Few knew what to expect when an extended Indian cricket contingent emplaned for Sydney, from Dubai, in the second week of November last. The world as we had come to know had been thrown out of sync by the sweeping coronavirus pandemic. Masks, social distancing and sanitisation had become the norm; sporting excellence could only be pursued within the constricting, sometimes stifling, confines of a bio-secure bubble.
India had been fortunate in that their international engagements weren’t scuppered by global lockdowns. Season 13 of the Indian Premier League (IPL) was a minor casualty in that it was played behind schedule, behind closed doors, and away from India for only the third time. But beyond that and the postponement of domestic cricket across genders and age-groups, the damage wasn’t extensive.
However, for months on end, athletes were unable to work on either fitness or skills because of the necessary strictures on resumption of normal activities. As such, despite the rigours of the IPL, India were somewhat undercooked as they embarked on a challenging tour, against a match-fit and full-strength Australian outfit primed for revenge after having conceded the Test series in their own backyard two years previously.
Indian fans’ worst fears seemed to be unfolding disastrously when Virat Kohli’s men wiped the floor in the first two One-Day Internationals of the multi-format tour. Who would have even imagined then, that four-and-a-half months later, India would have written the script for arguably their greatest cricketing winter?
There are few more intense, less forgiving and more skilled opponents in modern-day cricket than Australia and England. To best them in five out of six series combined – the only loss came in India’s first engagement after an eight-month, the ODI showdown Down Under – is a testament to resilience, mental fortitude, undeniable skill-sets, sustained hunger and a never-say-die, all-for-one, one-for-all attitude honed, ironically, by the bio-bubble.
Not one of these wins was handed over on a platter. India had to come from behind thrice, including in both Test series, and were seldom in a position to put out a full-strength team owing to a multitude of factors, not least a crippling sequence of horrific injuries in Australia whose aftershocks rocked the face-offs against England. Few would have grudged India a series loss or three, given the extenuating circumstances. Fortunately for the Indian fan, the men who matter didn’t feel the need to hide behind excuses.
Where everyone else saw a giant, foreboding, dark, ominous cloud, the players and the largely unheralded support staff espied generous silver linings. What everyone tut-tutted as adversity assumed the shape of opportunity for established stars and ambitious newcomers alike. Their synergy in thinking and symphony in execution often beggared the imagination. Battle-hardened former superstars who haven’t always been fans of some of the antics of the modern generation unabashedly turned admirers of the spirit and spunk the beleaguered troops showcased time and again.
Twin Test successes in the Caribbean and England in 1971 ignited India’s passion for Test cricket. The unexpected World Cup triumph in 1983 inspired a generation of future superstars, not least among them Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. The fairy-tale conquest of Australia in 2001, against all odds and with the sword of match-fixing still hanging threateningly overhead, restored the faith and confidence of the Indian fan in the men he deified. But this winter, this bitter-sweet winter that began with anxiety and uncertainty, despair and anguish, and ended in delightful ecstasy, has no parallel. It’s the period when the boys became men, and boys and men alike metamorphosed into warriors. When every crisis spurred a hero, when ‘impossible’ was jettisoned from Indian cricketing lexicon, when the only certainty was a bounce-backability that would have done the mythical Indian rubber man proud.
So much has happened since that sometimes, you have to ask yourself if India were actually bowled for 36 in the second innings of the first Test in Adelaide, their lowest Test score. If Ajinkya Rahane’s only innings of substance on that tour, a first-innings hundred in the next game at the MCG, sparked the revival that saw Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakuar and Mohammed Siraj and T Natarajan, take to Test cricket as if to the manor born. If India, without their captain and their entire first-choice bowling attack, somehow exorcised the demons of Gabba to complete a spectacular 2-1 triumph, a result that mirrored the score line of 24 months previously but in circumstances so vastly removed from the time when the Aussies were without the suspended duo of Steve Smith and David Warner.
The dream-like texture to the silken Australian sojourn assumed shades of harsh reality when, back on familiar terrain, India were brought back to earth by Joe Root’s England in the first Test in Chennai. India’s qualification for the final of the World Test Championship was on the line – they needed to win the four-Test series 2-1 or better – and could afford no more banana skins. Enter Axar Patel, stage left. By the time he took his bow, he had snaffled 27 victims in his first three Tests; R Ashwin had 32 for the series, Rohit Sharma lorded over England and India completed a 3-1 win. Who were these guys?
Champions, they might have said. For, over the next fortnight, they drove the world’s No. 1-ranked team in both white-ball formats to their knees. Like they have come to for about six years now, England landed heavy punches that no sensible man should even dare to rise from. Punch-drunk and reeling, India’s counter was anything but feeble. Like Rocky Balboa, they took England’s best on their chin manfully; groggy and tottering, they were still the last men standing when the bell rang. It was surreal. In times when there is a desperate need for hope, India’s cricketers reiterated the power of self-belief. It’s for that, more than their stirring deeds on the park, that the country must be grateful.