India’s Greatest Test Series Triumph: Heroes Down Under

It was the 5th day of the fourth Test between India and Australia at the Gabba. Gabba to the Australians is what Anfield was to Liverpool – much more than a fortress, a ground they hadn’t tasted defeat at since 1988, when they lost to the fearsome West Indies team. In the 31 Tests since then, Australia had won 24 Tests and drawn seven. (P.S: Liverpool lost to Burnley at home in the Premier League on 21st January 2021, 1369 days after their last home defeat in the league. There’s something about this week and fortresses being invaded.)

 

The score was 318-5. Washington Sundar was facing the fifth ball of Nathan Lyon’s over. At that juncture, India needed just 10 runs, with 4.2 overs in hand. Sundar, having played like a veteran on his debut till that point, finally gave in to his inexperience, trying to be over-ambitious and attempting a reverse sweep, only for him to have an unfortunate contact with his gloves before knocking off the bails. 

That’s when the Australian commentators started to talk about a “glimmer” that Sundar’s wicket gave the Aussies to somehow, somehow save the Test from falling in India’s favour, not that they would have saved the match anyway. Well, that shows the extent of damage a battered and bruised Indian side had done to this Australian side, a side that had its pace battery charging in with all their might throughout the four Tests, a batting unit that saw the returns of their trailblazing mavericks David Warner and Steve Smith, and a side that was – ahead of the Test Series – at the top of the World Test Championship Table.

This series win will go down as one of the greatest Test Series, not just in Indian cricketing folklore, but as an underdog fairytale that will be talked about for generations to come, possibly eternally. Australian tours have always been about the big players rising to the occasion, but this tour saw the emergence of clutch warriors and cricketing superheroes that threw the kitchen sink and punched way, way above their weights. 

It all started from the spirit-dampening 8-wicket loss in the day/night Test at Adelaide. The build-up to the opening Test was significant, for this series – according to pundits and media alike – was equally poised unlike the 2018-19 series where Australia were without the services of David Warner and Steve Smith. It was anything but that as India were humiliated on the third day. They had registered their lowest-ever score during an innings, all while having almost the same team that toured Down Under in 2018-19. 

Ironically, David Warner and Steve Smith had no influence on the match’s outcome, which made this loss all the more difficult to digest. Former cricketers had written this team off for the rest of the series. Waves of a 4-0 whitewash – which would have been India’s first whitewash at the hands of Australia since 2011-12 – circled all around the cricketing fraternity. The departure of Virat Kohli gave more emphasis to the predictions. Australians and the people in the media were celebrating India’s all-time low score as if they had regained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Everyone was assured that Australia would make light work of this crestfallen and dejected Indian side. Everyone but the Indians themselves. 

The revival began in Melbourne. The stage was set for the Kangaroos to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. Who knew India would come up trumps against all the odds, more so after the return of Virat Kohli to India, the absence of Mohammed Shami due to injury, and the inclusion of two debutantes in Shubman Gill and Mohammed Siraj. A win in Melbourne was something no one had seen coming. What was even more compelling were the contributions of the two newbies, Gill and Siraj. Both of them showed supreme composure with the bat and the ball respectively, especially Siraj, who had been the subject of unnecessary social media trolls and who had lost his father just a few weeks back. 

Gabba Test

This underdog fairytale had reached its crescendo at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Surely, India wouldn’t give Australia a run for their money for a second Test in row, right? The cricketing gods, for all the punches that the Australians threw at the Indians, favoured the on-paper looking David against Goliath. 

That had been the recurring theme throughout the series. Every Test, every session, every hour, an unlikely hero emerged and took the game by the scruff of its neck. Sometimes, it took the collective efforts of two or more men to save the blushes, just like Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin, who shape-shifted into immovable forces in the fourth innings at the SCG. Vihari had a series to forget up until that point, and he walked in when Rishabh Pant got out on 97. India had to survive the bludgeoning Aussie charges for another 57 overs, needing 157 runs. Mathematically, the game was India’s to lose. 57 overs and 157 runs would have been a cakewalk for even a monk-like figure of Cheteshwar Pujara, who scored three of his slowest half-centuries of his Test career this series (we’ll talk about him in a while). 

Vihari suffered a gruelling hamstring injury. After the fall of Pujara’s wicket, Ashwin walked in at the crease. The Tamil Nadu off-spinner has four Test centuries to his name. Yet, his batting had significantly regressed over the last few years. And his fourth innings performances are only as good as those of all other Indian tailenders.

What unfolded over the next three hours was a ‘blockathon,’ and it seemed as if Rahul Dravid had cloned himself in disguise in the form of Vihari and Ashwin. Vihari, injured and incapable of playing at his best, decided to dig in, finding able support from Ashwin, who played the innings of his life. Amidst all the barrage of short balls, body blows, and some abominable sledging by Aussie captain Tim Paine, the two warriors were undeterred by the proverbial “mountain to climb” challenge, instead deciding to look it in the eye. One was playing to save his career, while the other to save the pride. United, they managed to save the match and, in turn, the series. 62 runs, 259 balls, and grit of the highest order meant that both the teams headed to the ‘Gabbatoir’ with everything to play for.  

And here we are, at the climax of this incredible storyline, one that would have been counted as a psychotic prediction prior to the series. Australia won the toss for the umpteenth time this series. Steve Smith and his protégé Marnus Labuschagne had clicked into top form just at the right time. And such was the build-up to this match that India were made to look as losers even before the first ball had been bowled, not to mention India had to play with an almost second-string side that consisted of two debutantes (technically three if Shardul Thakur is counted) in Washington Sundar and Thangarasu Natarajan, both of whom are known to be ‘white-ball specialists.’

Australia posted 369 runs in the 1st innings, a total good enough to intimidate a brittle Indian team, more so when the Indians were reduced to 186-6. What happened next was the stuff of dreams. Shardul Thakur, who got injured in the second over on his Test debut against West Indies in 2018, was technically making his debut alongside Tamil Nadu’s 21-year-old Washington Sundar. Neither of them were a part of the Test squad originally. 

The duo put on 123 runs for the seventh wicket just when it seemed like Australia would extend their Undertaker-esque streak at the Gabba to 25-0 without any hassle. A lead of over 150 runs was looking a reality and the Australians must have rejoiced at that stage. Little did they know that they were going to be completely outclassed by two amateurs of the Test arena, that too with sheer confidence and panache. The Sundar-Thakur partnership was India’ most important partnership of the series, right up there with the rigorous Vihari-Ashwin blockathon. 

A slender lead of 33 didn’t give the Kangaroos the sort of impetus they would have fancied. Siraj and Thakur shared 9 wickets among them in the second innings, with the former bagging his maiden five-wicket haul in only his third Test. The huge smile on Thakur’s face as he grabbed Hazlewood’s catch to signal the end of the second innings showed the sort of character this team had. Thakur himself was just one wicket away from picking up his first five-wicket haul, but the fact that he celebrated Siraj’s achievement as much as he would have celebrated his was truly a sweet moment. 

It all boiled down to the final – and most important – day of the fourth Test, and the series itself. The entire chase was like a pendulum, swinging and switching sides hour after hour. The early dismissal of Rohit Sharma meant the floodgates would open. Shubman Gill had a half-century in the previous Test, but he did himself one better, scoring 91 and taking the game away from the opposition. He took on the initiative, smashed Starc with utter nonchalance all around the park, and showed that he belonged here. He deserved a century for the class he put on display, but he did twice of what was expected of him considering it was only his third Test.

If the Sydney heist was magical, the breaching of the Gabba fortress was a miracle. Gill’s innings gave India the belief that they could conquer Gabba. If Pujara’s vigil that lasted 211 balls ensured India wouldn’t lose the match, Rishabh Pant ensured that India didn’t leave Brisbane without breaking the Aussie pride. 

India were injury-ravaged throughout the Test series, with as many as nine regulars either unavailable or sidelined due to injury. Five players made their Test debuts during the series: Shubman Gill, Mohammed Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Washington Sundar, and Thangarasu Natarajan. A totally bizarre bowling lineup managed to pick up 20 Australian wickets at the Gabba. The Indian bowling lineup had played a combined four Tests and picked up a combined 11 wickets ahead of the fourth Test. The Australian bowling lineup, on the other hand, had a combined experience of 246 Tests and 1013 wickets. There are just no words to describe the bravado of this side. 

Recollect the third act of Avengers: Endgame. A wounded Captain America was up against the entire army of Thanos, plus Thanos himself. Yet, he stood up to fight them, as long as he could, alone. You can probably compare this Indian team with Captain America/Steve Rogers from Avengers: Endgame, someone who just wouldn’t give up in the face of adversity. 

Siraj at Gabba

Mohammed Siraj had lost his father a few weeks back and wouldn’t have even made his debut if not for the injuries to the regular bowlers. In the final Test, he emerged as the unofficial leader of the pack, a player who himself had no experience at the highest level whatsoever. Siraj became the human embodiment of the famous Spider-Man phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Sorry for all the Marvel references, you must have figured out I am a Marvel aficionado by now. And yes, I am.) With 13 wickets in 3 Tests, he finished as the highest wicket-taker for India, and the third-highest in the series, only behind Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. 

What can be said about Thakur and Sundar? The Aussies were simply taken aback by their onslaught, and how! Between them, they shared 11 wickets and 151 runs in the Gabba Test, contributions worth their weight in gold. Thakur was told by Shastri, “If you want people to love you, perform in Australia.” And, perform he did! 

If the newbies wiped the feet off the Aussies’ ground, several experienced lads knocked the wind out of their sails. Statistically, Pujara had a worse outing than he did in 2018-19, where he was the best batsman. His ultra-defensive approach came under the scanner several times. He might have been looked at as a villain initially, but he left Australia as a hero, as a leader, and most importantly, as someone who will continue to flee the spotlight and work quietly, all while being one of the most important (and underrated) members of the XI. Anyone who doubts Pujara’s style or approach knows about cricket only as much as a donkey about quantum mechanics. 

Finally, it’s time to give some screen time to the MVP of Gabba, Rishabh Pant. The wicket-keeper has had quite a journey, hasn’t he? He had lost his place as the first-choice wicket-keeper to Wriddhiman Saha since his wicket-keeping was (is) still a work in progress as compared to Saha, who is more often than not touted as the ‘best wicket-keeper in terms of pure wicket-keeping quality.’ 

The youngster has come under immense pressure numerous times. Having been given a long rope, his coarse-grained shot selection led to his downfall. It’s ironic and befitting at the same time how a player of Pant’s flair outperforms in the longest format yet somehow fails to deliver in formats tailor-made for his fearless batting style. Mind you, he has the highest batting average in Tests of any visiting batsman in Australia in the last ten years. 

From being a backup, to scoring a valiant 97 at the SCG in the third Test to give India a “glimmer” of chasing down the insurmountable 407, to taking the team over the finishing line with a well-calculated 89 at the Gabba, Pant had quite the turnaround in a matter of few weeks. At the SCG, Lyon got the better of Pant as the batsman flayed at a ball outside the off stump only to serve some catching practice to the fielder. He learned his lesson and left most of the balls outside off stump at the Gabba, even if that meant a spike in the required run-rate. 

Shubham Gill and Rishabh Pant at Gabba

This innings was somewhat reminiscent of Sachin Tendulkar’s ostentatious yet cautious 241 at the SCG in 2004. He was a victim of the balls being bowled outside the off stump, and he wasn’t enjoying a good tour until that moment. In that innings, however, Sachin’s steely resolve came to the fore as he didn’t attempt a single cover drive. Pant’s innings had similar levels of resolve and determination. He came in with the intention of winning the game, and such was the cinematic effect to this run chase that he scored the winning runs with a tailender at the non-striker’s end. Lyon was frustrated at the end of the game, and I am sure a majority of that came from Pant’s leaves outside the off stump off his bowling. 

Harsha Bhogle termed the Gabba victory as the greatest moment in Indian cricket history alongside the 1983 World Cup victory. Bhogle for one is a man of logic. He will never hyperbolize his statements. In my opinion, this is the greatest Test victory I have ever witnessed. It might or might not usurp England’s Houdini Act at Headingley in 2019, and I don’t care enough to compare these two victories. India were never given a chance, let alone have a shot at being equals. 

Indian Team at Gabba

What worked in India’s favour was that they hit rock bottom within three days of the commencement of the Test series and not mid-way or at the end, when it mattered the most. They had time to recoup and they would surely not do worse than they had already done, would they? But the spirit and never-say-die attitude that the players showed is nothing less than commendable. When you hit a low, the morale is broken and it’s extremely difficult to pull back things in order. Without their leader, Virat Kohli, and a string of regulars, the sort of intent and bravery this bunch showed throughout the tour deserves a place in the upper echelons of the history of the game.

Justin Langer correctly proclaimed that the Indians should never be underestimated. Whether he was being modest or that was a natural reply after being humbled, Langer surely had huge respect for this team based on how he sounded. Without their best batsman and bowler, and all the other components that made India a force of nature, India have left an indelible mark on the Australians in their own backyard. 

This series was never meant to be one for the weak-hearted. This series was never meant to be about the famous ones stealing the headlines. This series was never about one team walking over another without much effort. Rather, it was a series where a struggling nobody became a shining somebody. It was a series that paved the way for stop-start careers to flourish rather than a good career getting destroyed. It was a series where superheroes overcame the challenge without any superpower. It was a series where dreams met reality. 

There are no qualms about the fact that this series will go down as the greatest in Indian cricket history. Kudos to all the players involved, for they put up one hell of a fight. Special praise should be heaped towards Ravi Shastri and Ajinkya Rahane, who made sure the team stayed united during the crisis and returned better than ever. Rahane’s captaincy needs to be lauded as he showed his tactical nous and diligence at crucial junctures throughout the series. 

Indian National Team

It’s difficult to tell what will happen to the ‘Class of 21’ once the regulars return to the XI. Some of them might not even play another Test, ever. But I can guarantee one thing. These players’ names will be engraved on my heart, as well as every other fan’s heart, for the rest of our lives. Stories will be told about these so-called cricketing superheroes, who have shown that you need just one match or one series to forge your legacy. And their legacies will remain at the very pinnacle of the cricket mountain for generations to come until one day, another underdog fairytale takes the world by storm.

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