(This post is also available on Cricketcountry.com)
The time-tested duo of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were in the process of recapturing the sorcery performed a decade back – that phenomenal feat by now securely documented in every compilation of cricketing folklore.
The 80,000 odd who had flocked to the Eden Garden to witness an uphill, rearguard action on the fourth day of the 2001 Test match had been rewarded with divine delight for their steadfast support. Ten years down the line a few hundreds were present to cheer the continuing mastery of the two stalwarts as they toyed with the Windies bowling attack.
While the fast changing times have had severe effect on the turnstiles, the craftsmanship of the two maestros have remained untouched by the years. During the current match, they went on to notch up their respective centuries in the same classy demonstration of artistry and professionalism that have been the signatures of their splendid careers.
It was during the Indian innings that a delightful wall post popped up on Facebook, penned by H. Natarajan (Natty), the Executive Editor of cricketcountry.com:
“Adam and Eve were thrown out of the beautiful Garden of Eden forever, but Dravid & Laxman will forever have a place in the heart of Eden Garden – two men whose many jugalbandis at this venue have been sight for Gods!"
Indeed, the Eden Garden seems to be the locale of everlasting honeymoon for Laxman and Dravid.
However, they are not the only mates to have made merry in this historic arena.
There is perhaps something in the atmosphere of this gorgeous ground that entices great pairs to perform in tandem, to streak the lush green outfields together with blazing strokes from gifted bats. The numbers show that glorious alliances are struck up often, perhaps encouraged by the billiard top outfield coupled with the often excellent batting strip. The ready applause around the enormous stadium perhaps stimulates resonant accompaniments as pairs of willow sweetly strike the leather at both ends.
More importantly for the lovers of the game, many of the major partnerships carried out in the ground have also heralded the beginnings of careers and collaborations which have ended up being etched in the history of the game in sparkling letters.
There have been other venues with their share of huge partnerships. Lord's and Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) are right at the top when it comes to the absolute number of 200-plus associations. But in India, pairs of great batsmen have preferred Kolkata’s celebrated cricket ground to pool their resources and pile up runs. What makes it even more special is that during these run-making festivals, more often than not, the quality of batsmanship on display has been magnificent.
More than half a century back, India started out by ending up on the wrong side of the first huge partnership on the ground, conceding 217 runs to the Caribbean duo of Basil Butcher and Rohan Kanhai. In a scintillating display of classic and sometimes curiously innovative stroke-making that heralded on the new-year day of 1959, Kanhai announced his arrival into the realms of the cricketing greats. The impeccable innings of 256 was his maiden Test hundred and stood for many, many years as the highest on Indian soil till VVS Laxman rewrote all the record books in 2001. India lost the match by a whopping margin of an innings and 336 runs.
The next great partnership on the ground featured the same two sides a couple of decades later. It involved two gentlemen who combined to form the most successful Indian batting alliance until the modern generation took over the mantle in the mid nineties and endowed it with unprecedented gloss.
The Gavaskar-Vengsarkar Marathon
In 1979, trailing by 27 in the first innings, Chetan Chauhan dismissed with only 17 on the board, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar came together and batted on and on and on to string together an unbeaten 344-run stand compiled over six hours; Gavaskar ended up with 182, his second century of the match, while Vengsarkar remained unbeaten on 157, the first of his 17 Test hundreds. Gavaskar then decided that it was time to have a go at the West Indians in the tricky twilight minutes of the fourth day. However, some dogged batting by the tailenders, aided by a dropped chance by Gundappa Viswanath in the slips, ensured that the visitors escaped with a nail-biting draw with just one wicket in hand.
Five years later, a gangling, reed-thin youngster made his debut against England and started stroking the ball with esoteric twists and turns of the wrists that no one had ever witnessed or imagined before. With the stoical and stationary Ravi Shastri at the other end rushing the score along at the staggering strike rate of 31, Mohammed Azharuddin provided the crowd with visual and aural delights to savour and treasure as he weaved his web of willow-magic that would become the hallmark of many a great knocks played in the ground from then on. Coming together on Day One, and batting through a rain- interrupted second, it was towards the end of the third day that they were finally separated after a stand of 224. The match petered out into a dull, dreary typical early eighties stalemate, but a new batting genius had arrived.
The home team was back at the receiving end in 1996, with Gary Kirsten tormenting them twice with double hundred-run partnerships – in the first innings with Andrew Hudson and in the second with Daryll Cullinan. While the opening stand in the first innings was largely workmanlike aided by butter-fingered slip catching, the Kirsten Cullinan display of the second essay impressed one and all with its controlled, risk-free aggression.
Yet, for most of the thousands who sat faithfully even as the South Africans cruised to a one-sided win, the period that gladdened the hearts synchronised with the heady, intoxicating third morning when Azharuddin returned to the crease after retiring hurt the previous evening and blitzkrieged his way to the fastest century ever witnessed at the ground. During a knock in which the erstwhile wristy artist suddenly metamorphosed into a rampaging blaster with bludgeoning hooks and pulls, Azhar added a whirlwind 161 with a surprisingly flamboyant Anil Kumble.
When champagne crates switched dressing rooms!
Next was the legend of 2001, the defining ditty of drama, action and a 281-run long poetry in motion.
Following on, four down in the second innings and the huge deficit yet to be eclipsed, Laxman and Dravid got together on the third evening. Champagne was being stocked in the Aussie dressing room in crates, ready to flow in streams of unrestrained glee. The visitors were at the doorstep of the famed “final frontier” – the entry into which essentially waited for the fall of another wicket. However, the two middle-order men were still batting on the fifth morning, having tormented Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz all through a spellbinding Day Four that in grace and style matched the celestial name of the venue. It was not the tale of painstaking survival against monumental odds but a lyrical saga of exceptional romantic adventure.
Shane Warne, bowling in the rough outside the leg-stump on a wearing pitch, saw Laxman repeatedly step out and drive him inside out past extra-cover with elegance and audacity that belied the situation. It was almost too good to last, but it surprisingly did and kept going for long. Laxman's 281 coupled with Dravid's 180 marked the veritable crest of all the gorgeous batsmanship that has flowed across the turf during the seventy five year history of the ground. The 376-run feat which turned the match on its head, and thereby scripted one of the most famous victories in history, was the start of a special collaboration which would keep etching innumerable indelible impressions on the landscape of Indian cricket.
A year and a half later, in late 2002, it was the turn of another immensely successful pairing to take India to safety. Sachin Tendulkar scored 176 and VVS Laxman remained unbeaten on 151, adding 214 as they batted from the fourth afternoon through most of the fifth day after West Indies had sniffed victory with four quick wickets early in the second innings. Due to the demands of discretion, stroke making at both ends was restrained, but two glorious dimensions of the multifaceted genius of Indian batting was nevertheless very much on display.
While the Laxman-Dravid symphony has produced over 4000 runs at 52, the Tendulkar-Laxman duet has not done too badly either, toting up over 3300 runs at a very similar average.
In 2005, the Indians were back at the receiving end as Pakistani middle order maestros, Mohammed Yousuf and Younis Khan, got together in one of their many mammoth mutual vigils on the pitch, adding 211 for the third wicket. However, Rahul Dravid, at the peak of his unbelievable purple patch, scored centuries in each innings and Anil Kumble snapped up 10 wickets in the match to render the Pakistani pair’s efforts futile and ensure a comprehensive Indian win.
Half a decade down the line, the 2010 Test match against South Africa saw three huge partnerships.
Batting first, debutant Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla added 209 for the second wicket and a huge total seemed in the offing. However, with Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh running through the rest of the side, the Proteans could manage only 296.
When India batted, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar put together 249 runs in 57 overs in a dazzling display of domination. This dream duo has not really batted together too often, but when they have, amassing 1400 plus at 71 runs per innings, the roars erupting from the stadiums have reverberated and registered on Richter scales. While the South Africans have suffered in their hands from the day Sehwag walked out to bat for the first time in Bloemfontein, 2001, it is the Pakistanis who have been the most pulverised by the two during the memorable murder in Multan.
To return to the match, it was six down for 384 with the South Africans looking at restricting the lead within manageable limits, when Laxman was joined by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. The two men proceeded to have some severe and ruthless fun, adding another 259 runs without being separated before the innings was closed. It eventually resulted in an innings win for the hosts with a few balls to spare in spite of a stubborn unbeaten second century by Amla.
Come back to the current day, the absolute Master of Eden, VVS Laxman, was once again in the thick of things. After Sachin Tendulkar broke many a heart by pulling Devendra Bishoo straight to midwicket, prolonging the agonising wait for his 100th ton, Laxman ambled in to add 140 with old friend Rahul Dravid and a further 224 with a brutal Dhoni, thus continuing the rule of wristwork in the most beautiful of grounds.
As someone who of necessity has had to bat quite a bit with the tail, it is of little wonder that Laxman finds an able ally in the best batsman-wicketkeeper ever produced by India. The two have added more than 1300 rollicking runs at an average of nearly 60. Dhoni's big-hitting ability when quick runs are required, along with Laxman's unlimited capacity for rotating the strike make them quite a formidable twosome while putting up incredibly large totals.
What is it that encourages prolific partnerships on this ground? Is it the velvet grass, the sweltering amphitheatre, the gentle breeze reminding one of the Ganges that flows further to the West? Or is it something to do with the throngs of Bengalis whose electric excitement sparks life into the proceedings?
Whatever be the reason, the hallowed ground has been the home to some of the greatest moments of serious run making carried out in twain. Epics have been scripted by collaborators against the lush green backdrop, often with an exhilarating mix of greatness and artistry.