Probably all the glossy adjectives have been used for Team India. And all the words are very much deserved. A horribly depleted side, under a stand-in captain, came to the Gabba and chased 328 on Day 5 against an Aussie bowling attack that had four bowlers who took more than 1000 Test wickets and never lost a match at the venue since 1988. The effort resulted in a 2-1 series victory with India retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. This, to put it plainly, is the stuff of dreams, and it will humble the best of Hollywood screenwriters and directors.
Speaking of Hollywood, summer of 2020-21 Down Under had a number of heroes. The Indian players who travelled Down Under, a lot of them had to endure the bio-bubble and quarantine all over again after experiencing it during the hectic IPL, and then had to enter the field to give their absolute best. Head coach Ravi Shastri, bowling coach Bharat Arun, physio Nitin Patel and other support staff for preparing and healing this team when injuries made it a daunting task for them. The ground and hotel staff, Cricket Australia, broadcasters, commentators, and everybody who played their part.
It would be an insult to call Pat Cummins a hero. He is a superhero whose power lies in relentlessly bowling good balls. Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne, Tim Paine, Mitchell Starc, and other members of the Australian cricket team pushed hard and made it incredibly tough for their opponents. Mistakes were made and catches dropped, but the most important factor was that they came against an opposition that refused to give up. Still, heroes nonetheless.
So, who are the villains? Those imbeciles inside the stadium who thought it's cool to shout racist abuse at players.
The one who stood tall
Officially, the player of the series is Pat Cummins. There's no denying the fact that Cummins is one of the greatest fast bowlers to play the game and people are privileged to see him in action when he's at the peak of his powers. In four Tests, he picked the most number of wickets than anybody – 21 at an average of 20. But the numbers don't show the full picture. Day in and day out, he put an exhibition of great bowling. The balls that resulted in wickets were unplayable but so were hundreds of other deliveries that did not yield success. He dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara, the rock of Indian batting, five times in this series, and that alone says a lot.
But this is not about Cummins. This is also not about Shubman Gill, who had a very difficult job opening the batting and he still made a significant impact, scoring at an average of 51. This is about Mohammed Siraj. He was the find of the series and he was the most impressive of all. He had suffered a lot before shining the brightest. Yes, he lost his father during this tour but decided to stick with the team. Yes, he faced racial abuse while fielding at the boundary line and called them out. Yes, he ran hard and bowled his heart out to pick 13 wickets, most by an Indian in this series. But above all, he showed why he can be a world-class bowler in a few years' time.
Take his first Test wicket and the last one he picked in the series. In the second Test in Melbourne, Labuschagne, batting on 48, fell for the trap that Siraj and captain Rahane envisaged. Up until that point, Labuschagne has been playing the glance really well, but on that occasion, the batsman didn't see the fielder at backward square leg and hit the ball low in the air. Gill dived to his right to complete a good catch. His 13th wicket was not a prized one, however, once again he showed how well he can execute the plan. Siraj bowled short anticipating Hazlewood would go for it. The batsman did exactly that and sent it to the fielder at third man who didn't have to move a lot to take the catch. This was Siraj's fifth wicket of the innings. His maiden fifer. A first of many milestones.
Defining moment of the series
There are so many contenders. The 36 all out in Adelaide, which only made the Indian team stronger. The Ravichandran Ashwin vs Steve Smith duel. The rise of Siraj and Shubman. Ajinkya Rahane's Test-turning century in Melbourne. Rishabh Pant's knocks in Sydney and Brisbane. Pat Cummins being Pat Cummins. Ravindra Jadeja's run out effort to dismiss Smith. Pujara's resistance. Washington Sundar-Shardul Thakur partnership. But the award goes to Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari's stand in the fourth innings of the Sydney Test, which ultimately resulted in a draw. In fact, this becomes the defining moment thanks to Prithi Ashwin revealing to the world what Ashwin was going through after the fourth day's play.
"The man went to bed last night with a terrible back tweak and in unbelievable pain. He could not stand up straight when he woke up this morning. Could not bend down to tie his shoe laces. I am amazed at what Ravichandran Ashwin pulled off today."
The man went to bed last night with a terrible back tweak and in unbelievable pain. He could not stand up straight when he woke up this morning. Could not bend down to tie his shoe laces. I am amazed at what @ashwinravi99 pulled off today.
— Prithi Ashwin (@prithinarayanan) January 11, 2021
Ashwin came to bat half-fit while Vihari suffered a hamstring injury while taking a run on the final day. Australia still had to bowl over 40 overs and one more wicket would've forced Ravindra Jadeja, who had fractured his left thumb in the previous innings, into the middle followed by the tail.
The target of 407 was off-limits for the bruised pair so they went for the next best option. Eating up the balls and forcing a draw. A rearguard that earned a lot of plaudits. That particular partnership epitomised this team in this tour. Pushed to the corner and then getting battered by a flurry of punches but refusing to go down. Ashwin took many blows on his body and was in fact given out for a caught behind after tea but replays showed there was no bat or glove involved. Then, Ashwin showcased how to bat against Lyon, blocking the balls with confidence, never taking a wrong option.
When nothing could disturb Ashwin's focus, Paine decided to get vocal. He taunted the Indian spinner and reminded him of what awaits at the Gabba. Ashwin didn't play the final Test, but Paine will never forget what happened in Brisbane. A proud 32-year old record went to dust under his captaincy.
Where did Australia go wrong?
Before the Test series, the spotlight was on the batting departments of both teams. Both India and Australia had strong bowling line-ups but by the time they met for the fourth and final Test, India were made to field the inexperienced line-up of T Natarajan, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur, Washington Sundar, and Siraj while the hosts still had their first-choice bowling arsenal intact. There's a case of exhaustion among Aussie bowlers, which was very evident on the final day of the Brisbane Test, but from their perspective, the biggest problem was Nathan Lyon not getting the breakthroughs.
Lyon, a champion spinner, needed just 10 wickets before the series to complete 400 Test wickets but ended up with just nine in four matches. The third and fourth Tests went to the final day with India needing big scores in the fourth innings, but on both occasions, Lyon couldn't do much. The Brisbane track on Day 5 showed more cracks than the pitch at the SCG, and Lyon did take the big wicket of Gill, but he simply didn't bowl enough wicket-taking deliveries, though credit should also go to the way Indians batted against him. Starc, throughout the series, looked uninspired whenever the Indians put up a partnership. He could've taken a break after the third Test and maybe one of the fresh faces could've made his mark, like how the Indian debutants did when they got a chance.
Smith, this decade's best Test player, had his troubles against Ashwin but came back strongly after failures in Adelaide and Melbourne. Labuschagne scored the maximum number of runs in this series, making most of the dropped chances. Both batsmen scored centuries but a big double hundred from either of them would've helped their team massively. This is not to nitpick but it is more emblematic of the larger problem about the missing ruthlessness in this Aussie side while playing in their own backyard. More than once their batsmen were guilty of throwing wickets after getting set.
Paine under pressure
The captain is bound to face questions after what happened in Sydney and Brisbane. Tactics aside, Paine also dropped crucial catches and the verbal duel with Ashwin, which he later regretted, only came back to haunt him. When asked about his future after the series defeat, Paine said he is focussed on playing and leading the side against South Africa and pushing for a spot in the final of the World Test Championship. But there were instances during the series when plan A was not working and the captain looked bereft of ideas. Sticking with Starc when he looked weary and not trusting all-rounder Cameron Green with the ball did not make a lot of sense. Paine might not the best captain in Australia's storied history but this series loss will sting him hard because time and again he was getting outwitted by a stand-in skipper.
The injuries of the Indian team and the dropped catches. From the first Test, only Mayank Agarwal, Rahane, and Pujara played the final game. Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, Hanuma Vihari, and KL Rahul went back home after sustaining injuries in the middle of the tour. Ashwin and Bumrah were unfit to play the final Test. Saini and Pant also had problems during matches while Rohit Sharma missed the first two games due to his injury. Oh, and Pujara was hit on the hands during a net session. Fortunately for India, they had their net bowlers with them. And thanks to these net bowlers and team's bench strength, India ended up making history Down Under.
Australia did not have the injury issues like India, but both teams were guilty of dropping catches. Simple catches were put down and they proved to be very costly. Smith dropped Rahane and the Indian skipper went on to score a century in Melbourne. Before Pant took the attack to Lyon in Sydney, Paine gave the batsman two lives. Labuschagne's catches were not taken in almost every Test. Hope there's some reasoning because the fielding has been very ordinary and at times frustrating.
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