As the entire cricket-playing world watches with glee as the Australian juggernaut is humbled by, of all nations, England, I was reminded of a piece I wrote a few years ago for TIME.com on India’s famous come-from-behind victory over the same arrogant Aussies in Calcutta. I was stirred to goosebumps by the heroics of V.V.S. Laxman who had kept his head while all around him were losing theirs and shown the sort of indomitable spirit that had CLR James remind us, so often, of cricket’s ability to stir great emotions of whole towns, cities and nations. And moved to explain these things to an audience who knows naught of cricket.
“What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?”
In that simple rhetorical question the legendary Trinidadian patriot and historian C.L.R. James summed up the significance of a game somewhat incomprehensible to outsiders, and yet of immeasurable collective psychic significance to the nations where it is played. A significance that was on display in India this week, when one man appeared to singlehandedly (to the extent that this is possible in a game that is the very model of team effort) lift the nation’s flagging spirits…
Elsewhere, in Calcutta, India’s cricket XI (as cricket protocol describes the 11 members of a team) were faring no better in their attempt to stop the Australian juggernaut. The arrogant, swaggering Aussies had won 16 straight test matches (a remarkable achievement in a sport whose test matches, which pitch country against country, are played over five days and as often end in a draw as produce a result), and struggling India was expected to put up only modest resistance. Indeed, Indian cricket has been as subject to the bribery malaise as its politics, with the former captain of the national team and one of its star batsmen having been forced to quit last year after being found guilty of fixing games for bookmakers.
The game was going according to form as the Australians batting first had amassed 445 runs off the demoralized Indian bowling attack. Worse was to come. India lost its first wicket after only six minutes, with no runs on the board. And the rot never stopped, as the pride of India’s batsmen were skittled for only 171. Only one man showed any resistance: Vangipurappu Laxman (like many of his countrymen better known by his initials, V.V.S.), whose 59 included 12 fours (balls smashed all the way to the boundary fence).
Its disastrous showing left India having to bat a second time — if the team that bats second can’t come within 150 runs of its opponent’s first innings, it can be asked to bat again. Being forced to “follow on” is usually a prelude to a humiliating defeat. And that’s how the Indian press were calling it at the end of Day 2 in Calcutta. At best, they hoped, India could avoid the ultimate humiliation of an innings defeat (when the team that bats second fails over two innings to pass the score its rival registered in a single innings, which suggests it was an unworthy opponent).
Laxman had other ideas.
He’d shown a Kiplingesque ability “keep his head when all around him were losing theirs” during the first innings, demonstrating that Australia’s bowlers could be seen off, and even punished. Sensing the fire in Laxman’s belly, his captain promoted him to Number 3 in the batting order, and as he strode to the wicket with the total on 52, he set out to lead his countrymen and inspire them by his example to believe in their ability not only to stand up to the juggernaut, but to vanquish it.
Laxman remained at the wicket for almost two days, besting nine Australian bowlers and smashing 44 boundaries. By the time he got out, on the morning of Day 5, he had amassed 289 runs, a record for an Indian test batsman. More important, he and Rahul Dravid (180) had led India to the awe-inspiring total of 657 for the loss of only seven wickets. Some 50,000 people had crowded into the ground as word spread around Calcutta that Laxman and Dravid were flaying the Australian bowling.
By nightfall on Day 4, their achievement had seized the imagination not only of the whole nation, but also of the wider cricketing world that has long suffered the domination of the obnoxious Aussies. And more was to come. Putting Australia in to chase a target of 373 on the final day, India bowled out Australia for 212, becoming only the third test team in history to win a match after having been forced to follow on. Where Laxman had put steel into the spine of the Indian batting, a lanky young Sikh off-spinner, Harbajan Singh, claimed the honors with the ball — having dispatched seven Australians in the first innings, he added another six scalps in the second.
With bat and ball, skill, timing, determination and courage, Laxman, Harbajan and Dravid had changed the mood of a nation.
To Americans, cricket may look like a quaint memento of the British empire’s heyday, an exasperatingly slow, overly complex game of bat and ball played by gentlemen in white flannels who continue to maintain the time-honored tradition of interrupting the afternoon session for 20 minutes at 4 p.m., to allow the players to enjoy a nice cup of tea. And yet to the British and those they colonized, it remains an almost mystical canonization of their culture’s finest achievements.
For those interest in the full piece, it’s here.
Now, if I can only persuade the Man from Madras (you know who you are!) to weigh in with regularity, we can start a cricket thread on Rootless Cosmopolitan!