New Zealander John Wright’s stint with the Indian team became one of the colourful, important chapters in the world of cricket at the turn of the century. Under his watch, India turned into a successful outfit away from home while consolidating their home record. There were Test wins in England and Australia while defeating Pakistan in their backyard when the two sides met in 2004.
A big reason for India’s success during that era was Wright’s equation with his captain, Sourav Ganguly. India were in a state of transition and were at crossroads following the 2000 match-fixing scandal. They had a new captain, and for the first time in history, a foreign head coach.
However, Wright had the vote of confidence from the senior players in the side. He had worked with Rahul Dravid at English county Kent and had also known Ganguly, who was playing for Lancashire.
The first big assignment for the Ganguly-Wright duo was against Steve Waugh’s Australia at home in the summer of 2001. The Australians, by this time, were an all-conquering outfit and romped to a comfortable win in the first Test in Mumbai, their sixteenth on the bounce. Before the start of the series, Ganguly had publicly backed young off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who would play a decisive role in his team’s series win, regularly running through the Aussies while also becoming the first player to record a Test hat-trick for India.
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An incredible partnership between VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in Kolkata after being asked to follow-on set the tone for one of India’s greatest-ever wins.
“Being a winner is about what happens in your head,” Ganguly wrote in his book A Century is Not Enough. “And I had never lost the belief in myself. I looked at a cricket ground and believed it was mine. Looked at the pitch and believed we would win. Looked at the bat and told myself I would score runs. I woke up every morning to succeed.”
India were no longer happy to throw in the towel during tough away assignments; the team adopted a steely resolve and was built in Ganguly’s aggressive, in-your-face image. India drew in England following a crushing innings victory in Leeds. Incidentally, that remains the only match where batting stalwarts Ganguly, Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar scored centuries in the same innings.
Apart from Harbhajan, there were other young Indian players who would write victorious chapters of their own. Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif changed the face of Indian fielding at the turn of the century while the decision to promote the swashbuckling Virender Sehwag as an opener turned out to be a masterstroke. In Zaheer Khan, India had a pace bowler who oozed of class.
Ganguly and Wright pulled off some unorthodox moves too, most notably turning Dravid into a a limited-overs wicketkeeper. India went deep in big tournaments. After being denied by Chris Cairns’s heroics in the final of the ICC Knockout in 2000, Ganguly’s side were joint-winners in the 2002 edition and reached the final of the 2003 World Cup. Sandwiched between the aforementioned highs was the spectacular win in the 2002 Natwest Trophy final.
India's under Ganguly during Wright's tenure
Ganguly and Co reached milestones in quick succession. India won the Test and ODI series in Pakistan, where they toured after 15 years in 2004. Previously, Australian tours gave Indians plenty of sleepless nights; bowlers and batters alike returned with their confidence and reputation in tatters.
Not this team. They had pushed Waugh’s side to the brink of a historic series win, only to be denied by the Australian captain’s rearguard act in what was his final innings. By 2005, though, India’s purple patch under Wright and Ganguly had slowly started to taper off. The previous year ended with the Aussies conquering their ‘final frontier’, defeating India in their own backyard in the backdrop of the Nagpur Test, where Ganguly was reportedly unhappy with the pitch.
The next two years under new coach Greg Chappell were turbulent at best but the team kicked into form after the 2007 World Cup debacle. Ganguly finished his career on a high while other senior players: Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Zaheer and Co scripted memorable chapters of their own, culminating in India’s second World Cup title, this time on home soil in 2011. India have gone on to reach the summit of world cricket under Mahendra Singh Dhoni and currently, Virat Kohli, but it was under Wright and Ganguly that the Men in Blue became a force to reckon with.
Ganguly and Wright turned back the clock during the 2019 World Cup, discussing their partnership with the Indian team. “My favourite coach,” announced Ganguly with the 64-year-old next to him.
“I always saw it as a privilege to coach the Indian team. It was tough for both of us at the start. We had to prove that were good enough as coach and captain,” Wright weighed in. Two decades have passed since the two men first joined hands but nonetheless, it was a move that would change Indian cricket for the better.
Watch Ganguly’s chat with Wright here: