The Beginning at Lord’s

20 years back a new chapter of Indian cricket history was written when two youngsters made their debut against England on the hallowed turf of Lord’s. Cricket Cacophony looks back to that momentous occasion in the summer of ‘96.

The year 1996 was a busy one for Indian cricket. All the hype started pretty early in the year for the World Cup scheduled to start on Valentine’s Day. Although it was the second World Cup in the sub-continent in nine years, the economic scenario of the game had markedly changed with huge television deals and debate regarding official and unofficial sponsorship! Remember that tagline from Anuja Chauhan?

The World Cup rolled on for two months and India with their mediocre side play quite a mixed brand of cricket. They beat Pakistan in the quarter final at Bangalore in one of the more anticipated games in the history of these two teams, only to succumb to Sri Lanka in one of the more heart-breaking defeats in the history of Indian cricket at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata.

The Indian team was not settled. Manoj Prabhakar and VinodKambli were dropped from the team after the World Cup. Kambli could not fulfil the promise he had showed earlier in the decade with his back-to-back test double centuries. Ajay Jadeja was still finding his feet in international cricket and had moved from opening position to lower middle order in ODIs with some modicum of success. Sanjay Manjrekar’s batting, despite his 10 years’ experience in international cricket, was too slow for ODIs even then, 20 years back from the era of 400+ ODI totals. So, Indian batting in the mid-90s was dependent on two-and-a-half men, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, and Navjot Sidhu, when he kept his calm.

Prologue

Once the World Cup was over India participated in two triangular series before their big tour to England. The first one, a small tournament in Singapore featuring India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka followed a funny pattern. In the first match Sri Lanka, the newly crowned World Champions, beat Pakistan after posting 349. Then India beat them to exact revenge of the World Cup semi-final. In the very next match Pakistan thrashed India to take their own World-Cup revenge. They also qualified for the final over India with a better run rate and went on to beat Sri Lanka in the final.

In India’s first match Rahul Dravid made his international debut replacing Vinod Kambli. It was quite a modest debut, with Dravid managing just three runs. He got another chance against Pakistan and scored just four.

India persisted with him in their next assignment, which was another triangular series, this time in Sharjah, involving Pakistan and South Africa. Dravid played the first two matches, scoring 3 and 11. India lost both those matches and after scoring 22 runs in his first four ODIs, Dravid was dropped to give an ODI debut to Vikram Rathour. Although India qualified for the final they could not bring the cup home.

Then came the big tour of England, India’s first Test assignment post World Cup and an England tour after six years. England those days was not a particularly strong outfit, having been plagued by ridiculous selection policies and tendency to serve up plain bad cricket when it mattered the most. However, they did have the home advantage of the early summer. Captained by Michael Atherton, they had Graeme Hick, Nasser Hussain, and Graham Thorpe in the middle order, with Dominic Cork, Alan Mullally, and Chris Lewis taking care of the bowling department.

Indians were scheduled to play 18 matches on the tour including first-class and List-A matches along with Tests and ODIs. The picked a strange team: a 16-member squad with four spinners, three medium pacers, one wicket keeper, and eight batsmen. All of them had had successful domestic seasons for the last few years. Quite early into the tour, the team management realized their folly of picking only three seam bowlers on an England tour, two of them being newbies, and recalled Salil Ankola to the squad, who at that time was playing league cricket in England.

The team had six players without a single test match to their credit: Vikram Rathour, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Venkatesh Prasad, Paras Mhambrey and Sunil Joshi. It was an interesting mix of newcomers. There was someone like Prasad, who had already played 36 ODIs for India including the World Cup. There were guys like Rathour and Dravid, who had played a handful of ODIs in the recent past. On the other hand, there were Mhambrey and Joshi who were part of an Indian touring party for the first time. And then there was Ganguly. In 1992, the 18-year-old Ganguly had travelled to Australia and had played only one ODI scoring just three runs before falling to the great Malcolm Marshall. However, numerous stories about his attitude problem surfaced in the Indian cricketing fraternity during that tour, and he was dropped immediately afterwards. Ganguly managed to put those controversies behind him and kept scoring heavily in the domestic circuit, especially in the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. In 1995-96, his 171 for East zone in the Duleep Trophy proved a major landmark for his career as he was finally recalled to the Indian squad for the tour of England.

India started strongly by winning their first two list-A matches followed by three draws in their first three first-class matches against Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and Sussex. Both Dravid and Ganguly had limited chances in the middle order and played a few good innings.

Things started to go downhill for India from the middle of the tour. They lost their List-A match against Northamptonshire on 21st May, just two days before the first ODI. The ODI series was severely rain-affected. Indians were saved by rain in the first ODI after being 96 for 5 chasing a target of 292 set by the hosts. India lost the second ODI, which was followed by further turmoil when Sidhu left the team in the middle of the tour because of his dispute with captain Azharuddin. Both Ganguly and Dravid played in the third ODI, one after four and half years and the other after five matches respectively. India lost the match but both made noticeable contributions. Ganguly, batting at number three, walked out early after Tendulkar was dismissed for one, and scored a gritty 46. Dravid came in at number six to score a 15-ball 22 and helped Azhar (73*) to give the Indian innings some late impetus. Despite posting a competitive 236/4, India lost this match as well, losing the Texaco trophy 0-2.

In the first test match at Edgbaston, India handed test caps to as many as four people: Rathour, Joshi, Mhambrey, and Prasad. Despite a sparkling hundred by Sachin Tendulkar, India lost the match by eight wickets and the ploy of playing two spinners backfired as the lead spinner Kumble failed miserably and the other spinner Joshi was inexplicably not bowled at all. They were beaten by Derbyshire in the tour match leading up to the second test, and to add to their problems, Sanjay Manjrekar got injured after the first test. Manjrekar’s injury meant that the Indians were forced to make a team change in the second test to give a debut to one of their reserve batsmen, Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid.

The Test Match Atmosphere

The third test at the “Home of cricket” began on 20th June, 1996, a Thursday. The Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss and put England in to bat, just as he had done in the Lord’s test during India’s 1990 tour. Back then, England had piled on a total of 653 thanks to a mammoth 333 from Graham Gooch. Still Azhar took the gamble. Either he thought that the conditions are more suitable for seam bowling with the wet weather all around or may be did not have enough confidence inhis batsmen. India had replaced Manjrekar and Joshi with Ganguly and Dravid, awarding two of India’s young domestic stars with their test debuts. Dravid had already made a mark in the first test when he took his first catch in Test cricket as a substitute. No one knew at that time that there would be 209 more catches to follow for that young man.

India started strongly with Srinath sending Atherton back in the very first over without any run on the board. England adopted a slow approach and the run rate was never high. In the middle session, with Hussain and Thorpe looking to build a solid base, debutant Ganguly came on to bowl his little swingers and immediately had an impact on the match. First, he got the centurion from the first test, Hussain, nicking an out-swinger that was brilliantly caught in the slips by Rathour. Soon after, he removed Graeme Hick. Prasad got rid of Ronnie Irani, and with England 107 for five India was firmly in driver’s seat in the match. But a century from Jack Russell with valuable support from Thorpe and Lewis helped England reach 344 in 131 overs.

India started their innings after tea on the second day. Rathour went first with the score on 25. The debutant Ganguly walked out at number three and started confidently. Although this was his first test match, he had had loads of experience of playing in English conditions and was also in reasonably good nick. Soon, the other opener Mongia was dismissed and Tendulkar joined Ganguly in the middle. They knew each other from their school days and the understanding between the two (that would develop into one of the greatest ODI partnerships in history) was quite evident as they carried India safely to the end of the day.

India finished day two on 83 for loss of two wickets with Ganguly looking assured with 26*.

The Partnership

India started the third day at a brisk pace. Ganguly got a lucky boundary through gully that was followed by a classical cover drive for three runs. Tendulkar was bowled by Lewis for 31 and Ganguly was joined by the captain Azhar. Not much later, Ganguly reached his first test fifty with another off-drive to the boundary.

However, both Azhar and Jadeja failed to last long at the crease, and at 202 for five, with India’s infamous tail to follow, the chances of the innings being wrapped up quickly and England earning a big lead appeared quite bright. At this juncture, entered the other debutant Rahul Dravid and joined Ganguly in the middle.

Ganguly welcomed Dravid in the centre with an on-drive off Peter Martin and reached the nervous nineties. He did not appear nervous though and there was a touch of inevitability when he reached his hundred with a glorious cover drive off Cork. It was a great moment for the 23-year old. After all the controversies and heartbreaks of the last four-and-a-half years, he finally found redemption. Sourav Ganguly had announced himself on the international stage, becoming India’s 10thdebut centurion and the first Indian (and the third overall) to achieve the feat at the hallowed turf of Lord’s.

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Source: Internet

The duo kept playing steadily and with a confidence belying their experience at this level. Both played some wonderful drives, flicks, and square cuts and made run scoring look easy. It was a wonderful partnership for Indian cricket; two newcomers supporting each other and matching each other shot for shot. They had an aura about themselves that made the general cricket fan sit up and take notice of this right hand-left hand double act.

They added 94 runs before Ganguly was dismissed by Mullally for a masterful 131. Dravid showed maturity beyond his age to take control of the situation after Ganguly’s departure and built a 55-run partnership with Anil Kumble to give India the lead. He had two more small but valuable partnerships with Srinath and Mhambrey. However, once Dravid reached the nineties, his scoring rate dropped significantly. The immensity of the occasion appeared to have got to him, as the fluency seen in his batting so far deserted him completely, and eventually he got caught by Russell off the bowling of Lewis with his individual score on 95.

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Source: Internet

A dejected Dravid had to walk back just five short of his century. Had he got to his hundred, it would have been the first instance of two debut centurions from the same team in a test match. Still, the entire ground was on their feet as Dravid trudged off; they realized that they had observed something very special. Although at that point of time, not many people would have realized the legacy that was born in those five days of June 1996.

What Happened Next

If we think about the immediate effect, India managed to draw the test match and was in control of the proceedings for much of the last two days. They tried to push for a win but were thwarted by fighting knocks from Russell, the first innings hero, and Ronny Irani. Ganguly finally got Russell out but it was too late and despite England declaring their innings soon after, there was not enough time for India’s second innings. Incidentally, Russell’s LBW off Ganguly was Dickie Bird’s final decision in a Test match. A small anecdote for trivia freaks may be.

India drew the third test in Nottingham as well. On a batting pitch, the Indians scored 521 with centuries from Ganguly (136) and Tendulkar (177) and another meaty contribution from Dravid (84). However, England replied strongly, scoring 564 thanks to centuries from Atherton and Hussain, and despite a batting collapse in the second innings, the Indians managed to hold on for a draw. The Indian team returned a much happier and confident unit compared to the mid tour muddle that they had found themselves in before the second test.

Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravidlargely fulfilled the promise that they had showed in their first test and became stalwarts in their own rights. Both led the Indian team for long periods and when Dravid was considered one of the best test batsmen of his generation, in the leagues of Sachin and Ponting, Ganguly proved himself to be one of the most inspirational leaders in the world cricket and a behemoth in ODI cricket.

The Ganguly and Dravid combination contributed 42,783 runs, 137 wickets, 577 catches, and 14 stumpings for India across all the formats of international cricket. On that afternoon of 22nd June when Rahul Dravid stepped out to join Sourav Ganguly at Lord’s, Indian cricket took the leap into the next generation.

~ Tapabrata Banerjee

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