Gabba Test one year after: an immortal series win in Brisbane

The Gabba Test between India and Australia in January, 2021, was an oscillating affair of attack and counter-attack that rewarded spectators with arguably the most absorbing cricketing contest witnessed last summer.

Goliath slain: Rishabh Pant celebrates after hitting the winning runs in Brisbane, on January 19, 2021. - GETTY IMAGES

It is one year to the day since the final evening of the 2021 Brisbane Test. The passage of time has made the thrill of absorbing cricket and the joy of India’s win even sweeter for Nick Webb, the man with a ringside seat.

The Gabba Test was an oscillating affair of attack and counter-attack that rewarded spectators with arguably the most absorbing cricketing contest witnessed last summer.

When play began on the final day, India still needed 328 to win with 10 wickets in hand. At 167 for 3, after the dismissal of skipper Ajinkya Rahane, Pant walked in ahead of Mayank Agarwal. A boisterous Gabba began to fret as Pant’s enterprising innings brought the equation down to 69 off 15 overs with six wickets still standing. “This team was built on fearlessness and (players) backing their abilities from any position. The guys playing deep down knew they could get across the line, especially with how Rishabh was hitting the ball, and if the guys at the other end supported him,” Webb, Indian team’s former strength and conditioning coach, recalls.

During Nick Webb’s tenure, India qualified for the inaugural World Test Championship final against New Zealand and also registered a famous overseas series win in Australia, as well as victories at Lord’s and the Oval during the recent tour of England.   -  The Hindu

 

‘Special’ innings

As India chipped away, Australia’s bowlers began to panic. “Rishabh is a special player who is incredibly skilled, destructive and someone who backs his instincts. When we got to lunch on the final day, everyone was pretty calm. I was away from the main discussions at the time; however, the mood was that the team was up for the challenge. They certainly did that. I was extremely happy for every single team member.”

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Cheteshwar Pujara was the glue that kept India’s innings together on the final day, taking blow after blow in an innings of 56 that consumed 211 deliveries. It gave the likes of Shubman Gill (91), Washington Sundar (22) and Pant (89 not out) the freedom to flourish. “Pujara is known as the brick wall for a reason. Not only for his ability to stay at the crease for long periods but to endure everything thrown at him,” Webb says. “Brick walls don’t come down easily. Everyone in the team knows Puji will do whatever it takes to get through tough periods for the team while he’s at the crease - including taking balls on the body.”

India batted with a giddy sense of freedom on day five, the centrepieces being stands of 114 between Pujara and Gill and 61 between Pujara and Pant. It took more than three of the best fast bowlers in the world to bring Pujara down. At one point, a short-of-a-length ball from Hazlewood jammed the fingers of Pujara’s right hand against the bat handle. Pujara was on the ground and writhing in pain. “Puji is a tough, resilient character. A man of process and focus,” Webb says. “Puji focuses on a mixture of physical conditioning, strength, batting and fielding practice throughout a week. Considering he wasn’t playing IPL before the Australian away series, he had extended time focusing on his individual needs in his home State. The way Puji plays his game, he expects to spend long periods on the field either batting, running between the wickets or in the field. For the Australian Test series, we had to ensure he was physically ready to meet those expectations and physical demands.”

‘Herculean effort’

If Gabba was about swashbuckler Pant and Pujara’s character and over-my-dead-body attitude, the preceding Test in Sydney was a remarkable exhibition of concentration and endurance from R. Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari, who kept Australia at bay for 42.4 overs to salvage a heroic draw.

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Ashwin was battling a bad back, while Vihari had to bat with a strapped right hamstring. The two swallowed pain and discomfort for a stonewalling partnership of 62. “It is not easy at all, batting for such long hours with those injuries,” says Webb.

The Sydney Test was drawn after a remarkable exhibition of concentration and endurance from R. Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari. - GETTY IMAGES

 

“The game is tough enough at the international level as it is, let alone playing with a bad back and strapped hamstring. Playing through an injury as they did takes serious mental fortitude. In a way, it forces you to simplify how you play, develop strategies to where you look to hit and what shots you select as you’re restricted by your injury. The medical team did an excellent job at managing these guys throughout their innings. Both of these guys were well aware of the increased risk of making their injuries more severe… they just wanted to serve the team when we needed it most. It was a Herculean, selfless effort…while we drew the Test, we considered it a win.”

Webb also praised Ashwin for working “incredibly hard” on his athleticism over the last few years. “As he gets older, he has become more aware of his body and what it needs. He has also increased his batting workload and can now be considered a bowling all-rounder.”

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Preparing for the Australian series was a little different than planned due to the pandemic, which resulted in long lockdowns in India, followed by the IPL in the UAE, from September to November, 2020.

“While we (Indian staff) have no jurisdiction to determine how the players are managed during IPL, as it’s a complete handover, we worked collaboratively with the franchises to ensure not only we (Team India staff) and other stakeholders were informed about player health, medical and physical status before heading to Australia. This way we could plan how we best though we needed to approach the players’ preparations once we landed in Australia,” says Webb.

Eight days after the defiance of Sydney came that unforgettable final evening in Brisbane. By the time Pant hit the winning runs, the debates about whether this was the greatest Test in recent memory were already doing the rounds.

Former Australian Test captain Tim Paine was embroiled in a verbal exchange with Ashwin in Sydney. Paine could be heard saying: “I can’t wait to get you to the Gabba, Ash.” Well, Paine’s words may well have returned to haunt him, as Australia suffered its first loss in Brisbane since 1988, and India scripted a series win for the ages.

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