Twenty years on: the improbable story of how a young offspinner bounced out the mighty Aussies
In March 2001, ads for Amul butter in newspapers, magazines and on signboards all over India featured the brand's cherubic mascot bowling in Test-match whites and a patka. Instead of a ball, she delivered a sharply spinning slice of buttered toast. And this line:
Har bhojan ke sangh. With every meal.
For India's men's cricket team and its millions of fans, a sense of despondency often pervaded mealtimes in the closing weeks of that 2000-01 season, lunches and teas consumed with Australia ascendant. But a faint layer of possibility buttered every meal. Har bhojan ke sangh, there was Harbhajan Singh.
You might know the numbers. Singh took 32 wickets at 17.03. His colleagues took 17 between them, at 63.24. It was as close to single-handed as a bowling display over a series can get. If that wasn't remarkable enough, throw in all the context - the strength of the opposition and the positions of seemingly overwhelming strength that they got themselves into.
But perhaps most remarkable of all was the sheer unexpectedness of it. Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai. In all three Tests, Singh was the youngest member of India's side, not long out of his teens and feeling his way back to international cricket.
"I was more focused than ever, I was more disciplined with everything I did, and I felt I was more responsible after my dad passed away. I wanted it badly"
To watch footage from the series now is to be struck by Singh's youth. Go on, find the highlights, transport yourself back in time. There he is, at the top of his mark, resting the ball in the palm of his left hand and fizzing it round and round with the fingers of his right. A familiar sight later but new at the time, new and exciting. We are still only getting to know him.
And this skinny 20-year-old, wispy of beard, is still only getting to know himself, his expression betraying a last, poignant trace of youthful insecurity.
We are watching his life change, and we are reliving every way in which ours did too.
Laid low by a shoulder injury that forced him into surgery, Anil Kumble played no international cricket between October 2000 and October 2001. For India, the task of finding a replacement was far from straightforward.
Here's how they began life without Kumble. They let Bangladesh score 400 in their first attempt at Test-match batting. They beat Zimbabwe 1-0 in a two-match home series, but the 14 wickets shared by their three spinners - Sunil Joshi, Sarandeep Singh and Murali Kartik - came at the rate of one every 104 balls as Andy Flower swept and reverse-swept them greedily.
That was Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Now India were about to play one of the all-time-great sides, a team that had won each of its last 15 Test matches. It was an unprecedented feat: the West Indies team whose record Australia had bettered had won 11 successive Tests in 1984.
Singh had been out of the India side for over a year before the series, faced disciplinary issues in between, had lost his father, and was contemplating leaving the game for good
Tony Marshall / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Singh had been out of the India side for over a year before the series, faced disciplinary issues in between, had lost his father, and was contemplating leaving the game for good Tony Marshall / © PA Photos/Getty Images
The 25 probables India picked ahead of the three Tests underwent a conditioning camp in Chennai. Kumble was there, mentoring the spinners. Singh hadn't played a Test match in more than a year. His eighth and most recent one had finished in November 1999. But his skills during the camp immediately caught the attention of India's management.
"I couldn't get over how much bounce and turn he was getting," says John Wright, who had taken over as India coach in October 2000. "The one thing that we probably worked on [during the camp] was, he was bowling quite straight, and we worked at getting his line a little further to the off side, so he would hit off stump."
"One thing which was very noticeable was the drift he was getting," Laxman says. "I was standing at slip and the ball was actually drifting towards me, and then he was also putting a lot of revolutions on the ball, which helped the ball to dip. And then that steep bounce.
"Usually spinners very rarely get steep bounce, that too at a very quick pace, so you know they are at the peak of their prowess. And the ball was hitting the top part of the bat, where the sticker is, and the Australians were surprised seeing that kind of bounce. And it was quite a flat track in Nagpur - this was the old VCA Stadium.
To watch footage from the series now is to be struck by Singh's youth. This skinny 20-year-old, wispy of beard, is still only getting to know himself, his expression betraying a last trace of youthful insecurity
"Immediately you could make out whatever he worked on during his time away from the Indian team - he really worked on finishing his action, getting the hip drive, and also putting more revs on the ball, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him bowl in that fashion."
Singh says he hadn't made any major changes to his bowling between getting dropped and getting back into the side. What he had done, though, was double down on everything that made him the bowler he was.
He had endured some of the most difficult months of his cricketing life, being expelled from the National Cricket Academy for disciplinary reasons, and then, he says, nearly losing his place in Punjab's Ranji Trophy team as well. "Thanks to some of the seniors for saving me there, and showing their faith in me."
In between came the biggest setback, the death of his father, one of the driving forces behind his cricket career. "That was a big, big blow," Singh says. "He was everything to me."
These events made him think of giving up the game, going abroad, and finding any work he could to support his family. "Could be anything: truck driver, labourer, filling petrol, whatever," he told ESPNcricinfo in 2018. "I had a lot of close friends who'd moved to America who were sending money home that way."
In the end he decided to trust his cricketing skills and keep himself ready for the opportunity, whenever it came.
Steve Waugh talks to journalists ahead of the tour game in Nagpur
Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
Steve Waugh talks to journalists ahead of the tour game in Nagpur Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
"I didn't do anything differently, to be honest. I was more focused than ever, I was more disciplined with everything I did, and I felt I was more responsible after my dad passed away, so that's the biggest thing which changed. I wanted it badly. And if you want something badly, you have to work really hard, and I worked really hard."
I ask him what that meant.
"I used to go to the ground by 11 o'clock, and I would come back last from the ground. I'll bowl, I'll bat, I'll field, throughout the day I'll continue to do something or the other. And after that, before I finished, I always wanted to bowl 12-13-15 balls to get that rhythm, that perfection: every ball nicely hanging in the air, every ball hitting the right length, spinning, so I would bowl those to finish the day, when everyone was gone.
"I ran 15 rounds, 20 rounds, sometimes I didn't count how many rounds I ran. Woh junoon hota hai, na, junoon? That madness. I remember one rainy day, I must have run 45-50 rounds. It was in Jalandhar, Burlton Park. I just ran, run-run-run. I always knew that if I do these things with true heart, God is watching, he'll give me the rewards."
Singh is on a hat-trick. He kisses the talisman he wears on a black thread around his neck, then presses it to his forehead. Tucking it back into his shirt, he looks skywards. Then he turns to face the batsman. The noise is deafening.
"I was standing at slip, and the ball was actually drifting towards me. He was also putting a lot of revolutions on the ball, which helped it dip. And then that steep bounce"
Singh is on a hat-trick, but it isn't March 11 at Eden Gardens, not yet. It's February 28 at the Wankhede Stadium. Steve Waugh is on strike, facing his first ball of the series. Around him: slip, silly point, forward short leg, leg gully.
Singh spreads his wings and takes off. A hop, a skip, a whirl of arms.
The ball climbs above the batsman's eyeline and hangs there for an instant before dipping precipitously. It dips and lands a foot, two feet, short of where Waugh, stretched fully forward, seems to expect it to.
It pitches well outside off stump. Waugh wants to block it, but he knows he can't; there's just no telling where the ball will go, what it will do. He jams his bat and gloves down, hiding both behind his front pad in the nick of time. The ball jumps at him and smacks him on the bicep.
It's a symbolic bicep. This is Australia's captain, and Singh has just finished his introductions.
Justin Langer, caught at slip off the shoulder of his bat; Mark Waugh, caught at leg gully off the sticker of his bat; Steve Waugh, punched in the bicep. There is plenty more to his bowling, but this is the magic ingredient, bounce. Bounce like a vicious surprise, a boxing glove springing out of a gift-wrapped box.
Adam Gilchrist took plenty of risks against Singh in Mumbai, playing against the turn, to make a match-winning 112-ball 122
Shaun Botterill / © BCCI
Adam Gilchrist took plenty of risks against Singh in Mumbai, playing against the turn, to make a match-winning 112-ball 122 Shaun Botterill / © BCCI
The bounce, Singh says, was always there, right from his Under-14 days, a product of hours and hours of bowling at a single stump. His coach Davinder Arora would keep an eye on him, and encourage him to try different things: vary his pace and trajectory, experiment with his grip, his release, the orientation of the seam.
The bounce came from landing the ball consistently on the seam, and if it landed on the edge of the seam there was sharp turn too. The bounce also came from his height at the crease, high arm allied to a short delivery stride.
"Shorter your stride, better bounce you will get, better control," he says. "With a longer stride, your body might fall to the left side. Getting the right balance becomes difficult."
Though Singh sat at the quicker end of the fingerspinner's pace spectrum, he says he still bowled at a slow enough pace, with just enough flight, to amplify the effect of his overspin.
"To get extra bounce you need to make sure you bowl slightly slower in the air," he says. "I was not as slow as some of the other spinners, and because of my height, I couldn't bowl that kind of loopy offspin, but still there was enough on the ball to get it to bounce."
Bounce may have brought Singh 32 wickets in the three Tests, but it also prevented any one of them from becoming that one iconic delivery that defined his series in the way that the Mike Gatting ball defined Shane Warne's 1993 Ashes, or indeed his entire career.
"I remember one rainy day, I must have run 45-50 rounds. It was in Jalandhar, Burlton Park. I always knew that if I do these things with true heart, God is watching, he'll give me the rewards"
It's the tyranny of cricketing memory. Look through the Cricket Monthly's balls of the 21st century: 17 of the 20 - and all six delivered by spinners - are bowled. Of Singh's 32 wickets, none was bowled. No bowler has ever taken more wickets in a series without at least one bowled.
Bounce is a double-edged sword. No batsman is comfortable facing it, and it opens up numerous modes of dismissal, but that ball of the offspinner's dreams, right-hand batsman bowled through the gate trying to drive against the turn? Nope. If you bowl like Singh did, you'd have to risk overpitching to find that length.
And Singh faced criticism right through his career for not being "classical" enough, as Rahul Dravid noted in his appreciation to mark Singh's 100th Test. He wasn't, in short, Erapalli Prasanna, for whom the perfect ball was "the one when you invite the batsman to cover-drive, when he's halfway through the stroke and realises it's not there yet."
Not being a different sort of offspinner wasn't a failing on Singh's part. Expecting him to be someone else, though, was a failure of the viewer's imagination. For when you boil it down, the triumph of Singh in 2001 - and in every other high point of his career - was the triumph of that other famous Prasanna maxim: "Line is optional, length is mandatory."
Oh, the length. If the ideal length for Prasanna - the Prasanna of folk memory, certainly - was the shortest possible length that would bring the batsman forward to drive, Singh's was the shortest one that would bring the batsman forward to defend. Then he'd get there and find himself nowhere near the pitch of the ball, a sitting duck when it spat up at his gloves or the splice of his bat, bringing all the bodies around him into play. Or he would get stuck in the crease to the same length when Singh fired in his quicker ball, hurried into an incoherent and often across-the-line response.
Singh: "Shorter your stride, better bounce you will get, better control. With a longer stride, your body might fall to the left side"
Arko Datta / © AFP/Getty Images
Singh: "Shorter your stride, better bounce you will get, better control. With a longer stride, your body might fall to the left side" Arko Datta / © AFP/Getty Images
This quicker ball, Singh says, was often delivered with a change in the ball's orientation.
"Normally, for my stock delivery, I used to hold the ball with the shiny side facing away from my palm, but after a couple of overs I would try holding the ball with the shiny side on my palm, and push it through the air." If the shiny side hit the pitch, the ball would skid through straight instead of gripping and turning.
Then there was a ball he learned from Sachin Tendulkar.
"He taught me about holding the same grip as an offspinner, but last minute you roll your finger over the seam, and it will swing, like an outswinger. I've got a lot of wickets with that ball later on in one-day cricket."
Singh's most famous variation, the doosra, isn't immediately noticeable in the highlights of the series, but he says he bowled it quite often as well.
Against Australia in 2001, he was in some of the best rhythm of his life. It meant he could deliver all those variations - of grip, release, pace and trajectory - without wavering from his length. He was, in short, lethal.
India's team management realised this, and were convinced Singh had to play.
"Sourav [Ganguly] was a very, very strong advocate for his inclusion for that series," Wright says. "From what I had seen at the camp, I totally endorsed those views, but Sourav's influence would have been much greater than mine during those selection discussions.
Singh faced criticism right through his career for not being "classical" enough. He wasn't, in short, Erapalli Prasanna
"It was pretty obvious from the camp, the sense of the turn and bounce that he got, that, provided Harbhajan could bowl to hit the top of off stump, he was going to be successful at the international level."
Singh wasn't part of the original India A squad for the warm-up game in Nagpur, and Dravid's article suggests that it was quite a task for the team management to convince the selectors to pick him.
Laxman recalls Ganguly calling him during one of the lunch breaks.
"Apart from Harbhajan, there was [left-arm orthodox spinner]
Sanghvi picked up a first-innings five-for, but it was Singh who stood out to Laxman.
"Whatever I shared with you I shared with Sourav, and then Sourav actually told me not to give [Singh] any more bowling, because he didn't want the Australians to see too much of him. So almost during that conversation itself Sourav had made up his mind that he was going to pick Bhajji."
For a session, Laxman kept him out of the attack, as instructed.
"Bhajji himself was not happy because I had stopped him, then I had to explain to him what Sourav had told me to do.
Sweep dreams: Matthew Hayden was the leading run-getter of the series, making 549 at 109.8, with four 50-plus scores
Raveendran / © AFP
Sweep dreams: Matthew Hayden was the leading run-getter of the series, making 549 at 109.8, with four 50-plus scores Raveendran / © AFP
"Then [chairman of selectors] Chandu Borde sir asked me during the tea break why I didn't give enough bowling to him. I told him about Sourav's conversation with me, and then he told me, 'No, no, we want him to bowl, we also want to see him.' He didn't bowl too many overs, but he still bowled after the tea break."
Hayden. Slater. Langer. Waugh. Waugh. Ponting. Gilchrist.
There haven't been too many line-ups more intimidating than this one, but that's on paper, when you assume everyone was at their peak. This wasn't necessarily the case in 2001. Matthew Hayden came to India averaging 24.36 from 13 Tests. Justin Langer, batting at No. 3, and Ricky Ponting, at No. 6, were yet to occupy the positions that would come to define them. Adam Gilchrist had played 14 Tests and hadn't yet been involved in a defeat, hadn't yet had a chance to learn the lessons only defeat can teach.
And we didn't know it then, but Michael Slater was about to play his penultimate Test series, and Mark Waugh's international career would be over in a year and a half. Hindsight suggests this was a line-up ripe for the sort of setback that sets off a transition.
This doesn't make 2001 any less miraculous, of course: just look at India's bowling attack. There was no Kumble. Javagal Srinath played one Test, got injured, and didn't feature in the rest of the series. A bout of viral fever ruled Ajit Agarkar out after the first Test. Sanghvi was dropped after one Test. As were Venkatapathy Raju and Venkatesh Prasad.
"I always thought when he got that first wicket and that sometimes led to the second, it created so much pressure on the incoming batsman"
India's squad at the start of the series included Narendra Hirwani, who hadn't played a Test in four and a half years, and whose biggest moment in the sun had come back in 1987-88.
Tendulkar, meanwhile, bowled more overs in this Test series (48) than in any of the others he played over his 24-year career.
By the time the third Test came around, India's attack comprised Singh, who had played ten Tests at that point, Zaheer Khan, who had played three, Nilesh Kulkarni, who had played two, and Sairaj Bahutule, on debut. Ganguly shared the new ball with Khan.
It wasn't quite Brisbane 2021, but it wasn't far off.
February 27, the first Test, and the Wankhede could have been the Gabba. There was a bit of grass on the surface to start with, and Steve Waugh chose to bowl first. Captains winning the toss had only done that 14 times in the 179 previous Tests India had hosted.
Pick of the bunch: Sourav Ganguly (left) had to work hard to convince the selectors to put Singh's name down for the series
Sebastian D'Souza / © AFP/Getty Images
Pick of the bunch: Sourav Ganguly (left) had to work hard to convince the selectors to put Singh's name down for the series Sebastian D'Souza / © AFP/Getty Images
Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie began with five slips in place. Or four slips and a gully. Or three slips and two gullies. It was hard to tell, because they were so evenly spread apart.
It was partly down to the comic-book aggression of Steve Waugh's teams, but it also had something to do with just how much bounce there was. This was the quickest and bounciest deck in a series characterised by pitches with true, consistent bounce. It's debatable if India would have wanted that kind of bounce before the series began, because it helped Australia's bowlers as much as it did India's, but looking back, it seems as if the pitches were another fairy-tale ingredient stirred into the cauldron that produced that fairy-tale series.
Mumbai was a strange and misleading Test match: a three-day Australia win, but a closer game than the scorecard suggested.
Singh made an immediate impact, with three quick wickets early on day two to leave Australia 99 for 5 in response to India's 176. Then Gilchrist happened, and Hayden. An astonishing counterattack at one end, an opening batsman enjoying an astonishing series at the other. Pretty much like Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook at the same venue in 2012.
Both partnerships were helped along by indifferent bowling, including some from the 2012 version of Singh, who seemed to put far too little of his body into his action, and as a consequence, got far less zip off the pitch.
But when Gilchrist took on the 2001 Harbhajan Singh, he seemed to take significant risks almost every time. Fairly early in his innings, for instance, he left his crease and stepped leg side of a ball that Singh, delivering from over the wicket, had pitched outside the left-hander's leg stump. Gilchrist didn't reach the pitch of the ball, but went through with his shot anyway: a wristy whip against the turn, launched beyond the wide long-on boundary.
"I looked up from Eden Gardens and I saw the stand at the far end of the ground on fire. At that stage I didn't realise that everyone burned their newspapers [to celebrate]"
"I don't think the bowler should be too discouraged at this shot," Ian Chappell said as the producers cut to a replay. "In fact, he should be hoping that he continues to play it."
Gilchrist kept taking risks, particularly with his slog-sweeps, particularly when he hit them off Singh, against the turn. But it was a day when everything came off for him, and he finished with 122 off 112 balls.
Singh ended up with an economy rate of 4.32. Sanghvi, trusted with just 10.2 overs in his debut innings, went at 6.48. He'd bowl two more overs in the second innings and never play Test cricket again.
"For me that series was survival," Singh says. "It was like, if I don't do it, I'll probably never get to do it again.
"First Test, Rahul Sanghvi played, then he got dropped. Second Test Raju played and he got dropped. Third match Nilesh and Sairaj, they also got dropped. I mean, if they could get dropped, then if I was not getting wickets, it could have happened to me also."
In Mumbai, Singh bowled pretty well even when he was getting hit, forcing Hayden and, in particular, Gilchrist to go after good-length balls more often than not. This sort of battle would continue through the series, with Australia making a concerted effort to attack him, often as soon as he came on. In 1974-75, West Indies set a record for visiting teams in India, hitting 32 sixes in a five-Test series. That record still stands, but the 2000-01 Australians hit 31 in three Tests.
Pause for Oz: Singh takes the ninth Australian wicket*
Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
Pause for Oz: Singh takes the ninth Australian wicket* Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
Plenty of those sixes came off Singh, but Australia didn't hit him off his length. If you watch the highlights of the series, you'll see plenty of lofted drives and sweeps off him, and every now and then a drive along the ground, but only a handful of square-cuts, and hardly any pulls. This was partly down to his quality as a bowler, and partly down to the protection he had in the deep, which allowed him to settle into his length.
"Sourav was smart with the fields," Laxman says. "He had an in-and-out field, because he knew the Australians were going to take on Bhajji, so there was a catching sweeper for the sweep, at deep square leg, and in fact, I think Matthew Hayden got caught in that position a couple of times."
While that did happen, Hayden kept playing the sweep, often to devastating effect, on his way to scoring a chart-topping 549 runs at 109.80. He'd worked hard to master the sweep right from the time he went on his first international tour, to England in 1993, after his captain Allan Border and his coach Bob Simpson challenged him to become a better player of spin.
"I needed an extra weapon, and that was the sweep shot," Hayden wrote in his autobiography, Standing My Ground. "It's the shot spin bowlers hate having played against them, and I made it my mission in life to get not one but three versions of it… I worked ad nauseam on it, and picked the brains of both Simmo and AB, since AB was one of the great exponents of the stroke. They taught me about getting my pad in line with the ball and swinging around my body, and also showed me that the higher you lift your bat before you play the shot, the finer it went."
It's hard to say how many versions of the sweep Hayden played in 2001, but India cottoned on after the first Test that Gilchrist seemed to play only one kind.
"I didn't set any of my fields [during the series]. If you give me four fielders around the bat, I'm happy. If you give me one fielder, I'm happy. As long as I'm bowling, I'm happy"
"With Gilly, the way he played the sweep shot was totally different from the way Haydos played it," Laxman says. "Gilly's sweep was more the slog-sweep than the conventional sweep."
This meant Gilchrist usually planted his front leg away from the line of the ball, which left his pad in line with the stumps against balls pitching outside off. Singh began bowling fuller and quicker to Gilchrist - and from around the wicket by the time the third Test came around - looking to get him lbw.
"We wanted to change the length to him, wanted to bowl a little fuller to him," Singh says. "And we also had a fielder at deep square leg, so that will put a little doubt in his mind, that if he plays uppishly, that guy can catch him.
"The length was slightly fuller, so that if he sits down [to sweep], he doesn't get much time to play the shot. And that was his main stroke. If we block it, then he'll step out or do something else, and for that we can set fields."
It never came to that. After Mumbai, it was not Gilchrist's series: 19 balls, two runs, four dismissals, all lbw, twice to the sweep, three times to Singh.
Gilchrist had that one incandescent innings before he plunged back to earth. For Ponting, it was a nightmare series from start to finish. With each visit to the crease, he brought a new response to Singh's mastery of length and variations, each one as inadequate as the previous.
Be mine: Ricky Ponting fell to Singh in all five innings in which he batted in the series
Shaun Botterill / © Getty Images
Be mine: Ricky Ponting fell to Singh in all five innings in which he batted in the series Shaun Botterill / © Getty Images
Mumbai: Classic Harbhajan Singh - dip, turn and bounce - and Ponting, lunging forward and defending with hard hands, gloves the ball to short leg.
Kolkata, first innings: Shapes to come forward, and Singh slips in the quicker one at the stumps. Ponting tries to drag his front foot back and get bat to ball, but he plays across the line and is lbw, plumb - the first victim in the first-ever Test hat-trick by an Indian bowler.
Kolkata, second innings: He's been out defending off the front foot, he's been out stuck in the crease, now he comes out looking to sweep everything. One aborted half-sweep dribbles towards square leg. He tries again, with little conviction, and inside-edges onto his pad. The ball lobs gently to short leg.
Chennai, first innings: Now Ponting looks to use his feet to get close to the pitch of the ball. He doesn't, and is stumped first ball, groping ineffectually as the straighter one slides past his outside edge.
Chennai, second innings: The circle is complete. Ponting lunges forward with hard hands, and the ball balloons off his glove to leg gully.
0 (5), 6 (12), 0 (4), 0 (1), 11 (25). The scores of a batsman enduring a lonely torment.
"No one in our set-up was able to help me sort out my problems against an excellent off-spinner on these types of wickets," Ponting wrote in his autobiography, At the Close of Play. "I certainly wasn't being helped when the captain and coach told me to back myself and stick to what had worked for me in the past. In the circumstances, they were mere clichés."
It took a conversation with one of India's great players of spin for Ponting to realise what had been going wrong.
By the time the third Test came around, India's attack comprised Singh, who had played ten Tests, Zaheer Khan (three) Nilesh Kulkarni (two), and Sairaj Bahutule, on debut. Ganguly shared the new ball with Khan
"It wasn't until the day Mohammad Azharuddin, the former Indian captain, showed me how their batsmen handle turning wickets that I began to regain my confidence for batting on the subcontinent. Rather than giving in to the bat-pad catchers, Azharuddin explained, Indian batsmen use their feet and hit the ball before it spins, thus narrowing the margin of error, or if that's not possible they wait until the ball has reached the top of its bounce, after it's spun. They never assume the ball is going to behave in a predictable way."
I ask Laxman how he batted against Singh in the nets, and his response is similar, though the emphasis is a little different.
"I used to play a lot on the back foot," he says. "I used to play using the depth of the crease, and look to first counter the bounce, and then just use my wrists to either work the ball on the on side or the off side, but I would not really commit to him on the front foot until and unless I'm stepping out."
And stepping out wasn't straightforward because of the pace Singh bowled at as well as his deceptive trajectory.
"Because Bhajji had a high-arm action, the ball would be above your eye level if he was flighting the ball, but even if he released the ball with a flat trajectory, it would still be above the eye level. So based on the speed of the ball, I used to either step out or predominantly play more on the back foot."
Reading that, your mind may have gone to Australia's next tour of India, in 2004-05, and the manner in which their batsmen dealt with the twin threats of Singh and Kumble - particularly Damien Martyn, particularly during his third-innings hundred in Chennai. The pull shot, largely missing from Australia's repertoire in 2001, was Martyn's most trusted route to the boundary.
Burn after reading: spectators at Eden Gardens torch newspapers in celebration of the win
Arko Datta / © AFP/Getty Images
Burn after reading: spectators at Eden Gardens torch newspapers in celebration of the win Arko Datta / © AFP/Getty Images
That Australia took until their next tour of India to formulate a response to Singh suggests that, for all the frightening ability running through their 2001 line-up, there was also a touch of naivety. It also told in their insistence on setting attacking fields at almost all times. By the time they came back in 2004, they were more prepared to play the waiting game, with in-out fields.
For all their naivety, Australia could have still won 3-0 in 2001. India, following on 274 runs behind, needed two of Test cricket's greatest outlier events to beat them in Kolkata. Laxman and Dravid batted through all of day four; and Singh, with the help of Tendulkar's legspin, ran through Australia when they went into the final session on the final day with seven wickets in hand. Then Australia came within two wickets of winning in Chennai and winning the series.
With the bat, they dominated India for significant lengths of time, particularly when Hayden was at the crease. Almost every time, it took a surreal flurry of wickets to bring India back into the contest: seven wickets after tea on day one in Kolkata, seven again after tea on the final day of that Test, seven wickets in the first session of day two in Chennai.
There was something almost supernatural about those passages of play, the India equivalent of what Osman Samiuddin refers to as haal in a Pakistan context.
"If Harbhajan gets on a roll, or indeed the Indian team gets on a roll, the crowd and the team rises with that momentum," Wright says. "I always thought, watching, when he got that first wicket and that sometimes led to the second, it created so much pressure on the incoming batsman.
"Then, particularly in that series, we had huge crowds. It was my first experience of a big Test series in India, so for a batsman walking out with a lot of fielders around the bat, and Harbhajan bowling well - pretty daunting."
"Tendulkar taught me about holding the same grip as an offspinner, but last minute you roll your finger over the seam, and it will swing, like an outswinger"
That cyclical build-up of energy - the crowd feeding off the wickets and the players feeding off the crowd - is Wright's most visceral memory of the series. He remembers the moment when Singh got Glenn McGrath lbw to set Eden Gardens alight - literally - on March 15.
"That last spell after tea in Calcutta was just - when he got the last wicket, that was amazing," Wright says. "I'll never forget, I looked up from Eden Gardens and I saw the stand at the far end of the ground [looking like it was] on fire. At that stage I didn't realise that everyone burned their newspapers [to celebrate]. That was thrilling."
In purely cricket terms, Australia's dramatic collapses probably had a lot to do with the sheer difficulty of starting an innings against Singh, on pitches that maximised his bounce, particularly when they began showing signs of wear in the second innings. And at every opportunity, India crowded new batsmen with fielders around the bat.
"If there's a partnership, you're looking for that one spark, and you get that one wicket, and then there's a chance for you in the next four to five overs before the new batsman gets settled," Singh says.
"That's where you have to bowl well in tandem and bowl the right sort of length and bowl aggressively, have a lot of fielders catching. Even if you go for a lot of runs, they are new at the crease, there is more chance of them making mistakes. So put them under pressure early on, and that's what Sourav did really well. Every time a new batsman walked to the crease, he had a lot of fielders catching, whether the ball was spinning or not, but he played with their mindset, that there are a lot of people around them."
Chennai, day four. Shane Warne has added 30 with Steve Waugh, in 49 balls. Australia's lead is 131, and if this seventh-wicket stand can stretch that figure to 200, who knows what could happen? Who knows anything, in this series full of improbable twists?
Singh takes a lap around the Chepauk with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after India won the third Test by two wickets
Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
Singh takes a lap around the Chepauk with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after India won the third Test by two wickets Hamish Blair / © Getty Images
Warne has just survived an lbw appeal, having padded up to one of those jumping Singh offbreaks, spinning past his front pad to hit him on the thigh. It's probably the bounce that's saved him.
There are three fielders around Warne's bat: Laxman at slip, SS Das at forward short leg, Dravid at leg gully.
Ganguly, helmetless, now stations himself at silly point. Through the next two deliveries - full, quick ones that Warne defends feverishly - it's clear Ganguly is there as much to needle Warne as to do any fielding. Now, with the day's last ball about to be bowled, Ganguly summons a fifth catcher, S Ramesh, to gully, and fusses over his positioning, taking his time, making Warne wait.
Singh bowls. It's a slow, teasing offbreak, and Warne thrusts his front leg out, too spooked by all the bodies around him to put bat anywhere near ball. He plants his leg well before the ball lands, and when he realises it's fuller and closer to off stump than assumed, he drags his leg backwards, an instinctive response he seems to have no control over. The ball doesn't turn or bounce a whole lot, and hits him on the unprotected part of the knee, adjacent to the knee roll. This time, AV Jayaprakash's finger shoots up as soon as Singh turns to appeal.
The theatre, the teasing, the sucker punch. It's Singh's 50th Test wicket, a dismissal worthy of the victim.
Unlike most set-ups by Warne, however, this one wasn't wholly orchestrated by the bowler.
"I used to play using the depth of the crease, and look to first counter the bounce, and then just use my wrists, but I would not really commit to him on the front foot until and unless I'm stepping out"
"I didn't set any of my fields [during the series]," Singh says. "If you give me four fielders around the bat, I'm happy. If you give me one fielder, I'm happy. As long as I'm bowling, I'm happy."
In the eighth over of the fifth morning, Singh dismissed Steve Waugh, caught at short leg like so many batsmen in this series. Of his 32 wickets, it's this one that he holds dearest.
"Getting Steve Waugh out in Chennai was very special, because knowing him, he's one of those khadoos batsmen, he would bat for two days, and he'll not give you the game, so to get him out was very important. When I got Steve Waugh out I felt, okay, now the gate is open, it is our turn, now we must finish things."
It fell, of course, to Singh to finish things, when he walked in at 151 for 8. He had been hoping all along that he wouldn't have to bat.
"You don't want to go out there and bat and get out," he says. "You've worked so hard for the series, taking all those wickets, [and] in the end, why do I have to go out and bat? It was a very tense situation, and I'm glad it wasn't 20 runs, and only five or seven runs or whatever was required."
It was four runs, and he made three of them, finishing with the most famous jab through point in the history of the game. India - as Tony Greig put it, in a manner both utterly banal and utterly unforgettable - had won the Test match. India had won the series.
*March 11, 10.05 GMT: The caption had incorrectly identified the moment as the final wicket of Australia's second innings
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.