It’s pitch dark. It’s cold. Bloody cold. 5.30 am in January in the national capital can be cruel on the body. Wrapped up in a warm blanket, bleary-eyed, you tip-toe out of the room so that the wife is not disturbed. She thinks you are insane: she has thought so since a honeymoon in Kasauli where you took a local club membership only to watch an India versus Pakistan cricket match on the sole television set then available in the Himachal hill station.
But the madness for the sport is not without reason. India versus Australia, final day of the Brisbane Test. India need 328 runs to win the Test series. It’s the kind of match that demands an early morning alarm. You’ve done it as a teenager in the 1970s when listening to the crackle of radio commentary from Australia. That’s when you first fell in love with the game: the Chappells, Lillee, Thommo, and ah yes, the Bee Gees songs that played in between the broadcast. Cricket Down Under became an addiction. Now you’ve grown up, well sort of, but the game keeps tugging at your childhood romantic dreams. The radio age has given way to the lure of television as Harsha Bhogle’s mellifluous voice breaks through the silence. “Please keep the volume down,” warns the wife. It isn’t easy being a cricket widow.
By the time you’ve settled in for the first cup of coffee, Rohit Sharma is gone. With it have, you fear, India’s chances. After all, Rohit has the skill to win a game off his own bat. “We should play for a draw now so that we retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy,” you text an old friend in Mumbai. You even check Google for the latest weather updates from Brisbane: what has happened to the promised thunderstorms? Your friend is more confident: “Have faith man, Shubman and Pant will do it!”
Ah, young Shubman Gill, barely 21, playing only in his third Test but batting sure-footedly as if he was destined to play for India. Australian captain Tim Paine has sledged us, suggesting Indian batsmen would struggle with the bounce at the Woolloongabba – an exotic name derived from an Aboriginal expression, a ground which Australia see as a fortress. Australia in fact haven’t lost a Test here since 1988. Gill was born in 1999. The great thing about being so young is that history is dispensable: you don’t need to look in the rearview mirror. Gill is playing his shots with a panache that promises a long and fruitful 6000-Test-runs-plus career.
At the other end is a batsman who has already scored more than 6000 Test runs. Cheteshwar Pujara is an anomaly in modern day cricket, almost a museum piece in this age of slam-bam sport. He plays Test cricket like it was meant to be played, or as you remember it in the Sunil Gavaskar era. Just grind down the opposition with sheer defensive technique. Forget strike rates, you need at least one player in the side who will tire out this formidable Aussie pace attack. In an age where most players bat like hedge funds, you need a fixed deposit. Pujara is that man. The Aussies pepper him with short balls: he is hit on the helmet, on the arm, on the fingers. You almost feel the pain he is going through each time. But Pujara is a cricketing soldier from Saurashtra: he isn’t going to flinch. The big two Aussie bowlers – Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood – glare at him with war-like intent. Pujara doesn’t blink: he just gets back to doing what he does best by keeping the next ball out.
When Gill is out just short of a well-deserved first century, captain Ajinkya Rahane walks in. Like Pujara, Rahane too is a bit of an oddity. This is a 21st century cricketer who doesn’t cuss, doesn’t walk with a swagger and could be easily lost in a crowded Mumbai local amidst the swarm of commuters. He is our Amol Palekar in the age of Ranveer Singh: the quiet middle-class boy next door. But the silence and shy smile conceals an inner steel. He’s come up the hard way: taking an early morning commute from the Mumbai suburb of Dombivili to get to practice is a life lesson. He’s tough but won’t wear his aggression on his sleeve. He’s scored a match-winning hundred in Melbourne and led the side with dignity and grace. It can’t have been easy replacing the charismatic Virat Kohli as captain in the middle of a tour, but he’s done it uncomplainingly and not without a fair amount of skill. When you send him a text to congratulate him on his Melbourne century, the reply is instant: ‘Thank you sir, happy new year!’ Polite to a fault, is Rahane.
When he’s out for a relatively rapid 24 of 22 balls, the game is in the balance. Out strides Rishabh Pant, another of the millennial generation cricketers, he of IPL fame, multi-crore contracts, six-hitting exploits. He’s lost his place in the white-ball team, been called impetuous and temperamental, even been criticised for being a tad overweight. His keeping is under the scanner, his batting perhaps a bit hit and miss. He’s just scored a stunning 97 in the previous Test in Sydney on the last day to almost pull off an improbable win. It is obvious that the Aussies fear him: the field spreads out when he takes guard. Pant is super talented and fearless, a deadly combination for a 23-year-old. Pant takes his time to settle in: it’s a bit like a pugnacious Sumo wrestler sizing up his opponent before going for the kill. A ball from Nathan Lyon hits a crack and turns square, beating the defensive bat. The next ball Pant just steps out and hits a six against the spin over long on. The off-spinner Lyon, who is playing his 100th Test, just looks at the young batsman in front of him with awe bordering on disbelief. In the commentary box, a prescient Shane Warne warns, “An hour of Pant at the crease and this game could be gone for the Aussies!”.
At tea, there is no sign of the late afternoon rain prediction. There are 37 overs to go, 145 runs to get, seven wickets in hand: could India be on the verge of something historic? You cancel a scheduled Zoom call, refuse to leave the chair you’ve nestled into since pre-dawn and wait for the final session to unfold. The Aussies have a new ball waiting. It’s their last chance at redemption. All through the series, Cummins has bowled with the heart of a lion. He makes one last charge, dismissing Pujara and Mayank Agarwal.
But Pant is still there, prowling in the crease, picking the right ball to hit. With just over fifty runs to get, he is joined by another IPL and Under-19 star, Washington Sundar. It’s a rather unusual name for a cricketer from Chennai: apparently his father named him after a neighbour who was an early benefactor to the family. Washington is playing his first Test but you wouldn’t know it from his demeanour. These young Indian players carry themselves with a chutzpah that signals the arrival of a ‘new’ India – bold and unafraid. Washington has scored a half century in the first innings and is carrying the form into the second: he quite audaciously hooks Cummins for a six!
The score crosses 300, just 28 runs remain. As the score inches forward, Washington tries one shot too many and is bowled attempting a reverse sweep. Just ten runs remain to be scored in barely half a dozen overs: the Aussies are almost on their knees. The final punch in this heavyweight contest is landed, appropriately, by Pant. A short ball by the tireless Hazlewood is hooked with a swivel that has Pant on the ground and the ball over the boundary. Your dad has told you stories of the West Indies batsman Rohan Kanhai’s falling sweep shot but that was played to spin; this is a hook shot played with an acrobatic impishness to one of the finest fast bowlers. Pant gets up and dusts himself with a smile. Forget Caribbean flair, this is an Indian magic show on display. Hazlewood just shrugs with exhaustion.
The Aussies have given up. Almost. They snare another wicket when Shardul Thakur, also a match hero and top scorer in the Indian first innings, tries to hit the winning shot but only skies the ball to a fielder. Just three runs are left, three wickets to go. Pant has had enough: an off drive settles it. The Gabba fortress has not just breached, it’s been well and truly conquered.
Pant’s teammates rush onto the field to embrace the man of the moment. The cricketer blessed with an X factor has delivered on the big stage. But he isn’t alone: this has been the ultimate team effort.
Mohammed Siraj, the son of a Hyderabad auto-rickshaw driver, has a broad smile: he lost his father while on tour but chose to stay back so that he could fulfil the family dream of playing for India. He’s done more than just play out his fantasy; he’s snared 13 wickets in his debut series. There is T Natarajan, another debutant with a fairytale story: his parents had a roadside chicken shop, their son has ensured a pucca house in the village. Natarajan only played this Test because of injuries to the frontline bowlers, but even if he doesn’t play another, he is assured of his place in the cricketing sun. As is Navdeep Saini, another of the reserve fast bowlers, also a small town boy who is part of this band of hungry young cricketers who have changed the geography of the sport in India. Saini from Karnal, Thakur from Palghar, Natarajan from Salem: this is Indian cricket shining outside the big cities.
And who can forget the heroes of Sydney: Ravindra Jadeja, a three-in-one cricketer, and unarguably the best fielder in the world. The redoubtable Jasprit Bumrah, barely three years into his Test career but already the leader of the fast bowling pack, someone who never lets the side down. And then the defiant Ashwin Ravichandran and Hanuma Vihari, who batted out an entire last session injured to salvage a draw that felt like a win. They’ve all been sturdy warriors in a team ready for combat, finely led and yes, well managed too.
Coach Ravi Shastri has seen it all: a World Cup champion in 1983, a champion of champions winner in 1985, he now has scaled a peak as the man in charge of the backroom. It takes an enormous amount of character and self-belief to come back in a series after being bowled out for just 36 in the first test and being written off by expert opinion. Shastri built his own cricketing career around sheer resilience; now he has passed on this never-say-die defiance to the next generation. Injuries, alleged racist taunts from the crowd, bio-bubble concerns, just the wear and tear of competitive sport, this Indian team has never let the heads drop.
Which is why Brisbane 2021, and indeed this series, must be seen as arguably India’s finest ever overseas cricket performance. It couldn’t have come at a better time too. In this age of the pandemic, when the world has undergone such trauma and despair, just watching high quality sport seems like a luxury.
To then see an Indian cricket team script history makes this extra special. Maybe, sport is adolescent escapism but it remains truly wondrous in its knack of spreading happiness in tough times. So thank you, Ajinkya Rahane and team India for a Tuesday morning to remember, and celebrate the joy of sport. You made us smile with pride and affection. Maybe even shed a tear. In gloomy times, we needed a blissful moment like this. Thank you.
Post-script: This year, marks 50 years since India’s first big overseas Test series wins in West Indies and England. Then, Indian cricket was finding its feet as was a relatively young country. Then, the players earned Rs 250 a Test; now, they will get a Rs 5 crore bonus!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author of Democracy’s XI: The Great Story of Indian Cricket.