The last few days, any follower of cricket must have been fed on a generous dose of praise heaped on the new India and their heroics to win back-to-back Test series in Australia — one of the toughest frontiers to conquer in the game. It’s been a series which, to put it in a nutshell, renewed our romance with the game at a time whose supply has outweighed demand in recent years.
What exactly has been this ‘new India’? I would urge you to go back to a visual of members of Indian team doing their victory lap after breaching the Australian fortress at the Gabba last Tuesday. Holding the giant tricolor is Shardul Thakur, who had been not even a regular member of India’s white ball plans; Mohammed Siraz, three Tests old; Washington Sunder, essentially a member of the national T20 squad; Navdeep Saini and T. Natarajan — who would not have been a part of the Test squad if India had not sent a jumbo squad in the first place as a backup for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Men like Rohit Sharma or Ravi Ashwin, the established stars, kept themselves away from the frame while captain Ajinkya Rahane is famous for taking the back seat in such moments. This very much summed up the ethos of the side which scripted one of the most intriguing comebacks in the history of Test cricket — not to speak of the Gabba win which would rate among India’s top three best-ever Test wins either at home or away.
The Indian cricket fan with a sense of history would urge not to forget India’s historic chase of 403 against the West Indies at Port of Spain in 1975-’76, masterminded by twin centuries by Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath or the Marathon Act of VVS Laxman-Rahul Dravid in the 2001 Test at The Eden against Steve Waugh’s Australians. However, those were the legends of Indian cricket who pulled off the Houdini Acts — not the Everyman cricketer who punched above their weight for three Tests in a row — first staging a miraculous turnaround at the Boxing Day Test barely 10 days after being 36 all out in Melbourne, then fought with their backs to the wall at the Sydney Test to keep the series and finally turn the tables at the Gabba.
What made this miracle happen? There could be the argument that since winning their first Test series Down Under barely two years back to end a hoodoo of 70 years, men like new ‘Wall’ Cheteshwar Pujara, Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Mayank Agarwal, Jasprit Bumrah or Ravi Ashwin were no strangers to looking the Aussies in the eye and going for the kill if the situation was ripe for one. And yes, Head Coach Ravi Shastri also made a pertinent point when he said Virat Kohli — the captain in absentia — also deserves a bit of credit for instilling the self belief in the team.
A lot of credit has been attributed over the past few days to the Indian Premier League (IPL), where rubbing shoulders with the Who’s Who of world cricket — a substantial number of whom are Australians — have certainly helped the likes of a Shardul Thakur or T. Natarajan get over any form of performance anxiety in facing a Pat Cummins or bowling to a David Warner. The latter, who captained ‘Nattu’ at Sunrisers Hyderabad in the recent edition of IPL in the UAE, had expressed his delight when the yorker man from Tamil Nadu made the cut for the Australian tour.
It would, however, be an oversimplification to lay the credit only on IPL’s door. For all the flak the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) faces, it’s process of developing the Under-19 reserves of talent and India A team programme — under the able guidance of Rahul Dravid — has yielded rich results. Be it the Young Turks of the Under-19 team like Shubhman Gill, Prithvi Shaw or the India A products like a Agarwal, Thakur or Siraj — the amount of overseas cricket they have played have played it’s part in dishing out the fearless cricket that they are being applauded for today.
A quick look at some of the unlikely heroes of the Gabba miracle:
Mohammed Siraj: It has been a dream journey for Mohammed Siraj over the last four months — who from being the fall guy who leaked runs for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the 2019 IPL season — ended as India’s highest wicket-taker in Australia series with 13 wickets.
Despite grieving his father who died just before the series, the 26-year-old emerged as one of India’s new stars. Siraj’s father, an autorickshaw driver from the southern city of Hyderabad, always dreamt of seeing his son play for India but he passed away on November 20.
Siraj stayed in Australia and missed his father’s last rites despite the team management’s offer to fly back home. The image of Siraj welling up when India’s national anthem was played in Sydney went absolutely viral. “The boy has become a man on this tour. Siraj, leader of the attack in his first Test series and he has led from the front,” said former India opener Virender Sehwag.
Washington Sundar: Australia were in the driver’s seat after they ran through India’s top-order on third day of the Brisbane Test. In walked Sundar, a 21-year-old Test debutant who hit a defiant half-century and also took three wickets, including the key scalp of Steve Smith. Who would have bargained for the lanky white ball all-rounder making the cut if Ashwin was not injured?
Shardul Thakur: Playing his first Test of the tour, Thakur made the difference when he steadied India with a valuable 123-run first-innings stand with Sundar and also top-scored with 67. Growing up in a village in Maharashtra, Thakur, no rookie at 29, had to once commute in crowded local trains for two-and-a-half hours every day to chase his cricketing dreams.
This is commonplace for any struggling cricketer in the cut-throat environment of Mumbai, but had surely toughened up the young man.
Shubman Gill: He may be only 21 years old, but the shy smile masks the steel in his temperament and technique. Coming in as a replacement for an off-form Prithvi Shaw, Gill grabbed the opportunity with both hands and his counter-attacking 91 on the final day set the tone for India’s stunning win. It could still be early days, but the Punjab youngster and the leading batsman of Kolkata Knight Riders is already being touted as the next big thing of Indian cricket.
The challenge before India, with the return of Kohli the skipper, will be to be on guard against any sort of dip against England at home after such a high.