Will Eden Gardens become the reference point for rewriting Indian cricket's narrative again?
Among the many predispositions that an avid sports fan suffers from, a not-so-uncommon inclination is to link the important dates in one’s life with sporting moments, great or quotidian, which occurred on the same day. Though most fans would fail to accept this publicly, you could be fortunate enough to overhear the following conversation between a fan and his friend…
Friend: So, when did you starting dating this girl?
Fan: Since January 25.
Friend: Good lord! You remember the date. You are deeply in love with her, aren’t you?
Fan: Well, no. That was the day when Roger Federer won 11 games in a row against Andy Roddick at the Australian Open. Who could forget that?
The conversation afterwards may have evoked disgust, laughter, etc. But that’s beside the point. As in life, certain dates enjoy a special place in a sports fan’s memory and become reference points for future analysis.
For example, July 2nd, 2001 holds seminal importance in tennis’ history. On that day, the then 19-year-old Roger Federer ended Pete Sampras’ 31-match unbeaten streak at Wimbledon to lay the first brick for establishing his spiritual home at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Even though the Swiss went on to dominate the sport globally in the following years, nobody was ever in doubt that his kingdom’s headquarters were based in the lush grass courts of Wimbledon.
Hence, almost seven years later, when Rafael Nadal defeated Federer in an epic final to lift his first Wimbledon title, the reaction to the Spaniard’s victory was loaded with shock and surprise. It was a response to the change in status quo, accompanied by the awe which inevitably follows the breaching of a bastion.
Nadal’s victory that day became a major reference point in the historical narrative of modern-day tennis. Even though the Spaniard was no ‘king of grass’ himself, he ensured that nobody has ruled the sport like Federer ever since.
That defeat notwithstanding, the Swiss legend and Wimbledon continue to share an undying bond, further strengthened by his victory there this year, and it finds much resonance in India’s latest test defeat against England in Kolkata. Eden Gardens, referred by some as 'Cricket's Colosseum', is an iconic venue in Indian cricket by the virtue of it being a witness to the national team's greatest triumphs and its grandiosity.
Though the stadium's capacity has decreased now, it continues to enjoy a special place in the psyche of the 21st century Indian cricket fan due to the unforgettable scenes on its turf on March 15, 2001.
That day, after following-on earlier in the test, India scripted a famous comeback win over the near-invincible Australians in fading sunlight, a success which can be justly hailed as a watershed moment for Indian cricket.
After all, a few aberrations aside, the following decade witnessed India’s ascent to the top of the cricketing world. In addition to its success in all formats of the game, the Indian team continued to enthrall its fans by establishing Eden Gardens as a fortress in test matches. After that famous victory against Australia, India won four out of the next six tests there with the other two being drawn.
One of those victories came against South Africa in February two years ago, a win which gave further credence to India’s mythical bond with Eden Gardens. The enduring image of Harbhajan Singh on a celebratory run after taking the final South African wicket in the penultimate over of the match, symbolised the confidence and vibrancy of the new-age Indian team.
The link, however, was broken when MS Dhoni’s side met England last week in Kolkata.
The lead-up to the third test of the current series was fraught with the captain’s run-ins with the curator over the nature of the track. Whether Dhoni should have interfered with Prabir Mukherjee’s preparation of the pitch is a moot point; the captain’s insistence on a certain kind of track, however, was a greater issue as it spoke volumes of the Indian team’s mindset ahead of a crucial contest.
Hence, India’s defeat on the fifth morning of the test match hardly came as a surprise to many. MS Dhoni became the first Indian captain after Sachin Tendulkar in 2000 to lose two consecutive test matches at home. Moreover, India finally lost a test at the venue where it had recorded its most famous victory till date. The citadel has been breached after a period which brought unparalleled success for the Indian team and ensured that Star Cricket could run a program called ‘India Glorious’.
While it would be early to say whether this defeat signifies the end of a golden era in Indian cricket, it’s hard to ignore that MS Dhoni’s side is not in prime shape to battle against entropy. As revealed by the team changes for the Nagpur test, India’s bench-strength hardly holds any promise for its future in the longer version of the game.
That March evening of 2001 at Eden Gardens, though distant, is even now brought up in impassioned discussions between cricket fans regularly. It was a time when the Indian team opened itself to immense possibilities and went on to achieve many of them. That legacy is in danger of being frittered away. Indian cricket would do well to realise that.