Having ended 2020 with arguably their finest Test victory, India began 2021 with inarguably their greatest draw, eked out under grave provocation and tremendous pressure against a full-strength Australian team.
The violently pendulous swing of fortunes on a gripping final day at the Sydney Cricket Ground perfectly encapsulated the charm of Test cricket. Australia started the day with their noses in front, and surged into the box seat when they evicted Ajinkya Rahahe early on. The hunter, though, became the hunted when, in an inspired move, India pushed Rishabh Pant up to No. 5, and the left-hander responded with a sensational onslaught.
As visions of their highest successful run-chase in Test history loomed, Pant and the phlegmatic Cheteshwar Pujara perished with more than 45 overs remaining, the balance tilting the home side’s way again. Then followed a partnership as significant in import, if not magnitude, as the one between VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in Kolkata in 2001. Hanuma Vihari, the latest addition to the alarmingly growing injury list after a hamstring pull/strain/tear, and R Ashwin produced a fightback for the ages, riding their luck but also digging deep to summon massive reserves of mental strength and resolve.
When Australia marked their surrender to 131 overs of doggedness by shaking hands to formalise the culmination in a stalemate of the dramatic showdown, it marked the end of a contest that stretched India to the hilt, but failed to dent their spirit or spunk. That, from the debilitating low of 36 all out in the second innings in Adelaide, India can still aspire to win another series in Australia is a remarkable tribute to the fortitude and resilience of a squad losing available playing members as rapidly as trees shedding leaves in the autumn.
Much of the sheen of India’s epochal 2-1 series triumph two years back was sought to be taken away by the absence through suspension of Steve Smith and David Warner. Viewed through the same prism, it’s worthwhile considering what India are missing this time around. No Ishant Sharma for the entire series. No Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami for the last three Tests. No Rohit Sharma for the first two games. No Umesh Yadav for the last two matches. And, after Ravindra Jadeja’s latest injury, minus the all-rounder for the first and last Tests. These aren’t just bit players, but with a decade each of international experience. It’s little short of miraculous that Australia haven’t been allowed to ride roughshod over a side whose dressing-room resembles an infirmary ward packed with the war-ravaged.
Why? Why are India still standing? How have they avoided the sucker punches emanating both from the opposition, from the media, and from boorish fans who believe gallons of alcohol in their system allow them the liberty to hurl racist abuse? What’s making this motley bunch of the inexperienced and the incapacitated tick?
Simple answer — character. It’s a word, a trait, almost impossible to define. It pertains but isn’t restricted to desire and hunger and ambition, to courage and bravery and temperament, to steel and spunk and spirit. You either have it, or you don’t. It’s not an attribute that can be inculcated through hours in the nets, through inspirational talks or team bonding exercises. It’s the stomach for battle, the will to resist and repel, the pride that compels one to leave nothing behind. Generally, it comes to a few in a bunch. What makes this band special is that every member, playing or otherwise, has that same outlook, propagates the same positivity, pulls in the same direction.
When the dust settles and Australia are able to take emotion out of the equation, they will wonder how they hadn’t knotted up the series at the first time of asking. How they were pushed and challenged and teased and taunted by an outfit that fielded three debutants in two Tests, that kept bouncing back like the mythical Indian rubber man, that rode every punch and sprang up more sprightly than John Rambo, the fictional Italian Stallion immortalised by Sylvester Stallone. How Shubman Gill stood up to Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood with the poise of a virtuoso, how Mohammed Siraj from the dusty by-lanes of Hyderabad’s old city manfully tackled the twin threats of a formidable Australian top-order and a Bacchus-infested bunch of ruffians. How, in their own backyard, they stumbled and stuttered and staggered against a team they only grudgingly admire, despite India having had the better of the exchanges over the last decade.
They will find no satisfactory answers beyond that India were good. Damned bloody good. That while their skill levels weren’t too shabby, their resolve was even more impressive, their spark undimmed, their unity of purpose unmatched. India might yet not win this series – Australia haven’t been beaten at the Gabba in Brisbane since 1988 – but they have already won hearts and respect. In a world where these currencies don’t enjoy the same value as material ones, that’s what they should take greatest pride in. Vihari will treasure this 23 not out more than his maiden century in the Caribbean in 2019, Ashwin won’t find as much satisfaction in his mountainous bag of wickets as in having occupied the crease for three and a quarter hours, copping physical and verbal blows, and coming out unscathed. Try matching this, he might say.
Given the slew of injuries ripping through the ranks, India will struggle to put out a balanced eleven for the Gabba decider. But as this group has shown, nothing can affect their mental balance.
It was perhaps in the fitness of things that their most iconic fightback came on the day the man who epitomised the values showcased by this team turned 48. Dravid, were he that sort, would have allowed himself a deserved pat on the back. After all, he has had a big hand in the development of several of the young charges now under Ravi Shastri’s tutelage.