Unbeknownst to his teammates or the press, Sourav Ganguly made a secret visit to Sydney in the dead of the Australian winter in July 2003, a good half-year before the Indian team was to tour the country in December. Acutely aware that the four-match Test series against the greatest side of the era was going to pose the toughest challenge to his leadership skills, the India captain sought permission from his boss, BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmiya, on the pretext that he needed a week to tune up his batting under Greg Chappell’s tutelage.
“But I didn’t disclose my real intentions to him – that I would be doing an exhaustive recce of the grounds,” writes Ganguly in his memoir, ‘A Century Is Not Enough’. The batting sessions were shorter than the time spent standing in various parts of the SCG field, visualising fielding positions and bowling combinations for each of the Test venues with Chappell. “The series was beginning in Brisbane so I requested him to take me there for a day,” adds Ganguly. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen as the Gabba was covered with frost.”
The Gabba in Brisbane, where past Indian teams had lost each of the four Tests they had featured in, three of those defeats handed out in series openers that eventually led to series debacles. “What Australia very cleverly did over the years was to expose the visiting teams early on the tour to the most trying conditions. By the time the visitors got used to the conditions, the series was over,” Ganguly says in his book.
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It was this sort of insight and exhaustive planning that Ganguly was willing to commit himself to so his side could compete against the best. But before he could teach India how to win in Australia, he had to learn how not to lose, which had become something of a habit on those shores. The recent record was dismal: India had lost each of the three Tests on their previous tour in 1999 and the losing streak stretched back to Adelaide in 1992, making it five Test losses on the bounce.
And Ganguly’s batting record against the Aussies wasn’t great either, home or away – an average of 29 in 17 previous innings, with a top score of 66. Without much expectation from their captain, the team arrived in Brisbane in December. While Ganguly was determined to inspire a turnaround with his captaincy, just the way he had against Steve Waugh’s men when they visited India in 2001, few besides him would have expected him to champion it with the bat. What he produced was an innings so lofty that it set the tone not just for that remarkable series, but also a precedent for future Indian captains on tour Down Under.
The first three days of the Brisbane Test were heavily hindered by rain, but not enough to stop Australia from scoring 323. Waugh would’ve still expected his bowling attack to snuff India out twice in two days, and Jason Gillespie was in the process of doing just that with the wickets of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in the same over, for 1 and 0 respectively.
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This is when Ganguly walked out to bat, shortly after 61 for no loss became 62 for three (Virender Sehwag, who had scored most of those runs too was dismissed), and everything about this situation was bleak – the weather, the green-top wicket, the situation and, in Ganguly’s case, even the city. It was in Brisbane where he made his international debut in an ODI back in 1992, only to be dropped after that solitary outing for the next four years – plenty of time for a young man to believe in his bones that he will never be picked again.
“The Australians, as a part of their well-planned strategy, always targeted the rival captain,” writes Ganguly. “But I had made up my mind even before fastening the seat belts on the flight that I was going to attack before they realised what had hit them.”
Sure. In just the third ball he faced, Ganguly threw his hands at a marginally wide delivery from Nathan Bracken and ran three runs – as many runs as his batting partner in Aakash Chopra had scored from his previous 50 deliveries. He then studied Gillespie, who had his tail up, for four balls before cutting him with sheer majesty past the point boundary, India’s first in 66 balls.
His heart would’ve thumped against his ribcage when yet another cut, this time off Andy Bichel, flew towards the third slip. But the ball simply squirted through Damien Martyn’s palms for four more. Ganguly perhaps then started believing that it was his day, and promptly pulled a short ball from Bracken through midwicket and to the fence. No allergy towards leg-side play today.
Gillespie had conceded just six runs from his first nine overs. But in each of his next four overs, he was hammered past the ropes by Ganguly. India went to lunch at 127/3, with the captain batting on a quickfire 37. Chopra departed immediately after resumption but Ganguly’s focus was undeterred. He immediately brought up his fifty with a trademark cover-drive to the hoardings.
“The Australians were so used to killing opponents in the first Test of the series that they were a little taken aback by us counter-attacking,” he writes. “I could see that in their body language while I raced towards my first Test hundred on Australian soil.”
“Raced” just about sums it up. With the ever-reliable VVS Laxman for company, Ganguly got into the seventies for the first time against Australia by smacking Stuart McGill to the hoardings (“How good is that,” yelped Bill Lawry in the commentary box) and then brought up his hundred before tea with a stolen double. The second run ended near the dressing room, with Ganguly punching the air in delight along the way.
Five runs after going past Australia’s first innings total, he was out for 144. “We had the first innings lead and my hundred was proof to myself that my hard work had paid off. I knew we had to make a statement early on, or else it would have been a rapid slide downwards,” Ganguly notes in the book.
The match ended in a draw, but the man-of-the-match skipper instantly realised that the result was worth much more: “Brisbane was a crucial Test to set the tempo for the rest of the series. It conveyed to Australia in no uncertain terms that we weren’t going to be pushovers.”
They weren’t. Ganguly’s side won the next Test in Adelaide, India’s first win since 1981’s Melbourne Test, and the series eventually ended in a 1-1 tie at Sydney – again, India’s best result in Australia since 1985. Waugh, who retired at the end of the Sydney Test, later recognised the role that Brisbane played in India’s resurgence.
In his autobiography, Out Of My Comfort Zone, Waugh wrote: “After Brisbane, we also had to recognise that this wasn’t the usual soft-underbelly Indian touring squad, but rather a hardened force forged by Sourav Ganguly, their feisty leader.”
There were echoes of that feistiness in Anil Kumble’s leadership four years later, when his disgruntled side bounced back at Perth after being robbed of a win in Sydney. And there were more echoes in 2014, when Virat Kohli assumed the stewardship for the first Test in Adelaide and struck twin centuries simply to prove that this new India weren’t afraid to lose if it gave them even a small chance to win. Just four years later, that attitude – first instilled by Ganguly – would bear the greatest reward in the form of a first Test series win.