In the first part of a three-part series on foxsports.com.au, Australia legends Adam Gilchrist and Jason Gillespie reflect on the first Test of the 2004 Border-Gavaskar Series.
To understand how Australia achieved its great Indian euphoria of 2004, you have to go back three years to its great Indian heartbreak.
Only in recent times has world cricket attempted to provide an official holy grail for the five-day game through the World Test Championship.
Earlier – and in many ways, this remains the case – the holy grail was winning a big away Test series, with India being the toughest place to tour.
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In 2001, Australia was on the verge of achieving such rare greatness before things suddenly went pear-shaped.
Up 1-0 in the three-Test series, and with a 274-run first innings lead in Kolkata, Australia enforced the follow-on and, somehow, lost in one of cricket’s greatest ever comebacks.
Crestfallen, Australia also lost the Chennai decider by two wickets days later, and the drought went on.
As such, there was some trepidation for Adam Gilchrist when it came time to return in 2004.
“The point about 2001 is very relevant in it was still fresh in my mind … I had some personal demons to overcome,” Gilchrist told foxsports.com.au this week.
“That 2001 tour obviously started really well for me, getting a hundred (122 in Wankhede), and then, by the end of it, I scored a king pair and a pair of ones in the next two Tests.
“I was pretty damaged goods by that stage. I had a few personal things to get over.”
Adding to the weight of the occasion was that weeks earlier, Australia captain Ricky Ponting broke his thumb playing in the Champions Trophy at Edgbaston.
It was a massive blow – Australia never budgeted for losing its best batter, who in the three years prior to the series was averaging 70.78.
Gilchrist, vice-captain of Australia, knew what was coming next.
“As soon as he did that, I started to panic because I thought I might have to captain in India,” he said.
“At the time, I thought ‘the last thing I need to do is worry about captaining the team on such a big tour.’ That was before they even appointed me captain.”
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Sure enough, Gilchrist was elevated to the top role and tasked with the massive assignment of plotting an Australian Test series win in India.
Between 1985 and Australia’s 2004 tour, India had only lost three Test series on home soil, with South Africa the last to do it in a two-match affair in early 2000.
Australia might’ve come close in 2001 but, ultimately, wasn’t effective enough with the ball with India twice exceeding 500 runs in the final two Tests, including 7-657 after being made to follow-on at Eden Gardens.
For all the promise of spin assistance in India, Australia’s tweakers couldn’t replicate the dominance of India’s Harbhajan Singh, who averaged more than 10 wickets a Test with 32 at 17.03.
Shane Warne and Collin Miller combined for just 16 at 44.13, while part-timer Mark Waugh took three wickets at 35.33.
Only Glenn McGrath had genuine success in 2001, taking 17 wickets at 15.35, while pace partner Jason Gillespie had a middling series with 13 at 30.30.
Scars might’ve been inflicted, however, a light bulb above the Australians was at least starting to flicker.
“We were certainly well aware that it was important we learnt the lessons from ’01, which I thought we did (in ’04),” Gillespie told foxsports.com.au this week.
“I speak from a bowling point of view, we learnt that you couldn’t bowl like you bowl in Australia on the subcontinent, which we tried to do in ’01.”
The plan might’ve seemed counterintuitive, but Gillespie explained that the Australians figured they had to bowl to India’s strengths, not weaknesses, to turn the tide.
Gillespie and co. were accustomed to bowling in the channel outside off-stump, encouraging drives that might produce an edge and bring the fielders behind the bat into play.
But with a lack of bounce and lateral movement on Indian wickets, the ball would too often sit-up and be comfortably dispatched to the boundary, as VVS Laxman did a whopping 85 times across three Tests in 2001.
“What we felt was a good option was to maybe attack the stumps more,” Gillespie said, “which in turn bowls to the India batters’ strengths.
“But we thought we could defend that, have some catchers, but also some defensive positions and attack the stumps: The old theory of ‘if you miss, I hit’ kind of scenario.”
“We had such a different tactical game plan to what we ever had before in India,” Gilchrist added.
“We went away from trying to squeeze extra spinners in, find someone to partner Warnie, we just picked what we thought were our three best bowlers and that happened to be three quick bowlers and Warnie.
“We decided to go really defensive from the outset and just play on the Indian batting line-up’s tempo and ego, to an extent.
“We had to swallow our own ego a bit.”
Australia’s field rarely featured multiple slips. Instead, fielders were placed on the leg-side boundary, and catchers at mid-wicket.
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Gillespie explained that the Indians weren’t known as strong runners between wickets, so protecting the leg-side boundary while bowling on the stumps was akin to the fitter Australians playing some form of physical warfare.
Australia was confident it could keep India’s scoring under control despite making its batters play regularly, while the percentages dictated that a high volume of balls targeting the stumps was going to inevitably produce wicket balls.
The Australians were armed with a new bowling game plan, but first had to set the tone with the bat having won the toss for the first Test in Bengaluru.
Justin Langer and Simon Katich made half-centuries, but low scores for Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Darren Lehmann meant things could’ve went either way with Australia at 4-149.
That brought to the crease 23-year-old Test debutant Michael Clarke, who was later joined at the crease by Gilchrist.
Clarke’s innings – explored deeper in part two of this series – would become an instant classic, remembered by Gillespie as one of the greatest he’s ever witnessed in Test cricket.
The confident young gun, who had already become an ODI staple, crafted 151 from 248 balls, making him the first Australian since Greg Blewett in 1995 to score a Test ton on debut.
Today, Clarke remains one of only six Australians to achieve the feat away from home.
Under celebrated is that he was only one half of an explosive 167-run partnership that put India on the back-foot early.
The other half was Gilchrist, who blasted 104 from just 109 balls in a stunning display of intent – especially from someone whose past four scores in India were 0, 0, 1 and 1.
While the plan with the ball was to be disciplined and patient, the Australians would need to be more proactive with the bat, otherwise they would be a sitting duck for Harbhajan or Anil Kumble.
Gilchrist, as always, was the driving force of the Australian middle-order, attacking the Indian bowlers in a fearless display that betrayed his earlier apprehension.
He credits his wife Mel for being a “calming influence” who encouraged him to take on the Australian captaincy in Ponting’s absence.
“I dived into it actually and it turned out to be a really valuable – not distraction – but a valuable opportunity for me to just focus on the bigger picture,” he said. “Rather than getting caught up in my own uncertainty or doubt on how I was going to play.”
In blasting that century in Bengaluru, Gilchrist’s scars from 2001 swiftly began to heal.
“For me to gain confidence and, I suppose, validation of my ability to pay in those conditions, was really important in that first Test,” Gilchrist said.
“It allowed me to continue to lead and captain with confidence.
“I know others will say it wouldn’t matter about your personal results as long as the team is getting everything done, but everyone knows that they want to make sure that you’re contributing in your own right, individually, in your position.”
Speaking of losing Ponting before the series, Gillespie said: “I think everyone realised someone else would have to step up and do the job.
“Absolutely it’s a blow when your captain is out of the team … I thought (Gilchrist) did a wonderful job.”
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In the second innings, when India was reduced to 2-4 after less than three overs in reply to Australia’s 474, it was clear the tourists were onto something.
McGrath dismissed Aakash Chopra and Rahul Dravid in quick succession, both perishing to balls targeting the stumps. He added two more while Gillespie claimed a pair of wickets, bowling Parthiv Patel and Kumble.
India was all out for 246, and then set 457 to chase in the fourth innings, which saw it bowled out for 239.
Gillespie was on-song with his 3-33, while six of Australia’s 10 wickets came via either LBW or bowled.
Australia was now not only holding a 1-0 lead, but the weapon to dismantle India’s much-vaunted batting line-up.
Between the start of the century and the series in October 2004, Laxman, Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag had combined for 5,107 runs at 63.84 at home.
India went on to lose the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2-1. Dravid averaged 27.83, Laxman 17.57 and Tendulkar 17.50, while Sehwag (42.71) was one of only two Indian batters to average more than 35.
Gillespie was Australia’s best bowler of the series, taking 20 wickets at 16.15 in what was a stunning redemption act from 2001.
Warne played more of a support role to Australia’s three quicks with McGrath taking 14 at 25.42, and Michael Kasprowicz nine at 28.33.
Meanwhile, Australia’s batters did enough with Martyn and Clarke leading the way with 444 runs at 55.50 and 400 runs at 57.14 respectively.
“We were a reasonably well-oiled machine at that point,” Gillespie said.
“And the reason I say that is that everyone was really clear what their role was, and then just go out and implement your skills and back each other in.
“Everyone had a lot of trust and faith and belief in each other, and belief in what our strategy and plans were, and just going out there and getting the job done.”
Part two of this series will feature more on Clarke’s debut in Bengaluru and the draw in Chennai, before part three on India’s great shock in Nagpur.
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