In the 97th over of the final day at The Gabba, Rishabh Pant lofted the ball in the air with six runs needed to seal the series. A naturally aggressive batsman, he was only aiming to finish the game with a maximum over long-off. One would imagine that this was definitely the moment where the trajectory of the match would turn to a more believable outcome. As the ball hovered into the sky, it was natural for a significant section of the Indian fanbase to contemplate on the inevitable. ‘Saini, Siraj, Natarajan. Can they survive?’. But as they say, luck favors the brave. In this case, India were more. They were ‘the battered’, ‘the bruised’.
Matthew Wade, the wicketkeeper-batsman who, like Pant in the Dhoni era, was accommodated in the XI as a batsman, failed to judge the catch. The ball eventually fell into no man’s land. In the same over, Pant hit the winning runs.
A few hours later, Team India head coach Ravi Shastri told the 23-year-old, “When you were batting, you gave heart attack to everyone.” Pant blushed. Others laughed. India had just retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, breaching Fortress Gabba in the final Test. And they did it their way. Even when nothing went their way.
A day has gone by since. It took some time, but the nerves have calmed down. The heartbeat seems to have returned to normal. The events of Tuesday have slowly started to make sense. Yes, it took some time – 24 hours to be precise – but the fairy tale now seems believable. As fans of sports, we live for the rollercoaster rides of emotions. But how does one prepare for days as unprecedented as these? On January 19, 2021, India scripted the unimaginable at The Gabba, and for once, it didn’t really feel like an exaggeration when the greats of the game called the 2020/21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy as one of the ‘greatest Test series ever’.
Words like grit, patience and toughness are often overused in the sport. But to say that Team India was synonymous with all of those on the tour of Australia would be an understatement. On a land where its people take pride in their sportspersons’ mental toughness and strong characters, Ajinkya Rahane’s men raised the bar to stand up to the essence of it all.
On paper, this wasn’t supposed to happen. India had lost their star bowler before the series. They had also lost their captain after one Test. Then, they lost their opening batsman for the first two Tests. They lost another star bowler during the first Test, and then lost 10 wickets in 36 runs.
People often draw comparisons of Test cricket to life. Indian captain Virat Kohli himself believes the longest format of the game to be a perfect “representation of life.”
".. Because it is the representation of life. Whether you get runs or not, you have to clap when others are batting. You have to go back to your room, get up and come the next day. You have to follow the routine whether you like it or not. It's like life where you don't have the option of not competing. Test cricket has made me a better person,” Kohli had told Kevin Pietersen during a lockdown interview.
And so, just like life, Test cricket also offers a chance at redemption after failure. It is a long grind - ball after ball, session after session, day after day, with an eventual result of nothing or everything. Team India rose from the ashes of Adelaide to breathe fire in Melbourne, then resist fire in Sydney, and fittingly finished the trial by combat at the fortress – Brisbane.
“See you at Gabba.”
Australia captain Tim Paine’s ruthlessness was backed by the side’s rich history at the venue. The venue saw Australia unbeaten for 32 years, 31 successive Tests; it was too precious to the Australianness of the Aussies. It helped little to India’s cause that their inhibitions to COVID-19 hard-quarantine protocols in Brisbane served perfect ammunition to the Australian media, which dished out the narrative that Team India was afraid to play at The Gabba.
Injury troubles further mounted concerns when Team India arrived in Brisbane. With less than 24 hours to go for the Test, there was no decision on playing XI. The last of the first-choice fast bowlers was injured. The main spinner was injured. The all-rounder was ruled out. A batsman was ruled out. The wicketkeeper-batsman played through injury. The worries went to an extent where the internet wondered if India even had 11 players at their disposal. Virender Sehwag even offered his services as a player, albeit cheekily.
When the XI was finally announced, people gasped at the gap in experience between both sides. Mohammed Siraj, who made his debut in the series, was now the most senior pacer. India’s bowling attack had a cumulative total of 13 Test wickets. Australia had 1033. The Indian team were playing with their 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th choice fast bowlers – and even among them, one sustained an injury during the match. At one point, it had become a running joke that one only needs an Indian passport to don the whites at The Gabba.
And yet, the rookie Indian pace attack did well to bowl Australia out on 369. Symbolizing the courage shown by the visitors, now rendered almost second-string, debutant Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur mixed caution with aggression to bail their team out of a precarious 186 for six to lead the side to 336. Indian pacers Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur then produced another inspirational effort in adverse circumstances, taking 9 wickets among them to restrict Australia to 294. Siraj took his first five-wicket haul, and as he showed that scuffed red kookaburra acknowledging the 957 people in the stands on the first working day of the week, the most generous applause came from his partner in crime Thakur, who walked a foot behind him clapping with gusto.
And then, it all came down to the final day of the series. Most Indians prayed for rains before the play, but as the day grew, so did hope.
In a series that unearthed a plethora of young talent, it only seemed fitting that India’s run-chase was led by two young batsmen, and their efforts tied together by the experience of an 81-Test veteran.
When Shubman Gill played those drives through covers, it almost felt time runs slower for him. And while Cheteshwar Pujara sustained body-blows after Australia aimed to unsettle the batsmen with short-pitch barrage, Gill had the nerve to go for the pulls and the hooks, even with two men back. Of course, he was cautious to not over-hit the strokes.
Pujara kept sustaining body blows and the team physio continued to make appearances on the field. But it mattered little what the physio advised him, because Pujara’s will to bat only seemed to grow stronger with each hit to his body. He almost severely injured his finger and was concerningly (yes, really) asked by Josh Hazlewood if he saw the ball coming, but Pujara remained unfazed.
And then there was Rishabh Pant. He was dropped from the limited-overs sides, didn’t feature in the first Test in Adelaide, and yet, looked so relaxed he might as well be singing the Spiderman song after hitting the six off Nathan Lyon. Ah, the six off Lyon, coming immediately after a delivery which deflected 35 degrees off a crack on the pitch. Brave, brave Rishabh Pant.
And so, the trio combined to script history at The Gabba, doing the unimaginable at the ‘fortress’. There were so many individual stories on this tour that will forever be cherished – Siraj, the son who lost his father but took the tough decision to stay with the team, and eventually ended the series with a five-wicket haul. Natarajan, who was largely unknown to the Indian population before his exploits in the IPL, and what with his fairy tale appearances in all the three formats of the game. And Sundar and Thakur, who would’ve never been in fray for a Test appearance if India didn’t face so many injuries – but now find themselves in the Test squad for England’s tour of India in February.
The fact that such performances came during the times of COVID, when players are battling immense mental and physical challenges of staying in quarantine, makes the achievement even more magnanimous. One shouldn’t be forgetting that the Indian players have been in the bio-secure bubble since September (IPL 2020) – that’s 5 months of non-stop quarantine in two countries and eight cities!
Both India and Australia will soon begin preparing for their next assignments soon. But at this moment, we, as fans and professionals, must pause to applaud the immense commitment and sacrifices they have made to make such a series possible.