India tour of Australia: Of quarantine, body blows and a grand comeback

India was seemingly down for the count against a host almost at full strength. But a unit that, with the exception of a few players, was actually the second or third rung in terms of stature and experience found enough hidden reserves to humble the Aussies.

Man of the match Rishabh Pant celebrates after hitting the winning runs in Brisbane as Australian fast bowler Josh Hazlewood looks on.   -  Getty Images

Many years down the line, when arthritis wears down the limbs while grandchildren await the good old yarn and the years in the rear-view mirror are far more than the summers ahead, Indian fans will still have their rainbow moments. Sprung by memory and enriched by nostalgia’s magnetic pull, “Gabba” will be whispered.

A wisp of a sound will slip past those slowly parting lips, the mouth will crease into a smile, those wrinkles on the forehead will magically vanish, albeit briefly, and the eyes will glint. And in those surreal moments of joyful remembrance, the summer of 2021 Down Under will acquire mythic proportions. The miracle at Brisbane’s Gabba and the manner in which India stunned Australia to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy at 2-1 will be recalled. And suddenly life will be good despite the creaky knees, trembling hands and those dentures forgotten in an ancient cup inside the bathroom shelf.

READ| Bharat Arun explains how India caught Australian batsmen off guard

The loveliest gifts are the ones marinated in enduring moments that seemingly freeze time and offer a glimpse of heaven in a grim world where rainforests shrink, pandemics surge, refugees take to the high seas, Internet honchos snoop and leaders promise the moon. Sport at large and cricket specifically have those surreal powers to heal, to stir a laughter that emanates from the belly and ripples through the upper torso. And surely none will forget what transpired during India’s just-concluded long tour of Australia.

READ| After heroics in Australia, India gearing up for England Tests

David quelling Goliath has its eternal charm, and Ajinkya Rahane’s men precisely did that with their stunning comeback in a Test series for the ages. The buildup to this set of slow-burn jousts consisted of appetisers easy for consumption and perhaps light on our grey cells – a set of One-Day and Twenty20 Internationals. Back then, Australia won the ODIs at 2-1 and India returned the favour by an identical margin in the T20Is.

It was time for the main course, but under lights while the skies darkened across Adelaide in the pink-ball first Test, India stared at an abyss. Remember 36? Shot out for that measly score and nursing the scars of an inevitable defeat, India was seemingly down for the count against a host almost at full strength and keen to extract vengeance. When India last toured Australia in the 2018-19 season, Virat Kohli’s troops seized the Tests at 2-1. Tim Paine’s men were keen to erase that insult, and with Kohli leaving after the latest first Test, the presumption was that the visiting team would slip.

It was 'ahimsa' all the way in Sydney as R. Ashwin (left) and Hanuma Vihari downed the shutters and played out a draw.   -  Getty Images

 

However, India against Australia is a script that has acquired bristle and punch, shock and awe over the last few decades. Yes, there is the Ashes and those dwindling encounters between India and Pakistan, garnished by historical angst and sibling rivalry. But there is no taking away from the infinite thrills that seem intrinsic when Bharat takes on the Baggy Greens! And in Melbourne, Rahane led from the front with a captain’s hundred, the bowlers came to the party and the tables had turned. The series was levelled at 1-1 and the stage was readied for the long-winding climax.

The home unit had blue-chip batsmen like Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, while an injured David Warner made on and off appearances. Despite Mitchell Starc not being in his element, the bowling attack still had the likes of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon. The scales seemingly still weighed in favour of Paine’s group of men, equally ready for battle and the odd chirp.

READ| Rishabh Pant will improve gradually as wicketkeeper, says Wriddhiman Saha

India, meanwhile, had to contend with injury-enforced absences, voids that seemed deep enough to sink the Titanic. But ‘New India’ was not to be cowed. And it dished out the classic one-two act. If it was ahimsa all the way in Sydney when Hanuma Vihari and R. Ashwin downed the shutters and played out a draw, Brisbane was all about the injured sheriff hobbling down a street and still shooting down his rivals and then breaking into a tired grin. The visitor always found diverse heroes at critical junctures. This was the sum being bigger than the parts, and it was a combination that ambushed Aussie coach Justin Langer’s best-laid plans.

Opener Shubman Gill showed that he belonged at this level, and mind you this is a hot seat that is enriched by the twin legacies of Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag. Cheteswar Pujara batted out time, took blows on his body, hung in and was the ballast for the floral tiles that his flamboyant colleagues seemingly placed on the turf. Rohit Sharma dished out cameos atop the order to calm nerves in the dressing room, though he can do much more. Rahane was calmness and dignity personified. Jasprit Bumrah and Ashwin were on the money all through. Ravindra Jadeja showed that his all-round skills cannot be held hostage by rust and Vihari revealed a spine made of steel.

Add to this the zing and chutzpah of Rishabh Pant, Mohammed Siraj’s icy-cool demeanour while being pitchforked into the spearhead’s role, and net bowlers T. Natarajan and Washington Sundar proving that when elevated to a higher plane, they can deliver. This was a squad that was both the walking wounded and the quietly confident. And it was the last trait that shone bright in Brisbane in a game that capped a glorious tour and will stand the test of time.

India’s attack was helmed by Siraj. There was no Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ashwin or Jadeja. Chew on that for a while. This was an arsenal taking aim at a strong host and there was the added juvenile distraction of racist taunts from the less civilised in the stands. A series on the boil and a playing eleven missing most of its stars can trigger a migraine.

 

But Rahane marshalled his resources well and the team proved equal to the task. In a clash where every session had those tipping points, Sundar and Shardul Thakur etched a sturdy lower-order partnership. The bowlers, considered rookie, showed that they had enough weapons to surprise their fabled rivals.

It all added up towards a splendid fifth day in which India had to chase down 328. All three results were possible – an Australian win, a draw akin to the one in Sydney or a magical Indian triumph. But with Gill and Pujara laying the foundation, Pant added incremental value while the lower half stepped up, too. India won by three wickets while the shadows lengthened and the home bowlers got tired. Still, Australia never granted any favours. This was a battle at full tilt and India was prepared to earn its stripes.

A unit that, with the exception of a few players, was actually the second or third rung in terms of stature and experience found enough hidden reserves to humble the Aussies.

This was a classic Houdini chiselled out of grit and belief and not through sleight of hand. The Gabba effect is bound to linger long, just like Eden Gardens in 2001 bequeathed confidence and resolve to the then Indian squad. New stars have been found and it is up to the Gills and Sirajs to cement their positions while the senior guard showed that their skill sets are solid as ever.

This is India on the move, be it at home or overseas. In these days of a malevolent virus and when a dry cough makes most of us psychosomatic, Rahane’s men – some of them actually boys – have done enough to lend hope and cheer. Burnished through A tours, stints at Bangalore’s National Cricket Academy, domestic cricket and even the Indian Premier League, Gen-Next has shown that it can hold its own, be it stepping into massive boots or countering storied rivals. Indian cricket couldn’t have asked for more from an evolutionary path that first made its baby steps at Lord’s in 1932. Gabba 2021 is a milestone that will never be forgotten.