It took India exactly 10 days to go from a spirit-shattering 36 all out to a remarkable eight-wicket win. Even by the lofty benchmark set by the masters of the turnaround, this latest comeback must rank at the very top of an illustrious list in which Australia have been at the receiving end more than once.
Cricket aficionados will readily recall Kolkata 2001, when India rallied from the loss of the first Test inside three days and from conceding a massive deficit in the first innings at the Eden Gardens to fashion a spectacular final-day triumph. They will also hark back to Perth 2008 where, on the heels of the debilitating defeat and the unpleasantness of Monkeygate at the SCG, they became the first team from the sub-continent to conquer the hosts on the most Australian of pitches.
If one were to play the rankings game, the Melbourne result towards the end of a miserable year will slot in between the two, if not share the top spot with the Eden miracle. The circumstances under which it was fashioned alone should dictate so.
India went into the Boxing Day Test without their skipper and best batsman, as well as their senior-most available paceman. Already missing Sharmas Rohit and Ishant, Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami’s absence was, even in isolation, a terrible blow. Allied to the fact that this came less than a week after they had keeled over for their lowest Test score, it amplified the scale of the mountain India had to climb if they entertained visions of retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Two great points of interest when Ajinkya Rahane walked out for the coin toss with Tim Paine were what tactical changes India would ring in, and what their state of mind was after the Adelaide meltdown. India dumped the horribly out-of-sorts Prithvi Shaw and continued their game of musical chairs, sacrificing Wriddhiman Saha for Rishabh Pant. Shubman Gill replaced Shaw and Mohammed Siraj came in for Shami, two debutants thrown into the cauldron. But, contrary to logic, KL Rahul didn’t slot into the middle-order. India went with the all-round abilities of Ravindra Jadeja instead, with exceptional returns, as it were.
These changes have subsequently been elevated to the level of ‘masterstrokes’ and Rahane being hailed a tactical genius only because they produced the desired results. Rahane employed the same funky fields as Kohli in Adelaide, but with greater success. The strangulation in the first innings at leg-slip and leg-gully respectively of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, Australia’s two best batsmen, seemed to justify the positioning of fielders at the identical position where they were left grabbing thin air in the first Test. Nothing, of course, succeeds like success.
Shrewd planning and astute execution mean little without a slice of good fortune. Fortunately for India, they had shed all their bad luck in Adelaide, where 70 freaky minutes undid all the good work of the previous six sessions. India entered the third day of the first Test effectively 62 for one, well placed to force the issue. The seismic collapse came out of nowhere; every ball landed in the corridor, every one of them found the edge, each of them flew to a fielder, all of them were safely pouched. By contrast, in Melbourne, balls whizzed past the outside edge, and when they did find them, several flew wide of fielders or were shelled. India didn’t go from competent to disastrous in one innings, they didn’t graduate from inept to extraordinary in one Test. There is a reason why the traditional, five-day version is the sport’s greatest, most compelling format.
As admirable as their cricket was for three-and-a-half days at the MCG, what stood out was India’s spirit, their character, resolve and resilience, their positivity and body language. They could so easily have rolled over and surrendered after the Adelaide catastrophe. They could have succumbed to inner demons and gremlins of self-doubt. They could have allowed the feeling of persecution to benumb them, they could have let themselves wallow in self-pity and embrace the ‘whole-world-is-against-us’ paranoia. Instead, they chose to stand up and make themselves count. Unlike the doomsday pundits, they recognised Adelaide for what it was — a strict one-off, a disastrous passage whose autopsy would bring no tangible cause or no immediate panacea. They were mindful of what happened in Adelaide, not consumed by it. Towards that end, the backroom staff marshalled by Ravi Shastri seem to have done a stellar job.
The head coach has often, not always fairly, been pilloried for being a pep-talker and nothing more, but if ever a situation cried out for the infusion of confidence and restoration of morale, it was post Adelaide. The changes weren’t knee-jerk but steeped in reasoning and logic; the results held a mirror to the thinking behind Pant over Saha and Jadeja over Rahul. Had these two left-handers not come up trumps, of course, the thinking would have been dissed, the rationale dissected threadbare and dismissed as emanating more from hope than conviction.
India were lifted by the incisiveness of their bowling bulwarks Jasprit Bumrah and R Ashwin, by the magnificent batting of their stand-in captain who lent new meaning to leading from the front. It won’t, however, be far-fetched to state that the engine room of the revival was powered by the two debutants, neither carrying any constraining baggage and each seamlessly taking to Test cricket. That speaks to the processes put in place — a profusion of ‘A’ tours in which Gill and Siraj have been constants, and the exposure the IPL brings while taking away stage-fright. Both immediately looked like they belonged at the highest level, that they believed they deserved their chance.
The 1-1 score-line is not flattering to India; if anything, they will feel they should be 2-0 up. The MCG is not an accidental victory. The onus is on Australia now to pull up their socks as this fascinating rivalry spills over to the New Year.