It was July 13, 2002. The Lord’s Cricket Ground. St. John’s Wood – of polite applause when a six crashes into the roof, starched ties and all else you don’t associate with what we got in the end: Sourav Ganguly, the Indian captain, bare-torsoed, swinging his shirt above his head, hurling invective, celebrating revenge over England in Flintoff-esque fashion. India had just chased down England’s 325 with three balls to spare in the final of the NatWest Series. The Great Indian Revival, which started with beating Australia 2-1 in the home Test series of 2001, had now truly taken flight.
It could have all gone so horribly wrong though. Marcus Trescothick (109 from 100 balls) and Nasser Hussain (114 from 128 balls) had taken England to what ought to have been a winning total. India’s reply had started promisingly, with Ganguly (60 from 43 balls) and Virender Sehwag (45 from 49 balls) taking India to 106 before Ganguly fell. The wickets continued to fall, and from 106 without loss, India went to 146 for five. Importantly, the fifth wicket was that of Sachin Tendulkar, and, as Mohammad Kaif told Wisden India recently, “When Sachin got out, we thought we had lost; more importantly, the opposition felt the match was over.”
But it wasn’t. Yuvraj Singh, batting at No. 6, and Kaif, batting at No. 7, were sure there was a match to be won. From 146 for five in the 24th over, the two took India to 267 before Yuvraj was dismissed in the 42nd over for a 63-ball 69. More wickets fell, but Kaif stood tall and lean as he ended the match in the last over, unbeaten on 87. The celebrations that started with a few fist pumps and the shirt-twirling, ended with Ganguly and others in a tangled heap on the Lord’s floor; and Kaif – quite the Championship goal-scoring hero – flattened below his mates.
“We thought we had lost the game when I walked in at No. 7. I thought ‘oh, here we go again’ because we had lost a lot of finals in the previous two years,” Kaif recalled. “All those thoughts come into your mind. But both Yuvraj and I were very hungry and very determined to do what we could. No. 7 batsmen hadn’t done well for India in the past and I wanted to make a difference.”
That then is how the game came down to two people who knew each other really well and, importantly, backed their abilities in typical testosterone-charged 21-year-old boy style. “Yuvraj and I had played together at the Under-16 level, and then at the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000 [Kaif was the captain as India won], and were really comfortable with each other,” Kaif said. “While batting as well as while fielding together on the offside, Yuvraj and I had brilliant rapport. As hungry young players, we both wanted to make a mark and contribute in a way youngsters before us had not.”
Yuvraj acknowledged this too, when he said, “With Kaif, it was like we had a connection. We were both aggressive, and we ran singles well, so batting together was always enjoyable.”
Part of the camaraderie also came from the atmosphere in the dressing room at the time. The team was going through a period of transition after, as Kaif said, “the match-fixing scandal had hit India hard and Indian fans were obviously not happy”. Ganguly had been appointed captain and John Wright had been drafted in as the coach. “Ganguly wanted youngsters like me to be with the team for a long period, and also wanted to hear what we had to say. We were sharing the dressing room with seniors like Sachin and (Rahul) Dravid and (Anil) Kumble and (Javagal) Srinath, who all contributed in making us feel at home. Yuvraj and I were given a chance to be partners – especially while fielding – where we created some magic.”
The two remained integral components of the Indian dressing room in One-Day Internationals till 2006, after which, gradually, their careers took opposing trajectories. For Kaif, it was a quick slip towards oblivion. Yuvraj, on the other hand, went on to become a star, playing key roles in India’s triumphs at the ICC World T20 in 2007 and then the World Cup in 2011. But it’s that one evening in London, at Lord’s, exactly ten years ago, that remains the moment. “That win helped Yuvraj and me win the hearts of the seniors, people you look up to,” said Kaif.
And that’s how those two youngsters – and Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan, among others – became agents of change as India rose up the charts. And it all started exactly ten years ago.