Imagine you have travelled to Australia as a net bowler. You've been blessed with a girl just a few days ago and haven't been able to see her face. You have travelled straight to Australia from Dubai. Yes there is excitement, of travelling with and sharing the dressing room with the senior national team for the first time but there are no expectations. And then suddenly due to an unfortunate turn of events (injuries), you are added to the T20I squad. And then the ODI squad and the captain comes and informs you that you are going to make your international debut (in an ODI). You impress in your first test. And then it’s a double delight as you are handed the debut T20I cap.
️I am happy at the moment. Never expected to play a Test for India on this tour: Natarajan pic.twitter.com/jhCWksJffS
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 17, 2021
You end up finishing as the highest wicket-taker in the series. What a start. You are not a part of the Test squad, though, and you go back to how you started — as a net bowler. And then, as destiny would have it, the captain again comes up with a message which sends the emotions on a roller-coaster ride once again - you are going to wear the Indian Test cap. You end up becoming the first Indian to make their international debut in three formats on the same tour. And then catch the cricketing world's eye with your swing, discipline, control and three wickets in the first innings. And then here you are at the Gabba raising the trophy handed first to you by your captain.
This is the story of Thangarasu Natarajan on the Australian tour.
Welcome to Test cricket, @Natarajan_91 Thangarasu Natarajan becomes the first Indian player to make his International debut across all three formats during the same tour #AUSvIND pic.twitter.com/CKltP2uT5w — ICC (@ICC) January 14, 2021
Imagine you have earned your maiden call-up to the Test squad after consistent performances on the domestic and A circuit. It's the Australian tour, an intimidating one. You are most probably the fifth or sixth choice pacer in the line-up. But days before the series you suffer a personal tragedy. Your father, your backbone has passed away. You have the option of returning home. But you decide to stay back and fulfill your father's dream despite the slim chances of making it to the starting eleven. Then, one fine day, all of a sudden you find yourself being handed that coveted Test cap and the tears come trickling down during the national anthem. Emotions are riding high, memories, and sacrifices of your father keep flashing in front of your eyes. And then, you are drawing edges and pinging helmets.
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) January 7, 2021
You pick up wickets. Perform the holding role. Bowl fast. Seam and swing them around, wrap a shoulder around other bowlers' arms, guide and motivate them, even the seniors, impress the great Sachin Tendulkar. The racist slurs and abuses from the stand don't impact you, in fact you are brave enough to call them out. And keep performing with the same relentless intensity. By the time you reach the deciding Test, you are technically the most experienced bowler in the side and you end up taking that ball home, leading from the front with your maiden five-for, in just your third Test, soaking up the emotions and the ovation at the Gabba. You have played one match less and still finish as the highest-wicket taker for your team in your maiden Test series.
This is the story of Mohammed Siraj on the Australian tour.
Imagine you are asked to stay back as a net bowler for the Tests after the T20Is. You are nowhere near a Test call-up. But then there is a sudden turn of events. Your two front-line spinners get injured in the same match. You don't even have a proper Test kit and the team management decides to give you a call of duty over another relatively senior experienced spinner in the squad. You haven’t played first-class cricket in about four years. But still, you are ready to bowl 40-50 overs in an innings. You start off in a dream fashion with the wicket of Steve Smith. Then hit a gritty fifty under pressure with a smile amidst a constant barrage of bouncers and body blows to become the first debutant visiting Australia to hit a fifty and take three wickets since Dattu Phadkar in India's second-ever Test in 1947.
And along the same theme, Sundar is the first debutant visiting Australia to score a 50 & take 3 wickets since Dattu Phadkar in India's second-ever Test here back in 1947 #AUSvIND
— Adam Burnett (@AdamBurnett09) January 17, 2021
Your father, who has made you the tough character you are, had predicted a month ago you will play one Test before returning home. You found it hard to believe it. And here you were, at the Gabba, realising the dream of playing Test cricket at 21 and hitting a no-look six over long-on off Australia’s premier spinner. And then you come back to play another crucial little innings in a tense chase to play another vital role in helping your team clinch the series.
That's spicy! A no-look six from Sundar 6️⃣
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 17, 2021
This is the story of Washington Sundar on the Australian tour.
Imagine you have walked off injured half an hour after you have received your Test cap about two years ago, just 10 balls into your Test career after years of toil and performance in domestic cricket. With intense competition in the pace department, you don't know when your chance will come. Or whether it will arrive at all. You make it to the squad for the Australia series but as the seventh-eighth choice pacer. You are bowling in the nets and batting whenever you get a chance. Then suddenly the tables turn. You are informed of your comeback amid adversity (injuries) and will form a part of one of India's most inexperienced bowling attack.
You make a comeback to Tests after 27 months and take your maiden wicket off the first ball (11th of your Test career). And then go on to hit your first scoring shot with a six and hit a maiden fifty at a crucial juncture, under pressure against a quality Australian attack, putting on India’s fourth-highest stand for the seventh wicket or below in Tests in Australia. Yes, you also bring up your fifty with a six. And come back the next day to take three vital wickets (four in total) bowling with utmost energy, verve, and aggression to keep your team in the hunt. This is the story of Shardul Thakur on the Australia tour.
Imagine you are just 21 and on the fringes of the Test side. You are highly rated and people and experts from some quarters believe that you should have already made your debut by now. You are patiently waiting for your chance. You are on the flight to Australia, again one of the toughest and intimidating tours for a youngster. It seems like you have to bide your time as your former U-19 captain is preferred to open.
You watch from the sidelines as your team capitulates for 36 all out. And amidst the storm, suddenly you find yourself out in the middle in the next Test facing the likes of Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, and Mitchell Starc and up against the new ball. The opener's scores read 0, 4 (Shaw), 17, 9 (Agarwal) so far. But it doesn't perturb you. Your calm head takes control and so does your impressive back foot play as you score 45 and 35 not out in a winning cause. And then a fifty in the next match driving, pulling, and punching with self-assurance to add solidity and stability at the top. And then you go one step further and take the attack to one the best attacks in the world, cutting and pulling fearlessly into the stands on a fifth day chasing 328 to become just the second-youngest visiting player to score a fifty in the fourth innings of a Test in Australia. It lays the platform for one of the famous wins in Indian Test history. You finish your maiden Test series with an average of 51.80.
This is the story of Shubman Gill on the Australian tour.
Shubman Gill’s signature backfoot punch gets better as you watch it twice
— Arjun (@ArjunNamboo) January 8, 2021
Imagine you are under constant scrutiny since you made your debut, being touted a special talent. You are just 23 and constantly in and out of the side due to inconsistencies in both batting and wicket keeping. Imagine you are on a tour on which you had blasted 159 not out in an innings on your last visit. And you are being left out of the first Test which you were expected to start on this visit. Imagine being under pressure after scoring just 66 runs from three innings and dropping catches with the other keeper waiting in the wings. And then you stride and play an innings of a lifetime in your chase (at Sydney), nearly providing hope of an improbable win, the best knock of your Test career and pushing the formidable Aussies onto the back foot bringing back memories and comparisons with some of the great knocks of the past.
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 19, 2021
You are making it a habit of playing blinders in the fourth innings. There is one more coming up. In the series decider. You play the innings of your life at the opposition's fortress to chase down 328, hitting the winning runs, finishing off the match, to pull off a series win and one of the greatest victories in the history of Test cricket. You finish as the highest run-getter for your team, possessing the highest average by any batsman in the series - 68.50.
This is the story of (Spiderman...Spiderman...He's the hero Spiderman) Rishabh Pant on the Australian tour.
The Australian tour was as much about these fascinating stories as much as the guts and gumption of this Indian team. There were stories within stories and as these unravelled one by one, it provided a glimpse into the rich talent reserves the country possesses and an assurance that Indian Test cricket's future is in safe hands. Every time India kept losing one of their senior/experienced personnel, one of the newcomers put their hand up and performed. They were the face of this brave India.
With their team ravaged by injuries, these newcomers were thrown into the deep end and they showed tremendous mental resolve to wade through the challenges. In a world where opportunities come at a premium, they grabbed it with both hands amidst immense competition. The fact that they were ready for it wasn't just down to their tough personalities built due to strong support from family, daily struggles, and difficult upbringings, a fair amount of credit also goes to the strong cricketing structure in India. It has prepared them for the worst.
Most of these players have climbed up the ranks of age cricket. The toil in the toughest of conditions has made them robust. Siraj, Shardul and Saini have bowled close to 26,000 balls in First-class cricket. Hanuma Vihari is just 27 and 12-Tests old. He battled a torn hamstring and criticism after low scores in first two Tests to bat 161 balls and 286 minutes to pull off a draw along with R Ashwin at Sydney. He has scored over 7000 runs at an average of 56 in First-class cricket and faced around 14,000 balls. All that experience had a role to play in Australia.
By the time the series reached Brisbane, the Indian bowling unit had a combined experience of 4 Tests. And still they managed to bowl Australia out under 400 in both innings. No team had bowled out Australia twice at the Gabba in the last 13 years, in fact that rare phenomenon had occurred just twice before in the history of Australian Test cricket.
Along with domestic cricket, where the fittest survive, the IPL has also helped forge nerves of steel. Young players are given an opportunity to experience high pressure, high adrenaline situations against some of the world-class players. Imagine a 17-year-old Washington Sundar bowling to a David Warner or a Chris Gayle in the Powerplay. Or a Shardul Thakur facing Lasith Malinga in the IPL final with two to get from the last ball. Or a Shubman Gill facing someone like Dale Steyn against the new ball. Playing top-level cricket at a young age does make a difference. With each success, you grow stronger with every failure you learn and improve. If it wasn't for yorker-specialist T Natarajan's performance in the IPL, he wouldn’t' have been on that plane to Australia. Having his best ever season in the IPL would have injected a lot of confidence into Siraj. IPL has unearthed gems in the form of Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Hardik Pandya and will keep supplying the talent in the future.
The cricketing culture, combined with a strong domestic structure, 'A' team tours and the IPL has made Indian cricket stronger than ever converting it into a conveyor belt of talent.
This Australian tour which was turning out to be unfortunate and started off as a disaster turned into invaluable for Indian cricket. Siraj's skills, Natarajan's resolve, Shardul's swagger. Sundar's calm, Gill's composure, Vihari's rearguard, Pant's blitz will be remembered for years to come. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Even in tough times, it would have been a steep learning curve and motivation for the likes of Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw witnessing the fight put up by their friends and teammates from inside the dressing room.
As they head back home, after five months in the bio-bubble, most of them might not know when their next chance will arrive. Or whether it even will. However, after they reach their homes and wake up the 'day after' their hearts will swell with pride and fill with satisfaction with that special feeling of 'I played Test cricket for India.' And there is no better feeling as a cricketer.
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