India vs Australia has been a competition much anticipated by the fans across. Why else would one get a motivation to wake up at the wee hours for a test match? It has been an exhibition of the finest with bat and ball. The two teams have maintained their dominance for decades now. There have been eras and across each era, you could find greatness on either side of the wicket. Whether it was the legendary Australian squad under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting or India’s resilience at Kolkata and all the batting marvels of top 5. A brilliant knock or a fierce spell, it truly is a battle of the giants.
Test cricket for its majority has had a bias towards the home team. Call it being familiar with the conditions. However, test cricket is still the greatest contest this sport has to offer. And no two teams have defied the norms on several occasions to keep things this way. These teams have loved scoring on the enemy territory and picking the wickets at the other end. Yet for the majority, it has been Australia who has come out on the top when it’s all said and done. It wasn’t the lack of talent but the difference of mindset and attitude on the Indian side where victory felt like a far fetched possibility compared to the reality of a draw. But India’s recent expeditions have started to change the narrative of this story.
This tour started on an ominous note with defeat for India in One Day series. However, India quickly regained the momentum by putting the T20 series under their belt. This wasn’t the highlight of this entire tour by any standard. Everyone waited for these frivolities to be over with to get to the main order of the business. The Test match competition. Much was at stake for both the sides. Australia with their squad restored to the maximum potential looking to avenge the previous loss and prevent the embarrassment of another home series defeat. The defending champions, India, looking to regain the trophy and maintain the status quo. Nothing separated them on the paper, yet the end result spoke volumes about the quality, grit and want of one squad over the other.
The first test match at Adelaide, India’s first day-night Test on an away soil. Adelaide has been one of the favourite pitches to bat for this Indian team and winning the toss meant relishing another opportunity to pile some score on the board. India could maintain a lead going into the 2nd innings after a decent 1st innings performance, more so from the bowling perspective. But no one could have foreseen what was about to unfold. Australian bowling trio of Hazlewood Cummins and Starc have spelt trouble for a lot of batsmen in the past and Indians could not weather the storm this time around. What followed was the worst batting collapse in Indian cricket history, one for the record books in the unfortunate section. Such a thumping defeat raised all sorts of concerns from the pundits, commentators and fans around the world. “Is India looking down the barrel of a gun?” “Was the last series win in Australia a mere fluke?” “How does a team rise from such a drubbing?” What made it worst was the absence of Kohli from the remainder of the series and India short on their attacking options heading into the next match.
What is a champion if they could not rise from adversity? An inexperienced captain, the team recovering from the rock bottom, key players missing in action. Everyone was so certain of the outcome they didn’t even give it a second thought. Yet, India managed to defy all the odds. It’s not the skills, athleticism and physicality rather the mental fortitude and resilience which the team needed. The breath of the injured lion is far more dangerous than his roar. At such times when you would look for your most experienced players to steer the ship, the captain turned towards the exuberance of the youth. Mohammed Siraj and Shubman Gill were handed their test caps and they rewarded their captain’s faith handsomely. Siraj picked up 5 wickets in the test and Gill made important contributions as the opener in his first match against fierce pace attack. But it was the leader who stood out against the expectations. Ajinkya Rahane became the 2nd Indian batsman to score two centuries and the 2nd captain to score a century at Melbourne. From one of the worst losses in history, India managed to secure one of the most impressive victories. Pressure truly turns coal into a diamond. The momentum had swung the direction and so did the balance of the series. It was too late before Australia realised what hit them and the series was now level 1 apiece.
Heading into Sydney, all eyes were on Rohit Sharma. In the mysterious turn of events, the Hitman was missing from limited-overs action but showed up at the right moment. Injury to Umesh Yadav opened the window of opportunity for Navdeep Saini to join the bowling lineup. Australia wanted to take a commanding position in the series and batted well to put India under the pressure. Steve Smith was at his prolific best along with the young protege Labuschagne in both the innings. India couldn’t match Australia in their reply and found themselves at the bottom of another hole too deep to crawl out of. Chasing a mammoth target of 407, India made a positive start with the help of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill. It was two crucial partnerships following the opening stand which not just changed the probable outcome of the match but the tone of the entire series and just shut the critics down. Pujara and Pant took the fight to the opposition and took India to a comfortable position. The match was still far from over. With Hanuma Vihari and Ashwin at the crease with 43 overs to go, the team was hanging by the fingernail. They were battered and bruised but still could look the bowlers in the eye as if telling them to pick the ball, go back to their run-up and give it their best try. This partnership deflated Australia and just shot the confidence in the Indian dressing room to the moon. To bat out 131 overs with 5 wickets remaining, this draw surely felt nothing short of a victory.
The battle scars proved too much for Vihari and Ashwin and they were ruled out of the 4th test. The odds just kept getting stacked against India yet they always found a way. Debutantes Washington Sundar, T. Natarajan geared up along with Shardul Thakur to spearhead the bowling attack. On any other day, you would look at the roster and wonder if it was a warm-up test. But you do your best and live with the consequences. This bowling lineup which reminded many of an IPL fixture rather shocked the world. I am not exaggerating. This is India’s bowling lineup against Australia in deciding test in Gabba- Siraj, Natarajan, Thakur, Sundar, Saini and Rohit Sharma as the 6th bowler. Most of them were meant to prepare our batsmen in the nets. Who knew they would manage to pick 20 wickets between them in the entire test with a fifer from Siraj. Guess what, they were still not done.
The so-called “India A” team were reeling at 186–6 when Thakur and Sundar just smacked the bowlers all over the ground to reach their maiden test 50s. Their confidence and poise made you rub your eyes to realize if these were youngsters or veterans. India managed a decent total but faced another uphill task in the 4th innings. This young and inexperienced team rather than shaking in their boots decided to assert control. We saw everything we could dream for in that last day of the match. An inning of a lifetime by the rookie Shubman Gill. Pujara’s defiant batsmanship, an indestructible batsman who puts a fortune to his wicket and makes you go to great lengths for it, modern era’s “Wall” at number 3. Pant’s unconventional batting flair, ability to back his ambition and his words with his willow and intimidate the opposition. That winning boundary and this team had really done something special. The fortress had been breached after 32 years. India retained Border Gavaskar Trophy in the most dramatic, nail-biting and heroic fashion. Remember Tim Paine’s sledge to Ashwin in the 3rd test. Thou shall not talketh the talk if thou cannot walketh the walk.
This was arguably the best and toughest series victory in modern Indian cricket history, better than the last victory in Australia. There are multiple reasons to support this argument. The odds were never in the favour of Indian team after the 1st Test and the situation got even worse as the series progressed. Injuries to the star players giving way to multiple debutantes who made their way in the team with the utmost pressure knowing this might be their first and last opportunity. A stand-in captain whose ability to lead was questioned and under scrutiny. An Australian squad at its full strength, unlike the last outing. Should I keep going?
Why this victory is much sweeter because it was a true team performance rather than an individual dominance throughout the series. None of the Indian batsmen scored the most runs or posted the highest score in an innings. But there are 5 Indian batsmen in top 10 run-getters, Rishabh Pant leading that pack in the team of Pujara, Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Kohli. For long, people have questioned Pant’s recklessness, poor shot selection but you don’t win a test match without gut, skill and the desire. None of the Indian bowlers took the most scalps or had the best figures in an innings. But there are 6 Indian bowlers in top 10 wicket-takers, Siraj leading the list for India with Bumrah, Ashwin, Jadeja, Umesh Yadav in his trail. It’s truly a team ready for the future. Justin Langer was apt in his post-series interview that you never ever, ever underestimate Indians especially if these blokes are selected from more than a billion Cricket aspirants. Truer words have never been spoken. There was humility on the winning side as well when the Indian team handed Nathan Lyon a signed test shirt as memorabilia for his 100th test match.
What’s next for this team? It’s all good news except maybe one slight concern. Indian players’ conditioning wasn’t up to the required standard which might be owed to two factors:
-Pandemic and absence from test cricket for a long period.
-Majority of the players competing in all the formats of the game, which is aspirational and gruesome at the same time.
Regardless, there’s a ton of positives to look for.
-We need to be kissing the ground beneath Rahul Dravid for his contribution post-retirement as well. His guidance to U-19 team has produced the likes of Pant, Gill, Sundar.
-We have a stand-in captain who some people might say is a better option than the primary choice.
-IPL might not be the curse to test cricket which everyone thought, but a boon, reflecting at the debutantes’ performances.
-It’s not the quintessential Indian cricket team of last few decades at the mercy of a couple of stars.
India now faces another tough challenge in the form of England. A formidable opponent in a familiar and favourable condition. A historic series win is not going to intimidate English squad with the odds stacked against them in every book. We can look for another exciting contest with India expected to come out on top. With senior players returning to action again, team selection is really going to be a headache for the upcoming series. However, this is a good problem to have. The Indian team now ushers in the new decade with an assurance of a bright future. And the fans can rest easy, as the best is yet to come.