There wouldn’t be great art if not for pain, suffering and personal setback. There would be no memorable victory if not for the underdog.
Stories that give you the goosebumps, bring a lump to your throat and make your muscles twitch involuntarily, the ones that make you cry and whoop in joy, the ones that permeate the membranes of familiar reactions to evoke feelings that take you by surprise – those are the ones where these two plotlines converge. It’s why you rooted for Blake and Schofield in ‘1917’, Easy Company in ‘Band of Brothers’. It’s why you can’t have enough of ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Chak De! India’. It’s why Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ stirs your soul.
In the victory at The Gabba this week, Indian cricket wrote the forever ode to the underdog, and the fighting spirit that springs from setback.
That’s why the cricketing world is in raptures. We will tell and retell the story, over and over and some more, of the unheralded pack of boys thrown suddenly into battle, charging down a well-drilled Australian team unburdened by the fear that comes from experience, taking punches but punching back harder, possessed so much by the moment that pain didn’t feel so painful. And we won’t ever have enough of it.
As a tale of human triumph, it couldn’t have chosen a better moment, rescuing hope from the swirling fog of the pandemic and painting it across the cerulean Brisbane sky for the world to see. A one-shot morale-booster no vaccine can match.
As a tale of human resilience, it will endure far beyond the Shubman Gill-Rishabh Pant generation and transcend into cricketing lore, narrated with as much nostalgia over fish and chips in England as over paneer tikka or mutton rogan josh in India. For this was no fluke, a blink-and-you-miss-it flash of genius, a Coleridgian Xanadu dream. This was a victory of character, which was tested over and over, and triumphed each time after an early humiliation.
All out for 36 in Adelaide – our lowest Test score – then winning the Melbourne Test without captain and batting bulwark Virat Kohli (paternity leave) and pace spearhead Mohd Shami (arm fracture), and a frontline bowler down (Umesh Yadav, calf muscle).
Set a fourth-innings target of 407 at Sydney but batting out four sessions, blocking the fearsome threesome of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, for a draw that felt like a win.
Going to The Gabba in Brisbane, where Australia were unbeaten since 1988, without Jasprit Bumrah, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – basically, our whole bowling unit – and stealing the most memorable of victories.
This was the finest statement of Unity in Adversity from the team representing the country of Unity in Diversity.
The series, even before the first ball was bowled, seemed preordained to be about those who would not be there. Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, two great exponents of seam and swing, weren’t around. And Kohli would leave after the first Test.
With a battery of injured stars over the next three Tests, the story of the series was meant to be about the absentees – the Aussies could gloat about a whitewash, the Indians could shrug their shoulders and point to the sick bay, and the fan, the passionate, opinionated, intensely critical Indian fan, would understand: “You’d be lucky to win in Australia without Kohli. And without Shami, Bumrah, Yadav, Ashwin and Jadeja, ‘we feel for you, mate’.”
But Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill, Mohd Siraj and Washington Sundar aren’t from the generation that grew up watching the ‘tigers at home, lambs abroad’ label stuck to the Indian team. Gill and Sundar were both 1 year old, Pant 3 and Siraj 6 when Sourav Ganguly was appointed captain in 2000 and gave Indian cricket a DNA transplant. Shardul Thakur, the oldest in the group of players we discovered on this tour, was 10 and would’ve spent his formative years watching this transformation.
In the replacements, the Indian team needed players who believed they could win. These players did, bringing not just mental steel but a repertoire of skill to the playing XI.
Siraj showed he is from the gold mine of fast bowlers India has unearthed in recent years, sledging the Aussies with the ball and finding the raw edges of their bats, letting his game speak while some spectators racially abused him.
The ambidextrous Sundar, a T20 specialist, flummoxed the Aussies with his limited-overs, middle-stump off spin and batted with quintessential southpaw poise to lay the foundations of the great Gabba victory. Thakur, Sundar’s partner in that epic effort, bowled the best outswingers of the series.
And Pant, the under-achieving matchwinner, finally came of age, playing fearlessly as only he can. Pant is Virender Sehwag-like in the way he sees the game – cavalier and free-spirited to a fault. He brings to India’s Test batting lineup a fear factor, just as Cheteshwar Pujara brings stability. The decisive partnership of the Gabba Test was the best of two batting worlds for India – Pujara, meditative and sagely, the monk who never cared for a Ferrari, and Pant, buccaneering and boisterous, the man who bats like he was born in one.
Pujara isn’t, of course, the only unflappable character in this team. If India’s Gabba heist were the cricketing equivalent of Ocean’s Eleven, captain Ajinkya Rahane was its Daniel Ocean, the calm strategist with a menthol effect on a crackling bunch of players bubbling with talent and energy.
True to the nature of India-Australia contests, which ought to be now elevated to a five-Test series, this was another great magnum opus of Test cricket, whose doomsayers never seem to tire. By the same flimsy logic of T20s killing Tests, the French press should have perished because of instant coffee, wrist watches would’ve disappeared as all mobiles have a clock, and pens would be history whose obituary you would type on a keypad.
Another point critics of Test matches seem to miss is that entertainment has become more immersive than ever before because of streaming – season after season of TV shows is being devoured by people across the world. Good long-form has magnetic charm. Test cricket, with its brooding intensity, epic trials, triumphs and tragedies, is sport’s grandest theatre – the Game of Thrones to T20’s Gladiator.
Especially from an Indian fan’s point of view, the years ahead in this theatre promise to be exciting. We’ve seen and heard enough Aussie aggression. Test cricket is poised for a new dominant theme. Indian grit.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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