It was never meant to be like this. After the Indian cricketing team met misery and disaster in the first test match at Adelaide, registering a paltry 36 in its second innings, little hope was had for the touring side. Australia threatened rout and massacre. The Border-Gavaskar trophy seemed within the home side’s grasp.
And the home side had every reason to feel insufferably confident. India’s talismanic wonder and leader, not to mention most threatening batsman, Virat Kohli, was heading home to be with his heavily pregnant wife. But his absence was the first in what would become a series of seemingly denuding events. One Indian player after another suffered injury. What transpired was an astonishing display of courage, raw, convinced, and dedicated. India’s cricket team realised that to triumph in Australia requires Spartan discipline and manic conviction. They were not, as former Australian batsman Andrew Symonds declared about Indian cricketers in general, a lazy bunch. Here was a breed of street fighting Indian cricketer determined to shock the hosts in their fortress.
In the second test match in Melbourne, India retaliated with polish and control, dismissing Australia cheaply and winning by eight wickets in what head coach Ravi Shastri described as “one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the game.” The replacement captain, Ajinkya Rahane, scored a defining century. India won by eight wickets. In the third test match in Sydney, India’s front line was stripped of its star performers through injury, surviving with a fifth day draw in a heroic rear guard action on an uneven pitch. The Australian skipper, Tim Paine, proved injudicious, taunting Ravichandran Ashwin with a promise to “See you at the Gabba”. The ill-tempered atmosphere seeped into the stands as well. Jasprit Bumrah and the newly arrived Mohammed Siraj subsequently made complaints to match officials for racial abuse from the crowd.
It was all set for the final test match in Brisbane at a ground dauntingly known through the cricket world as the Gabbatoir. Touring sides often go there to perish, and have been doing so for 33 years, when Australia last lost a test against the fabled West Indies. There was nothing to suggest that India had a chance to win the match, though their performance at Sydney was grounds to think they might salvage a noble, bruising draw. Their first string team had been ravaged by injury: first choice spinners Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja and fast bowler Bumra, their favoured strike weapon.
On both occasions when India came in to bat, the Australians sniffed weakness and potential collapse. India countered by blunting the bowling attack, then gathering rewards. On the fifth day, it took the delightful audacity of the young opening batsman Shubman Gill to put India on the way of a solid run chase, his method all wristy grace and fine timing. But the odds were against getting the 328 runs required on a last day Gabba pitch famed for wearing.
The Australian bowlers, however, could not consistently capitalise, though they proved, at times, brutal. The imperturbable Cheteshwar Pujara was pummelled by an assortment of body blows by Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, but remained frustratingly stoic. The slow bowling art of Nathan Lyon, playing his 100th test match, failed to beguile and bamboozle. The traditionally spearing deliveries of left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Starc refused to find their mark. In contrast, India managed to bowl out Australia twice, with their salad green attack steadied by the freshly youthful Mohammed Siraj.
Despite being generally untested, the figures of this Indian cricket side have been shot into the pantheon within a matter of a few games: gangly Washington Sundar; indomitable Shardul Thakur; the ferociously brave Rishabh Pant. Their names will be sung for years on India’s maidans and cricket tracks.
Washington was remarkable and nothing like his namesake, in so far as George Washington had been a less than accomplished figure on the battlefield during the American War of Independence. It was fortunate for the American colonists that Britain had, at her disposal, Charles Cornwallis, a figure even more incompetent and ill-fated. Sundar, however, was all poise, unflappable before a bowling attack he incorrigibly teased. He stroked delicately, drove deliciously. Thakur was also more than a match: effective bowling and a stunning 123 run partnership with Sundar for the seventh wicket in the first innings in Brisbane.
Pant, by way of contrast, wielded his bat like an axe, cutting through the bowling attack and splitting the field with forensic ruthlessness. As always, he did so with almost suicidal disdain, managing to hit the winning runs in Brisbane with a scorching boundary.
The cricket doctors will be out and about pondering why India did so well. There will be speculation about global cricket’s centre of gravity shifting to the subcontinent, a fact that is finally translating into results on the ground. Forbes weighed in, describing India as “cricket’s goliath” running “the sport through their governing body’s stranglehold.” The crowning achievement of that stranglehold is the well-moneyed Indian Premier League, a competition that has attracted some of the planet’s finest cricketers.
In the assessment of former Australian cricket captain Ian Chappell, such successes can be traced “a bit back to the IPL, where they’re playing against a lot of international players and a lot of good international players on a regular basis.” For a captain most familiar with intimidating his opponents, Chappell was convinced that fear had ceased to bite the Indian team. “I think the intimidation factor that was there in the past isn’t there any longer.”
By the end of the series, Kohli might have worried about resuming the captaincy, his crown restless. Rahane, noble, stunning in leadership, devoid of histrionics and tenaciously calm of character; his young team, devoted, convinced. Such a spoil of riches can only be an advantage to Indian cricket. We can only hope that the administrators continue their wise streak and permit the youthful minnows to become masters.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.