I remember it: Sunday at the Sinhala Sports Club, Colombo - August 1, 1993. The day India beat Sri Lanka to win an away Test match for the first time in my career. Young Indian cricket fans have no idea how rare that was. When we stepped onto the SSC that morning, it had been seven years since India's last away Test win. Headingley,1986; even though I wasn't to take a fifer or be a star in that game, being a part of the Indian eleven on that day made the day precious, made me feel blessed.
We knew the Test could go only go two ways: either Sri Lanka, two down with 386 to win, would bat us out to a deathly draw or we would win. Back in the 90s, no one scored more than 250 in a day and for us, everything hinged on getting rid of Aravinda, who was on 10 overnight and after him, Arjuna. They were the only two who could bother us, take the game down to the very end till we ran out of energy and purpose.
I know why I remember this day with such a good, strong memory. We had travelled to Sri Lanka after being defeated in back to back series in Australia and South Africa; evidence enough that again, we were not that good in terms of getting results when we went outside India. We had always grown up hearing stories about how India doesn't do well abroad. Almost like an inevitability.
The Colombo wicket wasn't like the spin-friendly turners we got in India but Anil was still our main man. He was coming off a series against England in which he led the rout against Graham Gooch's side. Basically, we were like bowling fillers to Anil, who would come on as a very rapid first-change. He was the wicket taker and we used to surround him and bowl those few overs. I remember my exact role in that team and on that day. I was young and quicker than Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar. As the second change, my job was simple. At my pace, bowl bouncers at a few targeted batsmen. I remember bowling a lot of short-pitched balls in that Test match. I hit Arjuna Ranatunga on his helmet, maybe Hashan Tillakaratne too, that was my job. In the 90s, I was the guy who played a fill-in part but was eager to make it count, because before the Sri Lanka tour, I had gone through a tough eight months.
After a Man of the Match award in my last Test in South Africa, I had spent months sitting in the dressing room. It was disorienting; after a good performance in the first two Tests in South Africa, I'd been compared to Allan Donald in an article written by Hansie Cronje's father but then maybe it didn't go down well and I was dropped for the third Test in Port Elizabeth. India lost and there was more drama for the final Test, but I was to make it to the eleven and ended up man of the match. Then, from January to August 1993, zero Tests for Javagal Srinath.
India would pick three spinners, I wasn't the first choice seamer; called in only for the ODI stuff. By the time we got to Sri Lanka, I didn't know if I'd be picked at all. In the Kandy Test, I bowled an over and it had rained for the rest for the match. So Colombo became my first Test match after a very long time. I was desperate to get back into rhythm and it felt good to bowl short and watch the ball whistle past the batsmen. When you have energy and even desperation, when you bowl short on a slowish kind of pitch it doesn't fly high. It comes exactly to a height where the batsman can't even escape, he's jammed; so leaving the ball also becomes difficult and it makes the bowler feel even better.
On that Sunday at the SSC, we were to push on towards victory in very taxing weather, the crowd was thin, but I remember Percy there, waving his flag. He's still around, but it's like I tell him when we meet now, he was even old then and he is old even now. It was a terribly sticky and draining day and all through the morning there was a lot of complaining about the umpiring and how we would need to take 16 wickets and not eight to win. There were two local umpires then, and looking back, maybe cricketers do get into a competitive, irascible mindset in tight match situations. Every 50-50 decision you don't get becomes part of a grand, deliberate conspiracy against the entire team, with even the gods turning their eyes away from you. The same thing happened to us in Australia, even South Africa, we felt that the umpiring was not with us, maybe at some point through an entire decade. It was always them, not us. Half of what cricketers look at comes from an emotional standpoint, rather than an objective one and I think that is what happened there as well.
There were some outstanding individual performances in that match and the scoreboard is proof: Vinod Kambli got a fighting century in the first innings, Anil took 5-75, and I remember catching Ranatunga off his bowling in the deep, just as he was threatening to break away and trim our lead in the first innings. Then, centuries from Sachin Tendulkar and Navjot Singh Sidhu in the second. But to me, what stays in my mind was the happiness at winning together, walking off that field, having done the job just after lunch. It was India's first Test win in Sri Lanka and the dressing room felt and looked so different than it had in the miserable months on our last tours.
I saw happiness on the faces of senior guys like Kapil, and Mohammad Azharuddin. We had a good celebration, not over the top but certainly nothing like I'd seen before in an Indian dressing room when on tour. You could see how buoyed the team was by that result. The sweetest thing about victory is how it binds a team, whatever your differences. Your mind is suddenly cleaned of all negativity, you don't take offence to what is said, no one minds what you say. There was none of the agenda stuff you suspected was at work on days when the going was not great. Things change drastically with victory for the good. It becomes like a drug, you keep wanting to win more. We went to dinner at the high commission that night and there was much bonhomie.
This great bogey of not being able to win overseas had been so much on our minds when we left the country and to prove it wrong was liberating in itself.
As a young player, I was at a very crucial stage of my career, I had experienced a bit of success and it had begun to dawn on me that I could take cricket as a career for the rest of my life. When I was called into the team, I found myself in a very fragile place. I had not finished my engineering and it formed a part of my back-up plan in case the cricket didn't go well. I wanted to play for India, I enjoyed it but in the first few months, I wasn't sure in my heart whether I belonged at that level. After South Africa, the ODI series against England at home where I was the highest wicket taker for the team, made me feel stronger and more confident about my place in the team; no matter who I was competing against. I knew I was younger, stronger, quicker. That day in Colombo, winning overseas, gave an extra layer to that awareness, just watching the dressing room celebrations and experiencing how sweet the fruit of an away victory really was, I thought that this could be the beginning, this could be the moment that would mark the change in the Indian cricket team, in the way we played and the way we played when we travelled. I was to be proved wrong, of course. Our next away Test victory was to come eight years later in Bulawayo, when I was the oldest guy in that team, watching wild celebrations in the dressing room. But Colombo will remain precious because it was to unshackle many things about my cricket. About what I could be and what kind of a team I wanted to belong to.
As told to Sharda Ugra