Australia v India, 2020-21 – a series to remember

Cricket analysts Fazeer Mohammed, V. Ramnarayan and Gideon Haigh reflect on India’s remarkable win in Australia, and discuss the best Test duels of all time.

The Indian team celebrates its series win in Brisbane.   -  GETTY IMAGES

India’s series win in Australia will go down in history as a special moment in Indian cricket. The Test rubber was full of suspense, and involved cricket of high quality from both sides; there were many twists and turns as the series progressed, the scales tilting continuously from one side to the other. It could be argued that Australia held the upper hand for much of the series, and it was indeed remarkable that an inexperienced Indian side held on in Sydney and pipped its opponent to the post in Brisbane.

The rubber didn’t conclude until the last hour of the final day of the final Test, and Rishabh Pant’s drive down the ground off Josh Hazlewood, like M. S. Dhoni’s slog off Nuwan Kulasekara in 2011, became an indelible memory for Indian fans.

But just how special was this series in the context of Test cricket overall?

According to distinguished West Indian cricket commentator Fazeer Mohammed, the series was one of the best Test duels of all time.

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“I rank this series No. 2, the one between India and Australia, not just for the competitiveness of the cricket, but also because India were able to recover from being routed for 36 and losing their captain, and losing Mohammed Shami, but also losing so many players during the remaining Tests that by the time of the final Test match, they had a bowling attack [that was] probably their most inexperienced for decades and was led by someone with only two Test matches to his name (Mohammed Siraj),” Fazeer tells Sportstar.

“To be able to rebound to the extent that they would win at a ground where no team had won since the West Indies in 1988, I thought it was a phenomenal achievement and the cricket throughout was enthralling, it was gripping, it was intense. It spoke a lot about the resilience of India and the depth of Indian cricket that they could stay so competitive despite losing so many key players. Notwithstanding the 2005 Ashes series and quite a few others that have been discussed, I would rate that just behind the 1960-61 West Indies series in Australia,” he says.

V. Ramnarayan, the author, journalist and former first-class cricketer for Hyderabad, believes India’s performance was the best comeback in a series in the history of Test cricket. The Indian team defied huge odds to pocket the rubber, he points out.

Mohammed Siraj and T Natarajan, both of whom made their Test debuts in the just-concluded Border-Gavaskar series, were pivotal to India's 2-1 series win in Australia.   -  AP

 

“As a comeback, there’s no equal to this series. You come back from 36 all out, you lose so many players, so many raw players and a net bowler. [T.] Natarajan did not even take his kit bag. If you look at their lack of exposure, and the phenomenal rags-to-riches story of these two guys, both Natarajan and Siraj, the way they won the matches for India, the XI that played the final Test, the way the fourth Test shaped, it was amazing.

“And the way the Melbourne Test was won. Nobody would have given them any chance. Australia fought back after losing the first Test in 1976, England fought back after losing the first Test in 1954-55, [but nothing compares to this one],” he says.

‘Fightback series’

According to distinguished cricket writer Gideon Haigh, the series was better than the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2001, when a remarkable batting partnership between Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman turned the three-match series around in Kolkata and halted a seemingly invincible Australian team led by Steve Waugh.

“I think that the draw in Sydney, and the fact that the away team won in its opponent’s great citadel, make this a better series than 2001; also, the genuine ebb and flow and that the result was in doubt into the final overs. There is also the issue of timing, that we were so fortunate to have a series at all after the bleak year of 2020; it felt a bit like I imagine cricket felt in 1945,” Haigh says.

“I don’t think [it is the best series of all time], but it has in common with 1902, 1930, 1981 and 2005 Ashes, and the 2001 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, that it is a fightback series – that the team that either won or dominated the first Test lost the series. Australia were even bowled out for 36 at Birmingham in 1902 as well,” he points out.

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V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid's partnership against Australia at Eden Gardens is the stuff of legends.   -  V.V.Krishnan

 

Pataudi’s unifying role

The series would certainly rank high among India’s cricket tours anywhere. For Indian fans, the 1971 tour of the West Indies and of England would be memorable; the team under Ajit Wadekar won Test rubbers for the first time in those regions. In terms of performances, India hardly created a ripple in world cricket before 1971, but Ramnarayan highlights India’s 1967-68 tour of Australia as one of its best; although the team lost the rubber 4-0, it learnt to fight.

“[E. A. S.] Prasanna took 25 wickets in that series, in four Tests; no off-spinner has done that in Australia. Graeme Swann was a complete failure; [R.] Ashwin has only started taking wickets in this series,” he points out.

Good leadership is important for good team performances, and Tiger Pataudi played that role for India. Ajinkya Rahane’s calming influence and captaincy in Australia was laudable, but Pataudi had a larger imprint on the Indian team of 1967-68, says Ramnarayan.

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“I don’t know how strategically astute [Pataudi] was as a captain; he relied a lot on spinners and used people like Bapu Nadkarni to shut one end up, and used Prasanna and [Bishan] Bedi to attack. But more than that, he inspired his team. He would say to his team, ‘I want to have bruised knees and stained trousers, I want you to dive around.’ So he was the first Indian captain to talk about that. He was an inspiring captain and for the first time it was an all-Indian team. He didn’t care from which part the players came from. I think he played a great unifying role. He had some critics who said he had his favourites, but his favourites always performed.”

And Pataudi’s team garnered some success, too. After it toured Australia, it went to New Zealand and won the series there 2-1. It was the first series win abroad for the Indian team.

“That 1968 tour of Australia was a turning point in the sense that India showed a lot of fight. Though they did not win, they earned a lot of friends in Australia. People wrote really highly of them,” Ramnarayan says.

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Another memorable tour of Australia was in 1977-78. India, led by Bedi, lost the series 3-2 against Bob Simpson’s Australia. It was a seesaw battle; India came close to winning the series. It took 41 more years for India to clinch its first series win in Australia.

Says Fazeer: “That 1977-78 series was also enthralling because India came very close to repeating Australia’s feat of 1936-37 (of winning the series after losing the first two Tests). They came close to winning it after being set a huge target of more than 400 (493, in Adelaide). That was also a series where Australia were depleted, with the loss of their frontline players who had gone off to the Kerry Packer World Series, and Bob Simpson had been called out of retirement to lead Australia. That was a famous series as well.”

Australia vs West Indies, 1960-61 – the best series of all time

Since the dawn of Test cricket, there have been several exciting rubbers, some as enthralling as the recent one. In the recent past, the Ashes contests of 1981 and 2005 are quite memorable; England defeated a strong Australian side on both occasions. Australia and the West Indies have fought two remarkable duels as well – in 1992-93, when Australia lost by one run in one of the Tests, and in 1999, a series in the Caribbean famous for Brian Lara’s breathtaking batting. And India and Australia engaged in a famous battle in India in 2001.

“2005 [Ashes] is still the best series I’ve ever seen and reported on. A champion team versus a team that came into its prime in one glorious summer made for a riveting narrative,” says Haigh.

But it is the West Indies’ Test tour of Australia in 1960-61 that stands above the rest. It involved the first-ever tied Test, twists and turns, some exceptional individual performances, a great brand of cricket, and great camaraderie between the teams. The 2020-21 Australian summer marked the 60th anniversary of that series.

Brisbane, December 14, 1960: West Indies players celebrate after Joe Solomon's throw ran out Australia's Ian Meckiff resulting in the first-ever tied Test.   -  The Hindu Archives

 

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Says Haigh: “The series stood out all the more because of the surrounding austerity, in cricket and in white culture. The White Australia policy was entrenched in ’60-61, so the visit of the West Indies was of great social significance; ditto the calm authority of Frank Worrell. It would be my pick as the best series of all.”

Fazeer says: “Both captains made a conscious decision that they would play the game the right way. Sir Donald Bradman, who was chairman of the Australian selectors at the time, had recognised cricket was in a crisis, because of how dreary and boring the game had become. And he made it clear to his captain Richie Benaud, who was already a media man at the time – he was a reporter with a newspaper in Australia – even as being the Australia Test captain, he recognised that he needed to play attractive cricket and play in the right spirit.”

“And I think he found someone, a kindred spirit, in Frank Worrell, the first Black man to be appointed the full-time captain, a huge responsibility in itself. And I think when you looked back on those black-and-white images of the cricket that was played, you got that sense of real intensity, they were not holding anything back on the field, but you could sense as well the camaraderie. They were actually applauding the good shots played and shaking hands with good innings and so on.

“I think what it encapsulated in Tests is during that final Test match, where it was 1-1, and it was a nailbiter towards the end, and the West Indies thought they had Wally Grout bowled. The bails had fallen; the umpire at square leg gave it not out, and in the end Wally Grout, it is believed, gave his wicket away, because he believed it was against the spirit of the game that he should continue batting, and that is totally against what one associates Australia and Australian cricketers with. So I think that in itself lent to the idea that they were playing hard, they were playing fair, and they were playing in a good spirit. And that’s why this series lives on in memory,” Fazeer elaborates.

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Australian competitiveness

Most of the memorable Test series played over the years seem to involve Australia, a fact that is perhaps not a coincidence. It is a team that plays a particular brand of cricket and its pitches help ensure thrilling combats as well.

“I think what Australia and especially playing in Australian conditions bring to the game is a level of competitiveness and the nature of their pitches because they’re usually surfaces which encourage fast bowling, encourage aggressive cricket, encourage spinners who can get bounce and encourage batsmen to play their shots. For example, Rishabh Pant, who rode his luck on that last day in Brisbane to take India to that famous victory and would have been helped by the fact that the Australians generally played their cricket in a very aggressive manner,” Fazeer says.

“Yes, it does go over the top with the misuse of sledging and that is one of the downsides of the Australian game which I would not like to see at all. I don’t know why it is encouraged because that became famous with the phrase ‘mental disintegration’ from Steve Waugh, which I think is complete nonsense, because I don’t think that it should be allowed to the extent that it is.”

Says Haigh: “It's true that to beat Australia requires a momentous struggle, so that may enhance the quality and memorability of such events.”

Ramnarayan feels the Indian team that defeated Australia would have been loved by the Australian crowds as much as the West Indian team was loved by the Australians in 1960-61. After all, Australians love a good fight.

“Whatever happened on the field, the Australian crowds at large – not necessarily the people who went and hurled racial abuses at the ground, but by and large – loved this Indian team. And I think they would have given them a fitting farewell. Australians always love a fighter.”

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