Three Tests and two innings later, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in India is still deadlocked in the most even way possible. This is a rare line to write. One never gets the opportunity to use the term ‘even’ in an India-Australia Test series, or in any Test series played these days – given that home teams usually bully the visitors more often than not. The year 2004 was the last time a visiting team won this trophy, and this is very much the case with the Ashes as well these days.
That we are witnessing a competitive, hard-fought Test series on Indian soil is a miracle. This Australian team is worthy – and they remain in a position of winning, against all odds, a series in India even in the final innings of the final Test match. If they do, this is good for Test cricket in general. If India wins, this will be their toughest home series victory in more than a decade. We know the last one. The opponent was the same, too.
Let’s take a look at some of the best Test series played since 2000 – in terms of it being an even and exciting contest between two teams without the pitches having an overwhelming say in things. Those were the days. This current series makes the list at no. 5 already.
Australia’s Tour of India, 2001
Of course, this series – widely known as the greatest ever played – will be top of any list. It wasn’t so much about who the home and away teams were, or the fact that India were far from favorites despite playing in favorable conditions. Australia were the mighty invincibles back then. Steve Waugh and his men were on a record winning streak, and were expected to destroy India in their ‘final frontier’ after winning everywhere in the world. It all went according to plan at Mumbai, where they defeated Sourav Ganguly’s young team by 10 wickets, and then made India follow-on in the second Test at Kolkata after dismissing them for a paltry 171. It was all but over. Yet, three days later, India were celebrating their greatest ever comeback and victory in their history – with V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh capping off the ‘perfect’ win – taking the series into a decider at Chennai. Australia mauled the Indians and reached 340/3 on the first day of the final Test. It felt like things were back to normal after the honeymoon. But they lost their last seven wickets for 50 runs, after which India scored 501 at a quick pace, taking a lead and bowling Australia out for 257. Needing 155 to win, India won with two wickets to spare – completing the greatest ever comeback in Test history, beating perhaps the greatest Test team in history. At home. And yet, it felt better than being away.
India’s Tour of Australia, 2003-04
Steve Waugh’s last Test series ended with him not being able to win back the Border-Gavaskar trophy at home. This was another phenomenal series between two teams who seemed to bring out the best in each other. Underdogs again, the Indians, led by Ganguly, drew the first Test at Brisbane, won the ‘Dravid Test’ at Adelaide, lost by nine wickets at Melbourne despite Virender Sehwag’s barnstorming 195, and then were in a historical winning position at Sydney after scoring 705 in the first innings and bowling Australia out for 474. In the fourth innings, it was unlikely hero Simon Katich who again stood between India and immortality, while Steve Waugh signed off with a match-saving 80, earning them a draw – and perhaps the most hard-fought 1-1 series in contemporary history.
The Ashes, 2005
For the third time in a row, Australia were at the receiving end – but played a big part in making the series the most memorable Ashes ever. The reason Australians are part of almost every great modern match in cricket is because they set the standards so high that the opponent almost always has to have the “perfect match” to beat them on the day. England had the ‘perfect series’ in 2005, a year before being whitewashed 5-0 in Australia. England were the home team here, but were not expected to win the Ashes. The first day of the series saw 17 wickets falling at Lord’s, though it was a marauding Glenn McGrath-propelled Australia that took the Test by a whopping 239 runs. All seemed done and dusted for English fans, but people were starting to notice the punkish presence of a new batting star in their team – a young South Africa-born Kevin Pietersen, playing in his debut series. The second Test was perhaps the greatest of them all, at Birmingham, when a down and out Australia started the final day with 90 runs to win and just two wickets in hand. Shane Warne, after 10 wickets in the match, took them close with the bat, while Brett Lee played the innings of his life, finishing on a heartbreaking 43 not out, while Michael Kasprowicz could only feather a ball to keeper Geriant Jones after putting on a 58-run partnership with Lee, almost going 2-0 up in the series. As it turned out, this was to be the turning point. Another thrilling last day happened in the third Test at Manchester, with Australia this time snatching a draw from the jaws of defeat. They went for a win on the last day, chasing 398 on the day, and finished at 371/9, 53 runs short but still alive in the series – thanks to Lee again, and McGrath surviving the last four overs of the day. England won the fourth Test by three wickets after making Australia follow on, and drew the final Test at the Oval – to take the series 2-1, and win the Ashes for the first time since 1989.
India’s Tour of South Africa, 2010-11
Nobody expected India, then the No. 1 Test side, to win this series. They had never won a series in South Africa – and didn’t this time either, but most notably, they didn’t lose. They ended the three-match series with a very admirable 1-1, against a South African side with Dale Steyn on fire and Jacques Kallis in record-breaking form. After being destroyed in the first Test at Centurion by an innings, India struck back at their ‘spiritual home’ Durban in a low-scoring thriller, winning by 87 runs thanks to a V.V.S. Laxman second innings special. He scored 96 when nobody else crossed 40, and India found themselves in an unusual position of going into Cape Town with a chance to win a series here. And they almost did. So close, yet so far, like in Australia back in 2004. Sachin Tendulkar played perhaps his greatest Test innings ever – peppered by Steyn and Morné Morkel in the first innings, yet returning with a superb warrior-like 146, giving India a lead of two runs. Kallis, though, scored a century in both innings, rescuing his team in the second, while India could only decide to go for a draw with almost a day to play and 339 to win. They finished on 166/3, thanks to Gautam Gambhir’s patient knock, letting them come back from South Africa without losing – a rare achievement, confirming their No. 1 ranking.