Exclusive: 20 years after that 281, VVS Laxman looks back on Eden classic
It feels very surreal that I was part of such a competitive series, Laxman told Khaleej Times
If you are among those cricket fans who are aged over 40, you might feel 20 years have passed in the blink of an eye. Yes, it’s been two decades since that VVS Laxman-inspired Indian epic halted an Australian juggernaut at the Eden Gardens.
It was on this day (March 11), 20 years ago (2001), that the second match of that riveting three-Test series between India and Australia began in Kolkata.
After galloping to victory in the first Test at Mumbai inside three days, the Steve Waugh-led Australia team were eyeing their record-extending 17th consecutive Test victory.
In search of their first series win in India since 1969, that Australian team were also looking to conquer what their inspirational captain called the ‘final frontier’.
And the Aussies (445 in first innings) moved a step closer to achieving their target after the Indians (171 all out in first innings) were on the ropes again in the second Test, conceding a first innings lead of 274.
After Waugh enforced the follow on, Laxman emerged to play his career-defining knock (281) in the second innings, sharing 376 runs for the fifth wicket with Rahul Dravid (180), inspiring Harbhajan Singh (7/123 and 6/73) to complete India’s greatest comeback win ever.
Sourav Ganguly’s men then would go on to win the third Test in Chennai by two wickets to clinch the Test series against all odds.
Now as we celebrate 20 years since that historic Test match at Eden, Laxman, during an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, has opened up on the greatest moment in his career. Incredibly, Laxman also revealed that he was battling rebels in his own body while fighting the mighty Australians.
20 years since that 281. It still feels like yesterday. But obviously it’s been a long time. How does it feel when you look back now?
It’s still fresh in the memory. It feels very surreal that I was part of such a competitive series and that I was able to contribute for my team.
Since making your India debut in 1996, you were in and out of the team until that series. You even opened the innings in some Test matches for India because there were no spots for you in the middle order. So considering all that, it will probably not be wrong to say that the 2001 Australia series at home was probably your make-or-break series in international cricket. Was that in your mind as you went into that series against that great Australian team?
When you are playing for the country, especially when you are playing against a quality side like that Australian side, you don’t think about your place, or you don’t think about your personal milestones because if you have to beat that team, everyone has to contribute and everyone has to play at their best. So from my point of view, I didn’t see it as a make-or-break series for me. Going into that series, I had a wonderful domestic season, scored a lot of centuries for Hyderabad and also for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy and I was in good form. Also I took a decision that I was not going to open (the innings) again, so I was just getting into the Indian middle-order.
Very few people know that three days before the start of the second Test, you had a severe back problem and probably would not have played the game if not for the work done by then physio Andrew Leipus. Considering all that, does it feel sometimes that you were born to overcome those odds to play that career-defining knock?
I will forever be thankful and grateful to Andrew Leipus because as I wrote in my book, you know, in the first practice session in Kolkata three days before the start, suddenly I had a back spasm and I walked out of the nets. And when I reached the hotel, I thought it was just a normal issue, but when I went to the physio’s room, and he asked me, ‘’take a look at your back in the mirror’ and it was very clear that my entire upper body was titled towards one side, which for the first time I saw in my life. I didn’t understand what exactly happened. While I was terrified to see my back in that shape, Andrew sort of gave me the confidence and told me not to worry and that he would work on my back. Even though I was not 100 per cent fit, I was probably 60 per cent fit going into that Test match, and luckily for me, there was a captain (Sourav Ganguly) and coach (John Wright) who said it was okay to play a 60 per cent fit Laxman in the eleven. You know I will forever be grateful to Andrew because not only at the start of the Test, even during the Test, he was working on my back, after every session, I used to go back to him in the changing room, he really worked hard, so I can still be mobile. Also I have seen that once you are out in the middle, somehow, right from my younger days, whatever injury I had, or whatever pain I was going through, I tend to forget when I am playing the game of cricket. Suddenly your focus shifts from your body or your pain, to the task at hand. And that exactly happened also in that Kolkata Test.
Rahul Dravid was struggling a little bit with his form going into that second Test, and you took his place at number three in that second innings and he was pushed down to number six. Then both of you ended up sharing the most famous partnership (376 runs for the fifth wicket) in Indian cricket history with Dravid making 180. On that magical fourth day of the Test, the two of you remained unbeaten and turned India’s fortunes around in spectacular fashion. Now when you meet Dravid, does that epic partnership feature in your conversations?
Actually, we don’t really talk about that knock or that partnership very frequently. Whenever we meet now, it’s never so much about our careers, but we talk a lot more about what’s happening currently in Indian cricket, now with Dravid being involved with the National Cricket Academy and I being a broadcaster and mentor of Sunrisers Hyderabad. We talk about what can be done to take Indian cricket forward. So we discuss about the current scenarios, we really don’t talk about our careers.
That Australian team had won 15 straight Test matches going into that 2001 India series. Then they beat you easily in the first Test of the series in Mumbai, which was their 16th straight Test win. That team was brimming with all-time greats. The Waugh brothers (Steve and Mark), Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne. But they lost that match despite having a 274 runs first innings lead. That defeat must have been a bitter pill to swallow for those proud Aussie players. So, fans would be just curious to know if any of those Australian players came to the Indian dressing room to congratulate you guys after the match at Eden..
You know whether it was Gilchrist or (Matthew) Hayden, they not only congratulated me and Rahul, but they came into our changing room at the end of the Kolkata Test to congratulate the entire Indian team. So overall I thought, while the Australians played really hard, but they were congratulating me and Rahul whenever we were crossing a milestone (during that partnership on that fourth day).And that happened even at the end of the series (in Chennai). Not so much after the Kolkata Test because we didn’t have time, because we had to take the flight (to Chennai for the third Test) immediately after that second Test. But at the end of the Test series, I still remember that the majority of the Australian team members came into our changing room. You know we all sat and had a chat after the Test series. Everyone was recognising the fact that it was one of the most highly competitive and challenging series everyone was involved in. So yeah, basically, a lot of them congratulated me, Rahul, Harbhajan (Singh) and just on the way the Test series unfolded.
While you played several stunning shots during that innings, many legends of the game were mesmerised by your beautiful footwork when you repeatedly drove Shane Warne off the rough. At that stage, India were fighting to stay alive. But you still unleashed your range of surreal shots. What was the secret to your amazing success against Warne?
You know, growing up, I was a good player against fast bowling, but I was not so good against spinners. Even in my junior level and even at the start of my first class career, I used to get out to spinners quite often. But I really worked hard on my game against spinners. I was fortunate that when I was selected for Hyderabad, we had quality, experienced spinners in the form of Kanwaljit Singh, Venkatapathy Raju and Arshad Ayub against whom I practiced a lot in the nets. And playing them day in and day out, they used to challenge me and put me out of my comfort zone. I worked really hard on my game, and that’s how I improved my game against the spinners. Once I got the confidence, I started playing the same kind of shots (like the ones against Warne) even in Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy and even for India A. So it was not something which I just did that day, but of course, when you are playing against a great spinner like Shane Warne, and also the situation the team was in, I was backing my strength and I wanted to play my natural game instead of going into a shell. So the way I used to bat in first class cricket, I wanted to approach that innings in that Test match the same way. And I was glad that I had that kind of quality mindset against Shane Warne. So overall, I felt that all the hard work I did as a first class cricketer, helped me counter the challenge of the great Shane Warne.
That historic 2001 Test series win against that all-conquering Australian team changed Indian cricket. We started winning Test matches more regularly abroad. How does that feel to be playing such an important role in that change?
It feels great to be part of history. It feels great to be able to contribute to the team in such a tough situation and contribute for your team in a series win against that mighty Australian team. Because they had won 15 consecutive Test wins before coming to India and they said India was the final frontier, and they had a very formidable team with players who can win a match on their own. So to beat them in that fashion and to contribute in that win, it definitely feels very fulfilling. When I look back, this is the reason why I always wanted to play the game. I got really excited when India won the World Cup in 1983. Since that day I dreamt of playing for the country and winning matches for my country. Luckily for me, I got an opportunity in that series. And that series is even now talked about as one of the most thrilling and hard-fought series. So I feel very fortunate to be a part of that series.
Going back to the shots you played against Shane Warne, there was another player who used to play like you. Playing the same ball to both sides of the ground was his forte. Yes, we are talking about Mohammed Azharuddin because when you first emerged, you reminded fans of Azhar with your wristy stroke-play. Did Azhar’s unique style influence you as a youngster since both of you are from Hyderabad? Or is it just that your natural style was very similar to Azhar’s?
My style was very natural right from my younger days, I had the same style. And I think a lot of Hyderabad players use the wrists a lot more because you know we grew up playing on matting wickets. And when you are playing on matting wickets, you tend to use your wrists a lot more to counter the steep bounce the bowlers get on matting wickets. But having said that, you know, watching him play as a youngster always used to excite me. And I was very fortunate that since I was under 16, I was able to watch him (in Hyderabad), the way he used to prepare, the way he used to work hard on his game, not only batting, the way he used to take his catches in the fielding to become the best fielder in the team, so I was able to learn a lot by watching Azzu bhai play a game of cricket. Definitely he was someone who inspired me while growing up because he was the captain of the Indian team, he was a prolific run-getter, getting runs all over the world and winning matches for the country in both Test matches and one-day cricket. But as far as my style is concerned, I think that came naturally to me. And I also worked hard so I could use my strength well and perform consistently. But yeah, not just me, he (Azhar) inspired a lot of cricketers in Hyderabad.
We saw in an interview that your son and daughter are big cricket fans, and they are also big Sunrisers Hyderabad fans. But they are quite young. Do they watch old videos of their dad’s famous moments? Moments like that 281? Do they ask you about it?
Both of them, travel with me during the IPL. They follow the game, they understand the game. And I don’t discuss so much about my career, but I definitely share with them the experiences I have had, you know, while growing up, the various opportunities and challenges I had while trying to become an international cricketer, the background I came from because I wanted to become a doctor, then suddenly I got an opportunity in the game. So I don’t talk too much specifically about the game, but I talk about my journey and share with them my experiences. They love the game, they follow the game, my son, in fact, plays the game, and he loves playing the game. So it’s quite fun talking about the game and talking about something that you love so much with your kids.
Laxman was the ‘crisis man’ even in club cricket, says childhood coach
Long before the world witnessed VVS Laxman’s never-say-die spirit against Australia at the Eden Gardens Test, cricket grounds in Hyderabad had witnessed several such heroic counter-attacks from the graceful shot-maker.
“I have known him since he was 11. He joined our academy on April 11, 1987. You know, he was always a great fighter. He had one quality, which was that he never gave up,” said John Manoj, Laxman’s childhood coach.
Laxman, according to Manoj, was always the ‘crisis man’.
“Even in Hyderabad from his club cricket days, whenever his team was in trouble, he would bail them out. So he did the same for country with that 281 and on many other occasions as well. He is one cricketer who never shows it on his face, but in crisis, he has always delivered,” the veteran coach said.
Manoj said Laxman’s success against Australia was not limited to international cricket.
“He has always done well against Australia since his childhood, from his under 19 days. If you check his stats, he was always done wonderfully against Australia,” Manoj said.
“At Eden (2001), they asked him to bat at number three in the second innings. And he played an innings that transformed Indian cricket.”
How that Eden Gardens Test unfolded
(March 11-15, 2001)
Australia first innings 445 all out
(Steve Waugh 110, Mathew Hayden 97, Justin Langer 58; Harbhajan Singh 7/123)
Australia reached stumps on Day One at 291/8 in their first innings. They went on to make 445, thanks to Waugh’s century.
India first innings 171 all out
(VVS Laxman 59; Glenn McGrath 4/18)
India reached stumps on Day Two at 128/8 before they were all out for 171 in the third morning.
India second innings 657 for seven declared (Australia enforced the follow-on after taking 274 runs lead)
(Laxman 281, Dravid 180, Sourav Ganguly 48; McGrath 3/103).
India reached stumps on Day Three at 254/4 with Laxman (109 not out), after being promoted to number three from number six, and Rahul Dravid (7 not out) being the unbeaten batsmen. They batted the entire fourth day, adding 335 runs in 90 overs. Laxman remained unbeaten on 275 and Dravid was on 155. On the fifth day, India declared their first innings 657 for seven with Laxman (281) and Dravid (180) sacrificing their wickets for quick runs.
Australia second innings 212 all out.
(Matthew Hayden 67; Harbhajan Singh 6/73, Sachin Tendulkar 3/31)
Needing 384 to win in just over two sessions, the match was heading for a draw when Australia reached tea at 161 for three. But the Aussies lost their last seven wickets for 51 runs, losing the Test by 171 runs.
India went on to win the nail-biting third Test in Chennai by two wickets to clinch the series. It was an astonishing achievement for a team that was missing the hugely experienced Anil Kumble in the series.
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