The Unbreakables: Despite injuries to key players, India pull off miraculous comeback in Australia
Just two months shy of what will be the 20th anniversary of a historic Test series turnaround against Australia by Sourav Ganguly’s India – engineered primarily by VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh in 2001 – Ajinkya Rahane’s India completed an equally great, if not greater, comeback in Brisbane on Tuesday. At least Laxman and Harbhajan were Test regulars by then; Rahane’s playing eleven for the fourth and final Test was missing as many as nine first-team players who began the series in Adelaide.
That mishmash of inexperience and youth – five of India’s 11 hadn’t played a Test before this four-match series began – has now set the new benchmark for miracles in Indian cricket. Yes, miracles. These are Ajinkya’s Unbreakables.
Possibly the greatest of the new heroes is Rishabh Pant, whose pre-series form and wicket-keeping skills were questioned to the point that he was dropped from the short-format squads, and didn’t make the 11 for the first Test in Adelaide. But when the odds were truly stacked against a wounded side by the third Test in Sydney, it was Pant’s 97 that raised hopes of chasing down a record 407 (and eventually led to an epic draw), before his second shot at the impossible came good on the final day in Brisbane.
Pant’s unbeaten 89 runs, scored on a fifth day pitch and with the clock ticking away, played a critical part in India chasing down the biggest ever fourth innings total at the Gabba, 328 — of which 324 were needed in one day’s play; it handed Australia their first defeat at the venue since 1988 and won India the second consecutive Border-Gavaskar trophy. The other reason was three-Test-old Shubman Gill’s 91 at the top of the order. Gill and Pant’s scores may seem far smaller than Laxman’s 281 and Rahul Dravid’s 180 from Kolkata 2001, but they were every bit as consequential.
Perspective is everything when comparing miracles across eras. Ganguly’s India, too, were crushed in the opening Test of the 2001 series in Mumbai in under three days, by an Australian team that had then won a record 16 Tests on the bounce. But India of 2001 wasn’t belittled like the India of 2021 in the opening Test in Adelaide, rolled over for the lowest total of 36 in the history of Indian cricket.
After Mumbai, India at least had the services of their captain, Ganguly, as well as the other heavyweights in a formidable team. After Adelaide, India lost the services of regular captain Virat Kohli, the unanimous leader of the batting order as well. By the time the final Test began, they had lost the entirety of their bowling attack, all felled by an unprecedented spate of injuries – Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Speechless and leaderless after Adelaide, the team moved to Melbourne with the stewardship thrust in the hands of Rahane. It was his bat that shone at the MCG, a century that helped India draw level in the series, shortly before his terrific leadership skills came through during the backs-to-the-wall draw in Sydney and Tuesday’s historic win in Brisbane, both caused by his tactical punt on Pant and cutting him loose.
Despite having an equally potent bowling attack, Tim Paine’s Australia is no match for Steve Waugh’s Invincibles from 2001. But even Paine hadn’t failed before in Brisbane – a fortress where Australia hadn’t lost a Test match in 32 years. “Can’t wait to have you at the Gabba,” he teased Ashwin in Sydney. The Indians, ostensibly, couldn’t wait either.
At the toss in Brisbane, Australia’s bowling attack had 1,033 combined Test wickets. India’s bowlers had a combined tally of 13 – with two debutants in T Natarajan and Washington Sundar, three if you count Shardul Thakur who had bowled 10 balls in Test cricket a couple of years earlier, before limping away into oblivion. Each of them took three wickets in the first innings. But Thakur and Sundar defied Australia with the bat as well, with a deficit-eating 123-run stand for the seventh wicket.
This made Sydney-debutant Navdeep Saini the second most experienced bowler in the attack, after Melbourne-debutant Mohammed Siraj. Even as Saini became yet another victim to injury on this tour, bowling only 12 overs across the match in Brisbane, Siraj wore his partner’s burden with five wickets in the second innings.
But despite the sincerity of their defiance, they could not stop Australia from setting a target of 328 – impossible, until it wasn’t. The inexperience of this Indian team also made them fearless, a great launching pad as they aimed for the stars, and got there, miraculously.