Twenty years ago on this day, then India captain Sourav Ganguly produced an innings at the Gabba that stunned the world and forced the Australians to view him differently as a Test batsman
Sourav Ganguly celebrates after making a century during Day Four of the first Test against Australia at the Gabba in Brisbane on December 7, 2003. Pic/Getty Images
December 7, 2003, was a Sunday, a day Sourav Ganguly pressed the pause button on Aussie preaching; a norm in the Steve Waugh era of Australian cricket. Simply put, it’s 20 years today for Ganguly’s hundred at the Gabba in Brisbane, scored amidst talk, predictions of yet another India captain failing in the opening Test of a series. Ridiculing a captain or team should always be condemned, but there was reason for pessimism over Ganguly striking it rich with the bat. His run tally in 10 Tests against Australia was 501 with three half centuries. On Australian soil, he had 177 runs to show in three Tests at 29.50.
In beautiful Brisbane, we sensed another low for India. Ganguly won the toss and sent Australia in. By ending Day One at 262 for two, the hosts looked primed for yet another massive first innings score. But India rode the storm and Zaheer Khan’s 5-95 helped bowl out Australia for 323. The Indian openers Aakash Chopra and Virender Sehwag knew what to expect. The home attack didn’t have Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee (both injured). Shane Warne was serving his drug ban, but there was Jason Gillespie, local lad Andy Bichel and Stuart MacGill, the leggie who thrived on opportunities to prove himself in Warne’s absence.
Chopra and Sehwag, both from Delhi, playing their first Test against Australia, put on 61, battling hard as they would do in the rest of the series. “It was a spicy pitch, it was tough. The ball was doing a bit and there was enough grass and moisture,” Chopra told me on Wednesday. India lost one-drop Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in the same Gillespie over. Tendulkar, not for the first time in international cricket, departed through a poor decision—from Steve Bucknor. Chopra watched all that at the other end, and was horrified like the rest of us by Bucknor’s call. In came Ganguly to play the innings of his life. With VVS Laxman, the India captain put on 146. Ganguly didn’t hold back his broad blade when it came to playing daring strokes. Bichel struggled with his length and the southpaw took advantage of it in lethal fashion. The late Peter Roebuck, sitting a few seats ahead of me in the press box, was pleasantly surprised at Ganguly’s batting. “His own form has been poor, the result of rustiness after a period in dry dock. No one expects him to score any runs,” Roebuck wrote in the build-up to the Test. What appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald a few hours after Ganguly scored one of the most memorable tons in the history of Indian cricket was far more complimentary: “His head remained still and his eyes never left the ball. Unruffled by the bumpers occasionally sent down by a lacklustre attack and moving behind the ball to present a broad bat, the Indian captain did not look like getting out. Refusing temptations outside off stump, he waited until the ball was under his chin and then manoeuvred it into a gap.”
Warne was another Australian cricket personality who had expressed doubts over Ganguly’s batting ability before the curtain opened in the Test series. “Short-pitched bowling is his major weakness. l am not surprised to see he’s struggling already on tour. He will have to overcome a lot of chin music to have a successful series. Brett Lee would be all over Ganguly, but in his absence the quicks will try to step it up and intimidate him,” the master leg-spinner said. Fellow journalist Debasish Datta and I decided to catch Warne for a comment on Ganguly’s innings during one of his cigarette breaks (Warne was contracted to Channel Nine for the series). “I have never seen him bat with such dominance. It was a much-improved batting performance. I am not taking any credit away from him and the team, but do not forget, this is an attack without Brett Lee. We [Australia] bowled a lot of loose balls. If Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath and me would have been here, it would have been a different story,” said Warne.
True, the Australian attack missed McGrath and Warne (Lee returned for the third and fourth Tests), but the batting was at full strength and the Indian bowlers despite injuries, maximised their potential. After the creditable draw in Brisbane, where Australia conceded a first innings lead for the first time 22 Tests, India went on to win the second Test at Adelaide to be the first Indian team to go one-up in a series Down Under. That high was followed by a big loss in Melbourne. Sydney is where the series ended 1-1.
Unfortunately for Ganguly, his form with the bat dipped after Brisbane with scores of 2, 12, 37, 73 and 16. But no praise was too high for him that day at the Gabba, whose crowd was treated to 144 special runs. According to Chopra, it was an innings—basic confidence in a camp notwithstanding—that convinced the Indian team that they were good enough to combat the best team in the world on their soil. Before the fifth Border-Gavaskar Trophy series, Ganguly recognised the fact that he had to take his batting to a new level. He enjoyed a steady flow of Test centuries till then, but hadn’t scored one in Australia. He hired the services of Greg Chappell, spent a few weeks with the Australian maestro in Sydney, and plugged the holes in his batting. That relationship also led to Chappell landing a coaching role with the Indian team. This too adds to the significance of December 7, 2003.
mid-day’s group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello
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