New Delhi: Eight years ago to the day, on December 15, 2003, Ajit Agarkar enjoyed his greatest day of international cricket. Rahul Dravid’s 233 had taken India to within 33 runs of Australia’s first-innings total of 556, and then it was over to Agarkar, who snapped up 6 for 41 from 16.2 overs to help bowl the home team out for 196. That set India a target of 230, which they famously knocked off to seal their first Test win on Australian soil since a hamstring Kapil Dev inspired victory at the MCG in 1981.
Speaking to Cricketnext, the hero of that memorable day, Agarkar, recalled his six-wicket haul and the memories of beating Australia in Australia.
Coming into this Test - the 18th of his career - Agarkar had taken 41 Test wickets at a cost of 45.95 apiece, with a strike-rate of a wicket every 14 overs. There was also the small matter of his failures with the bat against Australia - his string of zeros earned him the unflattering sobriquet of ‘Bombay Duck’ - and he felt the pressure building.
Agarkar: It's true, I hadn’t been bowling all that well but was working hard. The way the Aussies got after me, it motivated me. I hadn’t done well with the bat on the previous tour and that was motivation. For me, the biggest inspiration was that we had batted so well to get to within 30-odd runs of Australia’s first-innings total, so we knew that if we bowled and fielded well, anything was possible. I don’t recall noticing any pressure or worry on the faces of the Aussies when they came out to bat, because this was a champion side and two of the most dominating openers in Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden were at the crease. I don’t think you ever saw them display any weakness on their faces.
As for the team, I wouldn’t say we were overconfident, but having come so close to Australia’s total gave us a sense of belief. The Kookaburra ball does a bit more than the SG ball which we used in India, and we knew that the wicket was going to deteriorate. Adelaide is just a fantastic place to play cricket, I’ve enjoyed playing there. I remember being stirred when I came onto the field.
Agarkar took the new ball and gave India a great start: with the second ball of his fourth over, he trapped Langer in front with one which nipped back. Having bowled ten dot balls to Ricky Ponting, with his 11th Agarkar picked up the prize wicket when the Australian captain cut the ball and Aakash Chopra took a smart catch at Gully. Ponting, the first-innings double-centurion, was gone for a 17-ball 0.
Agarkar: That really motivated us, those two wickets. The Langer dismissal was personally a more satisfying one as it came with my natural delivery, the inswinger to the left-hander. I remembered Langer had gotten out in similar fashion at the Gabba and was trying to work him over with the inwards movement. That ball happened to come back in sharply and he was hit on the front pad. That was a good breakthrough.
Getting Ponting was pleasing because it was Ponting, one of the all-time greats. He’d been in tremendous form, taking two double-centuries off us in the series so far. He chased an outswinger outside off stump and Chopra at gully helped me by being alert. I think Langer and Ponting were both undone by the movement to an extent. That gave me a chance to take wickets, as well as the aggressive approach the Australians adopted. That gives a bowler a chance of getting them out.
From 18 for 2, Australia lost Hayden for 17 soon after lunch to leave the score 44 for 3, a lead of just 77.
Agarkar: Getting Hayden early into the second session was crucial. The Australians came hard at us, playing their shots. That’s the way they play, looking to dominate. But the track was no longer such a good surface and the ball was stopping on the batsmen. That’s how Hayden fell - he drove on the up and gave a catch to Virender Sehwag at cover. I must add that Sehwag had been fielding excellently all series. His catching made a big difference.
With the pitch starting to afford sharp turn and bounce, Agarkar was taken off as the spinners took over. Sachin Tendulkar picked up two wickets to leave the hosts 112 for 5 at tea, following which Anil Kumble dislodged Adam Gilchrist for 43 to snap a 71-run stand and leave Australia 183 for 6. Then Agarkar was summoned from the outfield …
Agarkar: In that spell in the evening, I decided to try pitch the ball short to Simon Katich. He was playing well and was ready to take on the short stuff, so I decided to test him. I think I bowled quicker in that spell too. We had a man back for this shot in Nehra, and Katich fell to the temptation. Nehra took a brilliant catch in the deep. As I said, our fielding really backed us bowlers up. Getting a well-set Katich was especially satisfying, probably the most memorable of those six wickets.
From here, the tail collapsed. I took four wickets in four overs. The last three wickets I pitched the ball up, instead of bowling short, and the tail threw the bat at ball. Just imagine: Australia were two down by lunch, and all out an hour before stumps.
On an increasingly wearing pitch, Agarkar had profited from bowling a good line and length against a reckless line-up to finish with a career-best 6 for 41 and set up one of India's most memorable victories.
Agarkar: I’ve bowled better, actually. Particularly on the previous tour to Australia in 1999-00, I felt I bowled a lot better but without as much reward. I took 11 wickets in the first two Tests (in Adelaide and Melbourne) but went wicketless in the Sydney Test. I felt like I bowled well in the first innings in Adelaide on that previous tour, when I got three wickets (Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh and Greg Blewett). That was one of my better spells in Tests. But then that’s Test cricket for you. Some days you will bowl very well and only get a wicket or two to show for it; other days you won’t be as good and will get five.
An absorbing day's cricket ended with India requiring just 193 more runs to win - with all ten wickets in hands - to pull off a stunning victory over. Despite a few jitters, they were helped home by the Man of the Match Dravid, who hit the winning runs in an unbeaten 72.
Agarkar: It was a simply stunning performance from Rahul. After that epic 233 in the first innings, to come out on the fifth day and bat again with that determination. Amazing. I don’t think any of us can forget that match, and that day. This was Australia, who were the best team in the world. They’d put together strings of wins and here we came along and beat them in their own backyard.