the beginning of the tour, had decided on a team motto for the campaign--‘Change the trend’. Most Indian teams touring Down Under had faltered in the past and our team promised ourselves that we’d change the trend, and we did.
A previous victory or show of bravado means precious little when you have to play the likes of Brett Lee and Co on a damp pitch in front of 70,000 people. That’s when skill is put to its challenging best. It is also the only test that has it in it to bail you out. Both Virender Sehwag and I, naturally, decided to play the waiting game, or to be precise, were forced to bide our time. The ball was moving appreciably sideways, both in the air and off the surface. Even though we were hit a few times on the head, we managed to stay put in the first session. That was a further reaffirmation of our ascendancy as a team. We not only took the right decision but also managed to walk the talk.
Thereafter started the ‘Sehwag show’. You could easily split Sehwag’s innings that day into two halves—sedate in the first session and flamboyant in the remaining two. The thing that set Sehwag apart was his ability to hit good balls for boundaries and his decision to not play it safe even after hitting a boundary in an over. If he could hit six fours in an over, he didn’t shy in doing so on that day.
Also, he would not wait for part-timers or spinners to open up, for his theory was that if he were to score a big century, he would have to hit all the opposition bowlers. The only flipside of his mindset was that he perished at the fag end of the day, for such risks come at a cost. We lost a couple more to finish the day with five wickets down. We knew that the first session next morning would seal the deal either way and, unfortunately, it went the other way as we lost quick wickets.
Even though that Test match ended in a loss, there were vital lessons to take back. The best part about that Test was that every morning looked like day one of a new Test match with the same amount of excitement and energy in the air. Everything seemed at stake at all times.
Even after a decade, that series remains special and etched inmy memory forever.
India (Ist innings): 366 all out (V Sehwag 195, A Chopra 48, R Dravid 49; S MacGill 3-70).
Australia (Ist innings): 558 all out (M Hayden 136, R Ponting 257; A Agarkar 3-115, 6-176)
India (2nd innings): 286 all out (R Dravid 92, S Ganguly 73, S Tendulkar 44; B Williams 4-53)
Australia (2nd innings): 97 for one (M Hayden 53 not out, R Ponting 31 not out)
Result: Australia won by 9 wickets
Man of the match: R Ponting