When it comes to Border-Gavaskar trophies, the recently concluded one would perhaps rank as one of the best so far, in terms of toughness and resilience from an Indian point of view. The images of triumph, disappointment and overall achievement will stay in the mind for a few seasons to come. But first, lets just revisit the playing ground that Australia is, was and will be.
Travelling to Australia and playing in those rather, hostile conditions has always been a test for the visiting side. But the 2020/21 version had the Covid-19 angle to it, which added to the usual pressure. There was a “new normal” and it had to be adhered to. The virus demanded total respect.
Having played a rescheduled Indian Premier League in the month of September 2020 in ‘new normal’ , bio – bubbled scenarios, the cricketers had no turnaround time and were on their way to Australia. To play a long and what promised to be a tough series in all three formats.
The fact that there was any cricket being played at all in these unusual times was a miracle in itself. The new, deadly virus challenged mankind like never before and suddenly life was very different for those who paid cognizance to the virus.
With the shorter formats being played earlier, the boys had exposure to the conditions and life in bubbles. What seemed odd was that even though the cricketers followed COVID-19 protocols, the spectators and the cities in general, seemed blase about the virus. People going about life as they did in pre-COVID times.
3-match ODI series
Fourteen days in strict quarantine for the visitors, before the One Day series, was a challenge to overcome. Thanks to the freshly completed IPL which comprised a handful of the Australian players, the on-field atmosphere was one of bonhomie among the opposing sides. This irked quite a few cricket viewers, specially in Australia as they always carried the tag of the bullies and the “on your face” kind of team. The home team won the three match series 2-1.
3-match T20 series
The T20s followed the ODI series. 3 T20 matches and India was up for it. With a huge 20-man squad barring an unfit Rohit Sharma, who had to go to the NCA, India smashed the series. In the shortest format of the game, the visitors took the series 2-1.
The stage was now set for the much awaited Border-Gavaskar Test series. A four-test series that would quite naturally test the players’ fitness, skill levels and mental strength to the peak. Indian skipper Virat Kohli deemed it fit that he would rather be by his wife’s side for the birth of their first child than play for the nation in an important Test series. A decision that shall remain open for debate, but in the end, quite obviously is a personal call.
1st Test, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide
The first test was the day-night Pink Ball test at Adelaide. It was even-stevens in the first innings for both India and Australia. For the Indian fan to see the pace battery perform as they did was the most satisfying part. Ashwin, with his guile and spin was another heartwarming factor. Captain Kohli held fort in the first innings with Pujara and Rahane playing cameo knocks.
It was the second innings that was an absolute disaster, even that would be an understatement. A freakish, 36 all out sent tongues wagging. The fickle Indian cricket fan had come out all guns blazing in their criticism. Virat Kohli left a mentally shocked team to return home to his beloved. That definitely did not leave the fans across the world with a good taste and the usual talks of stripping him from captaincy, reappeared.
2nd Test, MCG, Melbourne
The next stop was Melbourne, which hosts the iconic Boxing Day test match. India were answerable to none but themselves. Leaving the severe criticism behind, they came out with the right approach and packed up Australia for a paltry 195. If fiery bowling is something, you should have seen Bumrah and Siraj that day.
With important contributions from Gill and Jadeja, India had a healthy lead. But, it was skipper Ajinkya Rahane’s gritty century that stole the show. A true captain’s knock. India won the Test in convincing fashion by 8 wickets.
3rd Test, SCG, Sydney
With a lot of yo-yoing about whether Sydney should host the third Test, given the surge of COVID cases, finally the SCG played host to the third Test. With added protocols, the pressure was high. Rohit Sharma was fit and out of bubble for this test. Australia dominated in the first innings and declared their second innings to set a target of 407 for India.
At 102/3, with Rohit Sharma who scored a half century and Rahane back in the pavilion, things were not looking bright for the visitors. But a test match is always full of drama. Inspite of the pressure, Rishab Pant played one of his maverick knocks getting a 113-ball 97. If you have someone like Pujara at the other end, you can do it.
India again looked in a tight spot again with both batsmen back in the pavilion. It was an uphill task in hand. Now with a fractured thumb, Ravi Jadeja was not the suitable option.
So, it was up to an injured Hanuma Vihari and a battered R Ashwin to save the Test for India. Seeing out over by over, ball by ball, the two bravehearts showed nerves of steel. The Aussie pacers were relentless and made life no easier. In what was a record for number of balls faced for the 6th wicket, Vihari and Ashwin’s partnership was a remarkable effort. Perhaps the most nail-biting test match to end in a draw ever.
Again, it was the character of the Indian team came shining through having shown great resolve in the face of adversity. Despite the fear-inspiring and ruthless Australian bowling, this team stood determined and held its ground.
4th Test, The Gabba, Brisbane
Time now to move to the final Test. Brisbane demanded even severe protocols and stricter rules, which was not going down well with the Indians. With an injury list long enough to make a team, the Indians were not happy. After a dialogue, the Indians agreed to play at the Gabba.
With the series at 1-1 and all to play for, both teams went in all guns blazing. Famously, the Gabba is Australia’s fortress and India were playing without all their stars. But India’s young guns punched above their weight and kept the Australians below 400. Among the bowlers, debutant duo of T Natarajan and Washington Sundar shared the wickets with Navdeep Saini.
At 186/6, India was not looking comfortable. But two new heroes came to the rescue, just as they did throughout the series. Young Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur batted for stroke filled, 123-run 7th wicket partnership, that baffled the Australians. With a fifer for Siraj, Australia were all out for 294. A fitting response to all the racial slurs.
India had to score 328 to win the Test, and more importantly bat the whole day to save the match. A huge test of skill, tenacity and more importantly, maturity. In came Shubman Gill with a classy 91 and took the attack to the Aussies. After his dismissal, Pujara and Pant steadied things to take India close. Despite the dismissals of Pujara and Aggarwal, India were in the game with a set batsman in Pant. With the young Sundar for company, he was India’s only hope for an emphatic win. And oh boy! what an innings he played. Albeit with enough heartbeat-skipping moments, he took India across the finish line winning by three wickets.
The trophy was India’s to retain and in those arduous nine weeks in a country not known for benign conditions, Team India emerged victorious. Despite all the odds, the constant battering of bodies and souls, India came up ‘top’ in Down Under.
And as a cricket lover, to see the team perform like gladiators not giving in to adversity, was unreal. Here’s to this Team India. Salute. Respect.