Deus ex machina: Two decades apart, India do the unexpected against Aussies
The year was 1999 and there was a lot of anticipation in everyone about what lay ahead. It was the end of a century and the beginning of another. In India, it was a time of great change. 'Growth' was the buzz word in every walk of life.
But Indian cricket, on the pitch, was stuck in mediocrity, despite having the biggest star the sport had seen till then in its ranks. Sachin Tendulkar was already reaching stratospheric heights with his batsmanship and had earned praise from the greatest batsman ever, Sir Donald Bradman, after his exploits against the Australians in the unforgettable summer of 1998.
He was the diminutive 'giant' in a team that was still a mixed bag of sorts. When he led this team to Australia in the December of 1999 for a three-match Test series, in what was his second coming as captain of the side, there was fear in the hearts of Indian cricket fans and prayers on their lips.
Australia were the reigning world champions of ODI cricket and were an even greater force in Test cricket. To speak in footballing terms, they were the 'Brazil' of cricket in terms of dominance.
As was feared, India's campaign came unstuck and ended in a 0-3 debacle. Tendulkar stood tall in the ruins, along with a certain VVS Laxman, but it didn't matter much, as the team's morale had touched its nadir. That defeat followed by a home series loss in years, against South Africa, meant Tendulkar gave up captaincy for good to concentrate on his batting.
It was an hour of crisis off the pitch too with the match-fixing scandal exploding and spinning out of control. India needed a leader, not just of a cricket team but of men and they found one in Sourav Ganguly. The Bengal cricketer had the elegance and charm of a prince in his batting, but he combined that with the tenacity of a street fighter as captain of the team.
Ganguly hadn't yet settled into his job as Steve Waugh's all-conquering band came calling a little over a year after the bashing down under. India was not prepared for the challenge and it showed in their loss in the opening Test at Mumbai, which ended within three days in a 10-wicket win for the visitors.
The leader of India's bowling attack, Anil Kumble, was out injured and it was a callow newcomer by the name of Harbhajan Singh who produced the first spark of inspiration for a team in disarray. 'Bhajji' as he would be known in the days to come, picked up India's first ever Test hat-trick, cheered on by a partisan cricket loving crowd at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, to stop the Aussies short of a massive total.
But the batsmen failed to put up a fight yet again. Steve Waugh, who had termed India as the 'final frontier' for his record hungry team, decided to rub the home team's nose in the dirt by enforcing the follow-on.
India needed divine intervention and it came from the willow and will of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid. Much before Cheteshwar Pujara made determination and defence fashionable terms in Test match batting again, Laxman and Dravid became paragons of both as they remained unbeaten for more than a day and stayed together for over 104 overs to guide India out of a dungeon. Their 376-run stand remains the third best 5th wicket partnership in Test cricket till date.
Australia needed to bat out the final day to secure a draw, but Harbhajan Singh had spring in his steps. He flew in like a hawk from his bowling mark and created a web around the batsmen. He picked up yet another fiffer but Australia were hanging on. The shadows turned long as the evening sun was ready to go down, and just then the off-spinner managed to hit the pads of Glenn McGrath and the umpire nodded in affirmation.
The marauding Aussie juggernaut had come to a screeching halt, stopped in its track by pure grit. But the Aussies knew they could still win the series as the theatre of the absurd shifted to Chennai for the final Test match.
Harbhajan Singh picked up 15 wickets in two innings to set it up for India again. But the vagaries of a final day Chepauk pitch had come back to haunt the Indian team. Wickets fell in a heap as it looked like Waugh would after all conquer the 'final frontier'. Laxman mastered the minefield with a classy 66, but it was the unsung wicket-keeper batsman Sameer Dighe who took India across the line with an unbeaten 22 as Ganguly's men conjured up a triumph for the ages.
That series in many ways marked the beginning of Indian cricket team's transformation from being a mediocre side to a global powerhouse.
Fast forward to a little less than twenty years, the Indian cricket team was in Australia again for a four-match Test series, that began last month after the end of a keenly contested limited overs leg where the spoils were shared.
A lot had changed in these twenty years. A phenomenon named Mahendra Singh Dhoni had come, conquered and left the scene and had taken India to three global titles and the top ranking in Test cricket. All of this as captain, wicket-keeper and batsman.
Australia themselves had won three more World Cup titles, although they were not the same dominant force. But they still had Test cricket's best batsman in their ranks, Steve Smith, and perhaps boasted of the best pace bowling trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
India though were not in virgin territory any more. They had conquered Australia in 2018-19, their maiden win there, and had three leading cricketers in their respective departments. Skipper Virat Kohli was the best batsman across formats, Ravichandran Ashwin was arguably the best Test spinner and Jasprit Bumrah the best fast bowler across formats.
But India was yet to win Test series consistently outside the sub-continent and their loss in New Zealand at the start of the year did not help matters. Life in a bubble due to Covid-19 restrictions was a challenge in itself and the absence of key bowlers due to injury had weakened the visitors.
Add to this the fact that captain Kohli was set to return home on paternity leave after the first Test and India were facing an uphill task. Not many expected them to repeat the glory of their last visit, with the exception of that one friend of everyone's who is a 'superhero' fan.
Despite the odds, the team made a bright start at Adelaide in their first day-night Test on Australian soil. Armed with a first innings lead, India looked to set a fighting target on the third day until lightning struck. The batsmen, including Kohli, were blown away in an hour of inspired seam bowling as India were bowled out for 36, their lowest Test score. Australia won big and also left Mohammed Shami with a broken hand.
Kohli boarded the plane back home as Rahane took charge of what was left of a team. Those who know Rahane, know he is a man of few words. A nod here and a smile there, that's as much of an emotion you will see on his face when in public. But behind the reticence and resolve is dignified courage and aggression.
Rahane would use all of that when he was on the crease in Melbourne in the second Test to script one of his finest Test centuries ever. He didn't rate it as his best, but many Indian cricket followers did. The foundation of the fight back though was laid by the bowlers, just like Harbhajan did at the Eden 20 long years ago.
Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin combined to remind Australia of India's brilliance with the red cherry despite the spate of injuries. An emotional Mohammed Siraj would also give a first glimpse of his mettle on Test debut. All this at the MCG, where India knew a thing or two about winning Test matches.
Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja's addition to the team provided depth in batting and it helped India when they needed it the most. So did the freshness of Shubman Gill at the top of the order.
The bowlers combined to nullify the threat of Smith & co again as India roared back into the series.
But in Sydney Smith got 'his hands back' and India were staring down the barrel by the end of the fourth day. The last day at the storied SCG was to become the precursor to the action that would follow in Brisbane.
While Pujara defended for his life, Pant batted for it. He gave Australia a lesson in aggression as he disdainfully hit their best spinner since Shane Warne to all parts of the park. The pacers weren't spared either.
But once the duo departed, the famous Aussie claws and fangs were out. Captain Paine sledged mercilessly as Ashwin and Vihari battled injury to try and save the day for India. Rub of the green went India's way as the duo took body blows but kept their cool and their wicket.
Paine dropped a couple and in the end Ashwin and Vihari scripted the greatest escape in Indian cricket since Dhoni drew the Lord's Test for India in 2007. India went on to beat England in England after that draw.
But this draw had come at a huge price. Ashwin and Vihari were ruled out of the Brisbane Test and so were Bumrah and Jadeja. As Paine won the toss and elected to bat at the Gabba, where he had so wanted to get the Indians (as he had sledged Ashwin in Sydney), Rahane read out the Indian playing XI to the disbelief of fans back home.
Bumrah had been ruled out but Ashwin's absence meant India fielded a five-man bowling attack that had a combined experience of 3 Tests and 10 deliveries. Australia knew the shine would be taken off their victory if they were to beat this depleted Indian team but they wanted to win badly.
Ravi Shastri and Ajinkya Rahane knew otherwise. The carefully selected team, which ignored the services of chinaman Kuldeep Yadav, was designed to meet India's primary deficiency, the lack of a long tail. In Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur, India selected bowlers who knew what it was to take a guard, defend a ball and even whack a few.
That decision came in handy when India's top and middle was back in the hut for 186 in response to Australia's 369. Sundar and Thakur registered half-centuries and shared a century stand to allow the hosts a lead of mere 33 runs.
Thakur would return to pick 4 second innings wickets with the ball even as Siraj took in the accolades for a maiden Test fifer as Australia set India a target of 328 runs.
There was a good chance of rain aiding India in their quest for a draw that would help them retain the series. But who wanted a drawn series at the end of so much pain and suffering. Surely the gods didn't and so the heavens didn't open up over the Gabba as Australia tried every trick in the book to keep their 32-year unbeaten record at the ground intact.
But Pujara was out there again. He reminds me of the elder brother who faces the wrath of the parents so that the younger siblings can escape without a scolding.
The younger sibling in this case was Pant, who was dreaming big again, but with caution. The second new ball would end Pujara's resolve and give Australia a window of opportunity but Pant was unfazed. Like Arjuna, he could see 'the eye of the bird' and all the arrows in his quiver were meant to hit the eye.
Washington Sundar reminded Pat Cummins that the young Indians were not scared of chin music as he hooked the world's top ranked Test bowler for a six to bring the equation down.
Pant's show of audacity wasn't over yet. He scooped one over his shoulder and past Paine off Lyon to get a boundary and then slog swept the next one over cow corner to tell the off spinner playing his 100th Test to look for respect and wickets on another day.
Sundar departed while trying to play a reverse and so did Thakur but Pant was on a mission and he completed it with a match winning boundary. Just like Sameer Dighe had in Chennai, it was a wicket-keeper batsman who took India home.
What helped India win this series. There could be many logical answers and yet there could be no answer to it at all. It wasn't meant to happen, it doesn't happen at all. The rarity of such an accomplishment is what makes it surreal and overwhelming. Perhaps like a deus ex machina, that enters a play at the last moment and solves all the problems. Like Laxman and Harbhajan in 2001, like so many of them in 2021.
Australia had failed to cross the final frontier in 2001, and two decades later their strongest fortress lay shattered on the ground and so was their pride. Only time can tell whether this victory will change the destiny of Indian cricket like the win in 2001 did. But just like two decades ago, it sowed the seeds of greatness. The Indian cricket faithful would hope this triumph has the same domino effect.
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