By the end of the series, one of the world’s most exciting batsmen had been reduced to nervous tics and a ghostly visage, utterly undone by the patka-wearing young man the Australian press named the Turbanator. © Getty Images

By the end of the series, one of the world’s most exciting batsmen had been reduced to nervous tics and a ghostly visage, utterly undone by the patka-wearing young man the Australian press named the Turbanator. © Getty Images

Could Hardik Pandya emulate VVS Laxman? And what are the odds on K Gowtham imitating the success of Harbhajan Singh, who he once modeled his action on? You would be forgiven for smirking, but these are some of the questions thrown up by a strange twist of scheduling fate that sees the Australians open their tour with a three-day game against India A starting on Friday (February 17).

Exactly 16 years ago to the day, Steve Waugh’s Invincibles – who had won 15 Tests in succession – were 800km to the east, at the old Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in the heart of Nagpur. Laxman, who was still on the fringes of the national side despite Mohammed Azharuddin, his fellow Hyderabadi, having exited the team under a dark match-fixing cloud, led an India A outfit that also included the 20-year-old Harbhajan, who had played the last of his eight Tests more than a year earlier.

As the first session of the match progressed, it became increasingly difficult to make out which was the all-time-great side, and which the patchwork quilt. Ashish Nehra dismissed Michael Slater, Justin Langer and Steve Waugh – for a duck – as Australia slipped to 25 for 3. That soon became 133 for 7, before Michael Kasprowicz (92) and Jason Gillespie (57) put the conditions into perspective with a 155-run stand that took the tourists to 291.

Rahul Sanghvi vaulted into contention for the first Test in Mumbai by picking up the last five wickets to fall, but it was a wicket taken just before lunch that would have far greater ramifications for the main event. Ricky Ponting had cruised to 56 at nearly a run a ball when the young man who had been contemplating driving long-haul trucks in North America dismissed him, caught by Debasis Mohanty.

Harbhajan got Damien Martyn as well, but with Sanghvi taking 5 for 40, he didn’t exactly make the headlines. With the bat too, India A offered a glimpse of what was to come. Sadagoppan Ramesh stroked 101, and Laxman made 94, as they added 195 for the second wicket.

Finding themselves 77 in arrears, Australia then batted till the end to make 365 for 9 and salvage a draw. This time, Harbhajan dismissed Matthew Hayden, Slater and Langer, the last of them after he had made an aggressive 115. And in an indication of how seriously they had taken the performances, the Indian selectors picked as many as six of the A side – Laxman, Harbhajan, Ramesh and Sanghvi were joined by Nayan Mongia and Shiv Sunder Das – for the Mumbai Test.

Neither Laxman nor Harbhajan had been part of the draw against Zimbabwe in Nagpur in November 2000. Indian cricket was going through a period of churning, with many fans highly cynical in the wake of match-fixing scandals. That Australia series did more to boost cricket’s popularity than any before or since, with dejection and suspicion making way for euphoria.

Laxman made 20 and 12 there, as India were thrashed by ten wickets inside three days. Harbhajan helped reduce Australia to 99 for 5 in the first innings, before a Gilchrist-Hayden whirlwind blew India away. The third of his wickets was Ponting, out for a five-ball duck.

In the two Tests that followed, Laxman would make 471 runs, including THAT 281 at Eden Gardens. Harbhajan would take 28 wickets, including Ponting four times. By the end of the series, one of the world’s most exciting batsmen had been reduced to nervous tics and a ghostly visage, utterly undone by the patka-wearing young man the Australian press named the Turbanator.

Neither Laxman nor Harbhajan had been part of the draw against Zimbabwe in Nagpur in November 2000. Indian cricket was going through a period of churning, with many fans highly cynical in the wake of match-fixing scandals. That Australia series did more to boost cricket’s popularity than any before or since, with dejection and suspicion making way for euphoria.

Steve Waugh never did cross the ‘final frontier’. Looking back, with distance providing perspective, it was that warm-up game in Nagpur that germinated the seeds for the decade that followed. When they take the field at the Brabourne Stadium, Pandya and his team – filled with domestic stalwarts – could do worse than think of Laxman, Harbhajan and the embrace of greatness.