The final stride in Australia’s conquest of the final frontier in 2004 began with a fright. The night they landed in Nagpur, tired and weary, some headed straight to the food joint of the team hotel. Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Michael Kasprowicz ordered mutton rogan josh; the less adventurous trio of Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer settled on fried rice.
Suddenly, Langer heard the scream of Ponting and friends, who had just spotted a giant cockroach crawling out of the rogan josh, its scaly wings lathered in gravy. As if spotting the insect was not harrowing enough, the sight of the waiter swallowing the insect made their stomachs churn. The horrified tourists cancelled the order and rushed back to their rooms. “We left panicking at things to come for the rest of the week,” recollected Justin Langer in his diary Australia You Little Beauty.
The most petrified among them was Martyn, who had suffered an intolerable bout of food poisoning the last time he had visited the city.
The next morning, though, the aroma of baked bread and cheese woke up Langer, who had spent most of the night killing mosquitoes. He followed the trail, which led to Hayden’s room. “To my absolute amazement, the magnificent bouquet of baking bread was coming from a bread-maker that was perched up on the desk in his room,” he recounted.
That was when Langer solved the mystery of the extra bags Hayden had been trotting around. “I don’t have any idea why he chose Nagpur to expose the secret of his two extra cricket bags, but Haydos turned up like a magician to help make this one of the weeks of our lives. Most players have one cricket bag on tour and I must admit I often wondered why my big mate was lugging an extra two around with him throughout the tour,” he wrote.
To his total shock, the second bag was bulging with kitchen machines and utensils while the third was packed full with tins and packets of food. “I had bought a gas stove, a bread-maker, some high-quality olive oil and general condiments, as well as some bread flour and tomato paste for mini pizza,” Hayden explained in his memoir Standing My Ground. He even managed to buy a Starbucks Coffee Machine. He would not cook food for all, just for Langer and Martin, who called themselves the Platinum Club.
“Even Glenn McGrath, who was playing his 100th Test in Nagpur, was turned away with a smile and swift kick up the backside… Haydos’ kitchen was our sanctuary in a place where there was not much to do but make our own fun and rules,” Langer narrated.
Such bonding was essential on such a high-pressure tour. “Such friendship was indicative of the camaraderie within the Australian cricket team, which I am sure was the catalyst behind us conquering that final frontier of finally beating India on their home soil. When the pressure was on, we were always well led and the friendships were like the glue that kept everything together; ESPECIALLY in the most pressurised environments,” he reflects.
All bases covered
Even after they had retired, they would dust up Nagpur memories whenever they met. “Then and now, we often joke about the effect such ingenuity had on that memorable tour and the result it seemed to have on the field as well. Marto (Martyn), in particular, shone. He made 114 in the first innings and another 97 in the second and reckoned later that it was all due to Haydos’ cooking,” Langer goes on.
Like Hayden, the team had landed in India fully equipped. “We began planning for the series, even if we did not know when we would meet, soon after we landed in Australia after the 2001 series,” John Buchanan, head coach during that period, told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Planning did not involve path-breaking ideas, but little things that made a massive difference. A yoga instructor was hired, chefs were given detailed instructions on individual-specific food, mid-tour they would enjoy a short holiday. In the 10-day gap between the second and third Tests, some had flown to Singapore while some hit Goa. Hayden went down south with a friend, enjoyed boating in the backwaters of Alleppey and trekking the forest trails in Munnar. The batsmen wore ice-vests. During drinks breaks, they were made to sit on chairs under umbrellas. The squad members would prowl near the boundary rope, handing water bottles so that they wouldn’t dehydrate. “The planning in every aspect was meticulous,” Hayden said.
The most integral idea to their success was forged in the flight from Sydney to Bangalore. Michael Kasprowicz, the least celebrated among the fast-bowling cartel, was the unlikely mastermind. “Rather than breaking any records [of drinking on planes], I remember catching up with Dizzy [Gillespie] and said, ‘What do you think about this?’” Kasprowicz told foxsports.com.au.
“Dizzy and I then went and spoke to Buck [Buchanan] and Pigeon [McGrath] and that’s where I like to think the idea and the concept was born,” he added.
The idea was to bowl stump-to-stump rather than short of length and outside off-stump. It was fundamentally a defensive ploy, but Australia had learned from the 2001 experience that at times they needed to plug their gung-ho approach, the sword they prospered and perished with, and practise patience. “My suggestion was to bowl to the Indians’ strengths in theory. Let’s bowl straight because short of a length outside off doesn’t work on these wickets,” Kasprowicz elaborated. Simply put, stalk, strangle and induce mistakes, as opposed to their trademark in-your-face machismo.
The fields would be set accordingly. There were catchers at short-midwicket (for the uppish flick), a man square on the fence (to prevent fours), use of the short ball defensively, to push batsmen onto the backfoot and then catch them unawares with the full nip-backer. Rarely did they station second or third slips, as nicks to slips-men would often die before reaching them.
The ploy worked perfectly in Bangalore (11 of the Indian batsmen were either bowled or LBW, five were caught behind) where they scaled the first peak of the final frontier. But in Chennai, Virender Sehwag ripped their best-laid plans apart, but due to shocking summer rain that washed out the final day’s play, the Aussies reached Nagpur with the lead intact.
After the cockroach shock, came the pitch surprise. When Gilchrist and Co. inspected the pitch on the morning of the game, they rubbed their eyes twice to check that what they were seeing was real. A green track — “the greenest that I have seen in the subcontinent,” according to Hayden — smiled impishly at them. Gilchrist’s instinct, when he won the toss, was to bowl first, but he knew the prospective risk of batting last on an Asian pitch. “So, we decided to bat first, come what may,” he wrote in True Colours, his autobiography.
Why a green-top was served is layered in intrigue. The rumour that Vidarbha Cricket Association boss Shashank Manohar wanted to settle scores with then board supremo Jagmohan Dalmiya, and hence instructed the groundsmen to prepare a green wicket, still swirls in conversations about this Test. Whatever be the case, it was Sourav Ganguly’s deputy Rahul Dravid who walked out for the toss — Gilchrist playfully recalls the series as Gilchrist-Dravid Trophy rather than the original Border -Gavaskar Trophy.
Why Ganguly missed the Test is perhaps a larger mystery. In the middle, Dravid admitted he was not sure of the nature of his injury. Was it thigh, or groin? “I hope it’s the groin and not the grass,” commentator Ravi Shastri would quip. The disappearance of Ganguly would whirl into the autobiographies of most Australian players of the squad. Hayden wrote: “When Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh went out to see the deck a couple of days before the game, they looked like farmers inspecting the crops after a hailstorm. We predicted neither would play, and neither did. Ganguly withdrew with a leg-muscle injury that flared up suddenly, and Harbhajan had an even more sudden dose of food poisoning. We put that ailment down to acute cases of ‘greentrackitisis.’”
Gilchrist, too, couldn’t resist the chance for ribbing. “’Where’s Sourav,’ I said. Rahul couldn’t answer definitively; between the lines, I perceived that Sourav might have pulled out from fear of losing a home series. Harbhajan was out of the Nagpur Test with a ‘flu’, which he seemed to have contracted when he saw the grassy wicket.”
What unfolded during the game is less celebrated because Australia won by a canter, a massive 342 runs. At no point did India offer even passive resistance. The heroes of the past series cut forlorn figures, Dravid crawled to 21 runs off 140 balls. Shackled by his tennis elbow that had seen him miss the first two Tests, Sachin Tendulkar stammered to eight and two; VVS Laxman was something of a Shane Warne bunny in the series, as he nailed him three times in the series, the ripper that spun from middle-and-leg to brush his off-bail in Bangalore a close contender for Warne’s best ball of the 21st century, even more so as this was Laxman, as proficient a player of spin as one could ever find. This was Warne’s revenge for the Eden Gardens mauling.
Fittingly, Warne performed the equivalent of planting the flag on the peak with the final wicket, off Zaheer Khan, and even more fittingly caught by Martin, Australia’s top-scorer in the series with 444 runs, more than the combined tally of India’s Fab Four (413 runs). No Indian batsman reached 300 runs, whereas two Australians crossed 400 (Martin and Michael Clarke, who marvelled with a debut hundred about which Peter Roebuck delightfully penned: “He lived and died with every ball, and took with him on his journey his partners, team, parents, grandparents, an entire ground and doubtless a sporting nation.”)
Australia’s pacers outshone India’s too. Between the Aussie trio, they shared 43 wickets at 23 runs apiece while India’s threesome of Zaheer, Irfan Pathan and Ajit Agarkar eked out only 13 at an average of 95. Little wonder then that Nagpur is a ghost chapter in the memoirs of most Indian cricketers whereas it is detailed in spontaneous delight in the recollections of those Aussies in the final frontier entourage.
But in Nagpur, the last step in their ascent to conquering the final frontier began with a cockroach in mutton rogan josh.