India vs Australia: Ajinkya Rahane’s Unbreakables or the myth of regeneration
On the phone, friends weep, “this is too much, too much.”
Messages fly across continents: in the dead of American nights, via disbelieving eyes in an English dawn, from cities and towns across India, everyone in one voice with the shrieking fans at the “Gabbatoir”.
This is not possible. This is unprecedented.
This is India’s best-ever overseas performance. This is an epochal event.
It is. It is. It is. To those who saw Brisbane happen, it will always be.
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The Border-Gavaskar 2020-21 series has already slotted into an epic, the stuff of sagas and bedtime stories on loop. Already people are talking docudramas, movies and books. It’s a series that also splits wide open a false myth fed to us through centuries — that the regenerative creature is evil.
The Terminator’s T-1000, that villainous lab flask of shape-shifting liquid metal has nothing on the bad rap given to regeneration by the ancients. Mahabharata has the Raktabija tale about the asura who couldn’t be killed: every time a drop of his blood fell onto the ground, a new Raktabija sprang from the earth. Bad guy. Destroyed by goddesses. Greek myth has Hydra, the multi-headed sea monster. Cut off one head and two would appear in its place. Bad thing. Killed by Hercules.
The truth is that the natural world has several creatures capable of regenerating, regrowing limbs, tissues and living on; there’s even a species of “immortal jellyfish”. These species have been around longer than homo sapiens but our old stories only turn regeneration into indestructible evil, with inexplicable superpowers. As the series wore on, especially after Sydney, it was as if Australia were spooked. Who were these guys? Can they never be crushed? What are their secrets?
Ajinkya Rahane’s India took on regeneration as it is meant to be; a natural state, their only way of remaining sane on tour. No regeneration, no contest. No contest, no chance. No chance, no series. Certainly nothing like what we have witnessed over the last month.
When the Indian team’s many highly efficient, smoothly functioning parts began to be set aside or started breaking down, they were replaced by others. Who looked, at first sight, underwhelming replacements: tyros without Test experience. Debutants and net bowlers desperately drafted into a squad crumbling with injuries. Until each man stepped up, individual, distinctive, and found his own way to fit into the whole which could not be destroyed.
What appeared properly unearthly was what this ensemble cast of “nobodies” were able to pull off. As India’s first-rate bowling attack dissipated, its second line rose, a Phoenix platoon of unimagined properties. The seamless emergence of Mohammed Siraj as spearhead in his third Test. The second highest partnership of the series, also India’s second-highest was between its No. 7 (no first-class cricket for three years) and No. 8 (first-class batting average of 16 pre-Brisbane). The same No. 8 Shardul Thakur’s steepling venom from under 6ft height, armed with 130kph of pace. Or even Navdeep Saini, groin strained, putting in a spell to give others a break and a proper dive to try stop a four on day four. Regeneration from all quarters can be seriously fearsome.
Cricket people tell you to calm down; there is of course a proper logical explanation for what has happened and how it has. The IPL has created an environment where every young cricketer coming through, on their way up, down or sideways, faces intensity of contest, weight of pressure, and partnership or challenge from overseas players. For weeks in a row, their nice pay cheques are on the line every game night. The white-ball wizards, who normally focus on dot balls between pummelings , revelled in the potency of the red ball and how it could turn those mugs with logs at the other end into jellybabies.
Then there was the caravan of A-team tours over the last five-odd years: before this series, Siraj had toured South Africa, England, New Zealand, West Indies and Australia, playing 20 matches away, first-class and List-A. Thakur played a total of 22 first-class and List-A matches in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England. Washington Sundar has travelled to West Indies and South Africa with the A-team. There is little overseas that is unexpected or daunting.
The pandemic, despite its stifling biobubbles and restricted movement has, on the other hand, meant that India travelled with quality net bowlers. Who stepped in acclimatised and ready when required rather than having to be flown down as jet-lagged replacements.
A team, you were reminded, is not merely a frontline eleven or twelve but everyone aboard and on this series, India used the best of every man.
Cricket wisdom must be accepted, but in a series also soaked with fan delirium, the hammering of the heart must also be heard. Every day after December 17 became yesterday; where 36-9 was a hallucinatory nightmare from which we woke up to see specialist bowlers producing cover drives from heaven. The series has built ballads into Indian cricket: of an Ajinkya living out the full meaning of his name — he who cannot be beaten. Of the ethereal Gill, the heroic Hanuma, the rejuvenated Ashwin, the mystic spells of Jasprit, the magic arms of Jaddu, to a Washington resounding with reinvention.
In doing what they have done in the land of Oz like no other visiting team before them, the folklore around Ajinkya’s Unbreakables will only grow taller and bigger. And why shouldn’t they? Generations will be told that Pujara, if required, could bat against a cruise missile. On one leg. With a broken arm. During a nuclear attack. That Rahane walked on water and Rishabh Fast Hands Pant played one-handed fadeaway slog sweeps blindfolded.
Fables were never far away from this magic series which has left us seeking illumination through ancient tales. On Monday, Harsha Bhogle was asked about an ancient Greek myth on Twitter. Could this team, Bhogle was asked, be called the Ship of Theseus?
Briefly, the legend goes thus: A ship sailed by the warrior Theseus is preserved in the Athens harbour but needs repair and restoration for decades, plank by plank, oar by oar, until not a single piece of the original warship remains. The question that rises is this: does it remain the ship of Theseus? Gnarled cricketers will raise eyebrows, emit snorts and say: fans are mad. Guilty as charged. But this classic philosophy puzzle from around 2,500 years ago can also be applied to a cricket team.
The team did what it did through their cricket skills, minus tantrums or bad blood. They went on to produce high-quality performances that transcended nationality, lasted longer than momentary “viral” sensations and represented something timeless.
Now to answer the ship of Theseus question: of course, it’s the same team. It’s Cricket’s team.