My father introduced me to cricket. Every January in my childhood, I would accompany him to Chepauk to watch the traditional Pongal Test. The air was festive, we would have season tickets (tickets for all five days of the match) in the hallowed D stand, and it was a complete carnival atmosphere with the whole city celebrating. One of the first such matches I watched live was the famous tied test of Madras between Allan Border’s Australia and Kapil Dev’s India. Thus began my love affair with Test cricket. Over the years, the India-Australia Test match rivalry has become a compelling confrontation that has produced outstanding performances that climax in grandstand finishes. Kolkata, Chennai, Adelaide, Perth and Chandigarh, all conjure memories of famous India victories. And again, in January 2021, the record books are being rewritten as India beat Australia by three wickets to claim a famous victory. But the facts alone don’t tell the whole story.
A grieving son in Mohammed Siraj can finally go home to his family and dedicate this win to his late father. A new father, T Natarajan can finally see his daughter, three months after she was born. The senior Sundar, who could not graduate beyond grade cricket in Chennai can finally see his cricketing dreams being realised by his son Washington. The Gill family that is still protesting for its farming rights can be proud of the way Shubman has announced himself on the world stage. Shardul Thakur, who used to have a daily commute of seven hours by local trains and was dropped from his U-19 squad for being overweight, can now walk with his head held high having contributed with both ball and bat. And Rishabh Pant can look back and remember the day that the rest of the world realised that the boy with potential, the IPL whiz kid, is now a batsman to be feared in all forms of the game.
On paper, we all know India had no business to compete with Australia in this Test. We had barely cobbled together a team where the bowlers were not even the leading bowlers in their state teams. Their primary role was to be net bowlers, meaning they could bowl practice balls at the batsmen, but all that had changed now. Our bowling attack cumulatively had taken 12 career Test wickets and the opposition not only had the world’s best bowler, but its collective experience accounted for 1000 Test wickets. Our batting order had an opener who was the best when he wore the blue, a 21-year-old who was considered an experienced opener in his 3rd Test, a standby captain and the blockathon specialist. We didn’t know where our middle order ended and our tail began and of course, we had the wicketkeeper-batsman who would, despite the heroics of the previous Test, not win a bet on whether he would score more runs than his drops would cost.
'Welcome to the Gabbatoir' is the Australian way of welcoming touring teams to Brisbane, their fortress. There is something about the heat and the stillness, the cracking pitch tailormade for the Aussie quicks, that have ensured that the Gabba fortress has not been breached for over 30 years. Their captain Tim Paine had sledged Ravichandran Ashwin and invited him to the Gabba, confident that his team would thrash us. Having reluctantly agreed to travel to Brisbane, the pre-match talk focused on how the Indians were constantly cribbing about quarantine and already finding excuses to avoid ending up on the losing side.
Above: India's Washington Sundar bats during play on the final day of the fourth cricket test. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)
Most Indian fans including myself were hoping that the rain gods would smile on us, and enough overs would be lost over the five days to eke out a draw. But here we were at the end of the fourth day, and India’s depleted bowling attack, further ravaged by injury, had managed to take 20 wickets. But surely Australia had done enough to win this. The safest and seemingly sensible route India could adopt was to play for an honourable draw. No team dreams of scoring over 300 on a crumbling fifth day pitch in Australia.
However, ball by ball, over by over, session by session, this team said, 'Who cares about an honourable draw when we can claim a glorious victory'. Australia was desperate for a victory, kept pressing and threw the kitchen sink at us, but we soldiered on and the result was a fitting climax to one of the most extraordinary series of all time.
After the early dismissal of Rohit, when the official predictor had given India a one percent chance to win, Gill and Pujara buckled down. Pujara started with his now trademark approach of blocking everything thrown at him. The bowlers were fresh, and Pujara played 211 balls for his 56 to tire them out. The Australian bowlers bowled 70 short balls at him, of which 12 hit him. That's right, 12 balls at over 140 kilometres per hour each hit him on his head, elbow, ribs, fingers and hand. It was the clash of the irresistible force of the top pace bowling side in the world against the immovable object.
Gill meanwhile was scoring in style, pulling the short ones and driving the overpitched. His fiery counter-attack punctuated with eight boundaries and a couple of maximums combined with Pujara's numbing stoicism laid a platform before Gill fell to Lyon, just short of a century. The captain came for a brief cameo, but signalled the intent of the team. Pujara epitomised more than just courage and his vigil set the platform for others to flourish. And finally, it took the second new ball and an umpire’s call to dislodge him.
India now needed 100 from 20 overs, but more importantly with Pujara gone, the Australians had the opening for which they were clamouring all day. An epic series saw yet another twist in the last 45 minutes with Pat Cummins taking his fourth wicket of the innings and Australia's fifth when Mayank Agarwal drove one to Matthew Wade at short cover. Our hopes rested with Pant, who often draws a thin line between being careless and carefree. He had a willing ally in Sundar, who will never forget his first Test. The two reminded us why they are T20 specialists with a ticking run rate that could be easily managed while playing outrageous shots and living on the edge. Lyon bowled the 21-year-old Sundar when he went for an ambitious reverse sweep. Despite Josh Hazlewood claiming another late wicket, Pant and India raced over the line to stun Australia. It was a day on which an Indian team had proved every cricketing pundit wrong and had outwitted every algorithm’s predictions.
Above: Indian players celebrate with their trophy after defeating Australia by three wickets on the final day. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)
There is a long list of support staff members who had fashioned this triumph including bowling coach Bharat Arun, batting coach Vikram Rathour and fielding coach R Sridhar. None of them had ever seen such success in their playing days and but the template had been first set ages ago by the head coach Ravi Shastri. Shastri’s love affair with Australia began well before anyone in this current team was born. He was crowned the champion of champions in Australia during the mid-1980s, something he celebrated by driving an Audi around the cricket ground. He had also ground the Aussie attack as he scored a double century in Sydney to draw a Test, back in the days when we used to get steamrolled by Australia. He may be the most trolled coach in the history of Indian cricket, but his shrewd cricket brain and inherent aggression are what reflects in team India’s performance. Never has a man done more to earn his favourite tipple.
Having counterpunched right through the series, India today had made the transition from good to great cricket, the story of which will be regaled for posterity. And as the enormity of the occasion sunk in, here was captain Ajinkya Rahane personifying Maharashtrian humility, with a genteel smile, grace and calm. He had his place in this Indian team questioned just a few months ago, but this standby captain had led his band of young and obscure to a series win that made them household names overnight. He did not have to demonstrate wildly just how much this series victory meant to him. The numbers and the result did all the talking. In a classy gesture, he called Nathan Lyon to hand him an Indian jersey with the signatures of all the players to commemorate his 100th test. Cummins was rightfully awarded the man of the series award. The top batting and bowling honours went to Australians, and India meanwhile basked in the collective success of teamwork. Every session had a new hero and for a country that often basks in individual glory and milestones, this was a truly defining moment.
The vociferous crowd in the stadium was shouting slogans and it was a day to be a proud Indian. But forget hyper-nationalism for a minute; it was a day to salute the grit and the determination of the men who reminded us again that a phoenix does rise from the ashes when you least expect it. It was a day to be a proud fan of the oldest and the longest form of the game. It was a day to salute the spirit of sport. As day broke in London, I wanted to celebrate in the streets only to be reminded that we are still in a lockdown. But the mind cannot be locked down, and I can revel in the reflected glory which only an epic sporting victory can bring. It’s time to call my dad and relive some childhood memories and discuss this win.
Gabba 2021 will join the pantheon of famous victories and may even stake claim to the greatest ever. We all need to be thankful to the 11 men who have warmed our hearts immensely and have shown that inexperience can sometimes be a virtue. If you haven’t experienced fear before, you may travel to places where no one else has.
Banner image: India's Mohammed Siraj gestures with the ball as he leaves the field after taking five wickets during play on day four of the fourth cricket test. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)