Courage, calibre, character: India’s greatest series win
India’s 2-1 Test series triumph over Australia is straight out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! It is the greatest series win ever in Indian cricket, and also among the finest comeback stories in the history of sport.
The first Test match I saw was India versus Australia at the Brabourne Stadium in 1964. Tiger Pataudi’s team made 254 in the fourth innings to win by two wickets in an edge-of-the-seat finish. This got me hooked to cricket for life.
In recent times, India beat England in Chennai in 2008, scoring a whopping 387 in the fourth innings. The biggest run chase, of course, was Bishan Bedi’s team overhauling 403 set by Clive Lloyd’s mighty West Indies in 1975-76. Only Don Bradman’s Invincibles had scored 400-plus runs in the fourth innings before that.
These are some memorable run chases, and then there are the come-from-behind series wins that always hold a special place in cricket. Two top of my mind are versus Australia in 2000-2001, inspired by the fantastic VVS Laxman-Rahul Dravid partnership in Kolkata, and against Sri Lanka in 2015.
But to understand the magnitude of India’s achievement on the recent tour, consider the trajectory of the series.
Blown away for 36 in the second innings of the first Test, the team regroups swiftly to win the next, manages to save the third in a gritty, back-to-the-wall fightback, then turns the tables on the home team with a spectacular run chase in the fourth.
The hardship quotient in doing this was extraordinarily high: Historically poor overseas record, playing the world’s no.1 team thirsting for revenge, pressures of living in a bio-secure bubble, playing only two first-class matches this season leading into the Tests, and several key players lost to injury.
After the collapse in the first Test for 36 — the seventh lowest score in cricket annals — it was all gloom and doom. Majority opinion, including of former greats such as Allan Border and Ricky Ponting, suggested a clean sweep for Australia. Kinder voices said inclement weather might help India perhaps save one Test.
But nobody gave India a hope in hell of saving the series, leave aside winning it. And understandably so, for how does any team recover from such a debacle? More so, with skipper and batting mainstay Virat Kohli not available, (paternity leave), and Mohammed Shami returning with a fractured hand?
The situation got worse as the tour progressed. In the third, Jadeja suffered a fracture and Vihari a hamstring pull. By the time the fourth Test began, Bumrah and Ashwin — both enjoying huge success — were also injured. In the last Test, six of the playing XI — Pant, Siraj, Saini, Natrajan, Washington, Gill — were not in the team that played in the first!
The starting point of India’s incredible revival in this tense, and at times acrimonious, see-saw contest is pivotal to any analysis and is located in the immediate aftermath of the second-innings collapse at Adelaide. The rest of the tour could have gone the way England, circa 1974, went. What prevented this I believe was sagacious intervention by the team management.
In 1974, India was bowled out for 42 in the second Test at Lord’s. The team went on to lose the third too, giving England a 3-0 whitewash. Such a debacle can scar players for life. Some from that group never recovered; captain Ajit Wadekar lost his captaincy; and the ignominy of the performance got implanted on the psyche of every Indian fan forever.
Weak body language and blame-games could have precipitated a bigger crisis after Adelaide. Players, especially those not doing well, and youngsters, are more vulnerable in such situations. Captain Ajinkya Rahane and coach Ravi Shastri handled the delicate situation astutely. The collapse was signed off as a freak event, but one from which lessons had to be learnt.
The effort going ahead was to ensure that such lapses in concentration would not happen again — put personal and team pride in the forefront, and most importantly, not back off. Combativeness, aggression and confrontation have been built up over the past few years as part of team culture. Derided as ugly showmanship when the results have not been favourable, they paid wonderful dividends this time.
In fact, in the final Test, the injury-hit team had two debutants, and three players in their first Test series, but not one of them played like a rookie. Some of these players — such as Mohammed Siraj, T Natarajan, Navdeep Saini — also make for fascinating stories of how cricket has transformed lives, especially in hinterland and mofussil areas.
Their success highlights the depth and strength of talent in the country. It’s also easily overlooked that India’s domestic structure is robust, arguably the best in the world. The India A and under-25 tours have been invaluable for young talent.
After Adelaide, India’s response was stupendous, and based on three Cs so vital in sport but often glossed over — courage, calibre and character. Taking responsibility and teamwork are usually puerile clichés in sport. In this series, their role was exemplary.
The experienced pros and newcomers combined to prove a point to themselves, the opponents and the world. And created history.
Ayaz Memon is a veteran sports journalist and writer
The views expressed are personal
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