Defying the odds.
Those three words often evoke the image of an underdog toppling a mighty force – like, say, the rebels taking the Death Star down in Star Wars. The images are those of the thrilling final moments, and narratives are usually partial to the “one big weakness” trope: someone just has to blow the thermal port, the massive Death Star’s fatal flaw.
It makes for arguably thrilling storytelling.
But if you are looking for inspiration from a defying the odds story, that’s the wrong lens to peer down. Daredevils who manage to defy odds are not the Han Solo “Never Tell Me The Odds” swagger variety, they are more like the inexperienced and unheralded (and some harshly critiqued) Indian Test cricketers, from Washington Sundar to Mohammed Siraj to Shardul Thakur to Shubman Gill to Rishabh Pant. And Cheteshwar Pujara, who contributed to a historic Indian win without setting out to go solo, as it were.
The Gabba at Brisbane had been Australia’s fortress for three decades and counting. Visitors of all makes and moxie had attempted to breach it, but they found it difficult to even pick 20 Australian wickets, let alone be able to finish the job and get a win. Coming into the deciding Test of the 2020/21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy at that very fortress, India had been depleted to a degree that practically had no recent precedent. Their third-string bowling attack had 11 Test wickets between them, its de facto leader someone who had made his debut just two matches ago. But then, fifteen riveting Test match sessions later, India had incredibly emerged triumphant.
Their secret sauce, however, was not finding a hidden flaw in the Aussie Death Star. They were not blindly hitting the slot machine till it inexplicably spat out a jackpot combination, they took the hand they were dealt and played a sharp, smart and daring game of poker. They bid their time to set up their gambit, they staked out the suspects like a patient cop detail before moving in to nab them.
Mohammed Siraj mentioned what bowling coach Bharat Arun told him as he prepared to make his debut – just do what you have been doing in domestic cricket and you will be fine. Siraj has a solid domestic record and reasonable experience of bowling on the Aussie wickets, albeit on ‘A’ tours. And that is where the nub of India’s seemingly impossible conquest lay.
Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur have decent batting ability. When they came in India were against the ropes, but on Muhammad Ali’s birthday they executed a sensational rope-a-dope, just sticking to playing the delivery, not the situation to the best of their ability. It was important to stay in the hunt. A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together. This was a time to gather stones together.
With India chasing 328 for a win on the final day, fans of the team – already impressed as we were by the resilience and rearguard of Test tykes taking the fight to the big dogs on their home turf –had already geared up for the “no matter what happens from here…” sentiment.
But that’s the thing about discipline and devotion to process. It’s not glamorous and to outsiders looking in, it might even at times make no intuitive sense. Case in point: Pujara, whose graft may grate the casual fan like a grain of sand, but they fail to see the oyster of a plan around it that produces pearls. At each iteration it chips away another bit of the insurmountable and the results soon begin to add up. That’s how the Covid-19 vaccine became a reality. The tireless chipping away from dedicated scientists who trusted the process above all else managed to develop a vaccine in 12 months when typically it takes 36 months. And that’s if the going is good.
Day five of the Brisbane 2021 Test might not rid the world of any of its suffering or ills, but it can and should be filed by every Indian fan as a pick me up when they face their toughest challenges. We may find ourselves in situations that we ostensibly don’t have enough resources to cope. Or a circumstance where history is against us. Or overawed by the sheer size of a challenge before us. And then we should remember that neither life nor India’s historic performance are rescued by a Deus Ex Machina. Instead it’s about dismantling the problem into its smallest bit in your mind, finding the one repeatable thing you can do to the best of your ability and hammer away at that part of the problem. Get through that and move on to the next. Rinse. Repeat.
And an occasional leap of faith. During the last innings India’s plan looked like one that tried to reduce the likelihood of defeat as much as possible. That’s completely understandable given that a draw would give them the result they came for – not let the trophy slip from their grasp. What gobsmacked the Australians was how once India had managed that, thanks to Pujara and a sublime Shubman Gill, they rolled their highest stakes calculated gamble. With resources like Pant available, the approach clearly seemed to be one of taking the game as deep and as close as possible.
These are classic IPL tactics, but that’s the leap of faith, the upending of conventions, after you have made sure you have enough of a cushion. Even as Pujara was accounted for by Cummins off the second delivery with the new ball, the approach didn’t seem to change. Then Mayank Agarwal fell and, in the world of not taking enough small brave leaps to set one up to take a daring quantum jump, that would have been the cue to play for the draw and see out the 10 odd overs that remained.
But Washington Sundar played a cameo full of calculated gambles and by the time the required runs fell below 30, you could almost see in Pant’s body language that it was a matter of four or five hits he needed to connect. The other variables didn’t matter. He knew what he had to do. He needed to back himself and trust his technique. The human mind is not very well wired to ignore recency bias in its feedback mechanism. It’s tough to just go back to playing the next ball, over, innings or match on a fresh slate after something significant happened on the previous one. You need to erase the cache. Pant seems to be able to do it. India did it too, collectively wiping off the spectre of that one bad hour in Adelaide. So even as Washington and Shardul got out, Pant was as calm as could be, just waiting to get to the other end, and finish things off.
And so he did.
Defy the odds doesn’t mean deny the odds. The insurmountable becomes surmountable in tiny increments; no one ever summitted Everest in five big leaps. It’s like Bruce Lee had once said “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.” India’s win at the Gabba is a lesson that is a culmination of that philosophy that the team showed throughout the series and every single torrid examination it threw at them.
The next time you find yourself stuck in a hard place, recall Rishabh Pant’s off drive that heralded this win, Mohammad Siraj’s skyward salute to his departed dad after his five-for, Washington Sundar hitting a no look six, Shardul Thakur crunching one through the covers and then playing a resolute defensive shot, or Shubman Gill’s authoritative pull for six over square leg, and layer those memories with Bruce Lee’s timeless wisdom and the secret of this victory – “Be water, my friend.”
This article was first published on the author’s blog. You can read the original post here.