It does not matter which series win will be labeled the greatest by an Indian team, as (over time) each victory gave us tremendous joy and lifted the life-state of an entire nation, writes Hemant Kenkre
When Rishabh Pant despatched a ball from Josh Hazelwood to the long-off ropes, he had helped India achieve a complete back-from-behind series win against mighty Australia. This win was unbelievably special, delicious and historic. The odds were completely stacked against the Ajinkya Rahane led team of battle-scarred youngsters. At 1-1 after three Test matches, they were to face the enemy who were in full force at their strongest bastion. Since 1998, the Australians had never been beaten at the Gabba and their skipper Tim Paine had reminded Indian veteran Ravichandran Ashwin of the statistic while mocking him during Ashwin’s match-saving effort at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
The Indian army that had landed down under in November 2020 to play their toughest Test series yet, saw their ranks being depleted as the tour progressed. Planned (Virat Kohli’s paternity leave) and unplanned (injuries to Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari) events over two months of quarantined stay had taken its toll on the side that outwardly looked like a shell of a regiment. A cavalry sans artillery that had former international cricketers – including Ricky Ponting and Mark Waugh – not giving them a chance of surviving the series.
The ’36-all out’ debacle at Adelaide had thrown the team into the dumps, amplifying the voices of critics questioning the intent of the team. Rahane and coach Ravi Shastri, were faced with the challenge of holding together a leaking boat with a scraggly crew while facing a storm, had to do something special to face the impossible challenge. They motivated the (mostly) inexperienced team, put full faith in their potential and abilities and slowly, but surely started to turn the tide.
And what a turnaround it was. The second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) saw a masterly innings of 112 runs by the skipper who led from the front and cameos by Jadeja and debutants Shubhman Gill and Siraj saw India bouncing back into the series. SCG threw more challenges for the visitors who had to bat out 131 overs in the fourth innings to draw the match and keep the series alive. The heroics of Pant (97 runs) and Cheteshwar Pujara (77 runs) and the stogy defence of Ashwin and Vihari saw the team hold out against the strong Aussie attack on a crumbling pitch.
The Brisbane Test saw more players (Jasprit Bumrah, Vihari and Ashwin) take refuge into the medical ward and the team had to blood three net bowlers (Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur and T Natarajan) in the squad for the final Test. The Aussies who had underestimated the Indians and were convinced that the Gabba was a fortress that couldn’t be breached were in for a surprise. The Indians, playing (probably) the most inexperienced bowling attack, decimated the hosts thanks to roles played by each and every member of the team to wrest the Border-Gavaskar Trophy for the second time. The scraggly army men had turned into a crack commando unit.
What made the latest series win sweeter was the fact the Aussies were at full strength with the inclusion of Steve Smith and David Warner who were missing when India last won the trophy in 2018-19. The Aussie media had always laid emphasis on the omissions of the two stalwarts hinting that India’s series win wasn’t really a complete victory.
Winning abroad has always been a contentious issue with the Indians ever since the country entered the Test arena in 1932. Considered ‘easy tourists’ by established opposition teams, the Indians broke the shackles for the first time abroad with a 3-1 series win against New Zealand under Mansur Ali Khan, a.k.a. Tiger Pataudi, in 1967. It took four more years for India to create a bigger sensation when Ajit Wadekar led his band of men who beat the ranked West Indians (Windies) and top rated England 1-1, each, in their own den.
These back-to-back series wins started the renaissance of Indian cricket led by the performances by the indomitable Dilip Sardesai and a debutant who answered to the name of Sunil Manohar Gavaskar. Both series wins were firsts. Before Trinidad, India had never beaten the Windies and were yet to achieve a Test win in England. Victories in the two Tests at Port of Spain and the Oval spawned a generation of cricketers who believed they could win abroad against any opposition. The seeds sown by Pataudi were well-harvested by Wadekar.
Victories on foreign soil against strong opponents have always lifted the morale of our nation. The 1983 World Cup win at Lord’s, England, made Indians believe in themselves and inspired many including a young Sachin Tendulkar. India did have sporadic victories abroad, notable of which include the series’ wins in England by the Kapil Dev-led team that beat the hosts 2-0 and by Rahul Dravid’s squad in 2007. 2018-19 saw India beating the Aussies 2-1 for the first time in their country to take home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy which was retained by Virat Kohli-Ajinkya Rahane’s merry men at the Gabba.
Which then could be rated as the greatest series win by India in Test cricket? The glorious victories in 1971 in the Caribbean and England? The 1986 clean sweep by Kapil’s Devil’s in Old Blighty, Kohli and team’s first ever series win in Oz or the latest triumph at the Gabba? The answer would defer from generation to generation. Oldies (like yours truly) will pump for the ’71 wins over stalwarts like Gary Sobers and Ray Illingworth while the millennials will say beating the full-strength Aussies in their den (and conquering Fortress Gabba) with a stand-by captain and raw players deserves the salutation.
It does not matter which series win will be labeled the greatest by an Indian team, as (over time) each victory gave us tremendous joy and lifted the life-state of an entire nation. The 1971 wins gave us hope and courage as the country came out of a war against our neighbour while the latest triumph coincided with the arrival of vaccines to end the dreaded pandemic. The best answer to this happy brain-teaser can best be explained by the words of coach Ravi Shastri to the team after the triumph at the Gabba. “Enjoy the moment,” is what he told his brave warriors.
PostScript: Former India opener, Wasim Jaffer whose tweets have revealed a humorous side to his personality, asked the Aussies a question: “So what’s gonna be the excuse this time? Ponting, McGrath, and Warne weren’t playing?” My answer to that is “Sir Donald Bradman!”
Photograph: The victorious Indian contingent celebrating the 2-1 Test series win over Australia. Source: BCCI.tv