Remember Chennai 1999? India versus Pakistan? Sachin Tendulkar almost seeing the chase through, before it collapsed in sight of the finish line? To this day, it remains a painful memory for Indian cricket fans. Actually, scratch that. That defeat haunts us.
Years later, this writer got the chance to speak to one of the Indian tail-enders from that infamous Chennai Test. “Just a matter of 12-15 runs”, I asked. “How did that even happen?”
“But it wasn’t just those runs. It was India-Pakistan. The pressure was so intense. When I walked in to bat, I couldn’t feel my hands inside the gloves or the bat handle,” his stoic face painting a real picture. Watching from the outside, sometimes, we are oblivious of these cricketers’ limits. Blindly unaware of their inability to push, or indeed, cross those limits in the case of some.
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Quite a few times, this limit has stonewalled the Indian team; the 1986 World Cup semi-final loss, the 1996 World Cup semi-final loss, the 38-run loss to West Indies at Barbados in 1997, the harrowing Australian tour of 1999, that Chennai Test, bowled out for 54 against Sri Lanka in 2000 (Sanath Jayasuriya alone scored 189 runs), losing to Zimbabwe in Harare in 2001, the 2007 World Cup exit, the 8-0 embarrassment against England and Australia in 2011-12.
Add 36 all out from Adelaide 2020 to this list, too.
The fans, the watchers beyond the boundary ropes, cry to sleep on nights like those. But we aren’t alone in it, for the heartache is real. The heartburn endures. So much so, it leaves a mark. An indelible scar that you are afraid. Of what? Not of victory. Of failure, of falling short. Again.
That same fear encircled our thoughts as Rishabh Pant stretched the fifth day’s play at the Gabba into the final session, and then the final hour. Don’t play those reverse sweeps, use a straight bat, don’t play an aerial shot, don’t get out – what if the tail-enders were exposed and this tired-but-mighty Australian attack finds one last wind to bowl them out. 90 out of 100 times, there’s more chance of losing five wickets in the last hour of a Test match than score at five-per-over.
Indian cricket, though, is a generational phoenix.
It has risen from setbacks and triumphed at World Cup summits. It has won Test series in West Indies and Australia, fought through a match-fixing saga and imbibed a winning culture, it has transitioned from 8-0 to the world’s No 1 Test side, it has given birth to the greatest T20 competition of all times and changed world cricket forever. How could it not rise from 36-all out?
Even so, this was beyond our – the team’s and those watching, collectively – wildest imaginations.
“If you perform in this country (Australia), you will be rewarded and people will love you for your performances,” said an elated Shardul Thakur, after his first Test half-century thwarted Australian plans of forcing a win. Indian coach Ravi Shastri told him this. What it takes to fight tooth and nail Down Under, Shastri knows only too well – as a player, as a commentator, as team director and now, twice, as coach.
They say a captain leaves his imprint on any team. If Ajinkya Rahane’s dogged determination rubbed off on the Indian dressing room, this fighting spirit had Shastri written all over it. And yet, victory isn’t to this duo’s credit alone, or to their support staff, or even Rahul Dravid’s back at the National Cricket Academy. This triumph belongs to every stakeholder of Indian cricket – from the players, to the team management, to the selectors, to the NCA, to the administrators, to the ex-cricketers/commentators, and indeed, to the fans.
For, this victory is a testament to India’s cricketing structure. It may be much maligned, but it is rigid and stands the test of time (and controversy). The Ranji Trophy, the A-tours, the IPL – all of them combined to gives us the likes of Thakur, Pant, Shubman Gill, Washington Sundar, T Natarajan and Mohammed Siraj. Will all of them feature together in a single Test for India again? Maybe Covid-19’s enforced bio-bubbles will bring it about in England or South Africa later this year. Or, maybe, a few of them will never consistently feature in red-ball international cricket, ever again.
Could Thakur’s return to the Test fold have been possible without the existing background domestic and A-tours’ structure? Could Natarajan have risen from obscurity and debuted across all three formats on a maiden Australian tour without the IPL and its feeder tournaments?
Sundar is perhaps in the intersection of those two stories. Without any First-Class cricket for nearly three years and hooking Pat Cummins for a six late on day five as an entire nation held its breath, it was the single biggest reminder of how Indian cricketers now arrive on the international scene ready to face up any challenge. It is why this squad could traverse the uniquely difficult journey of this Australian tour.
If Test cricket is seen as a microcosm of life itself, then India’s great success finds its stepping stones in their individual – and now well-known – tales. From tragedy and failure in Adelaide, to fight back in Melbourne, to a jailbreak in Sydney, and an eternal triumph in Brisbane, Siraj could claim it as his own story. Thing is, it didn’t begin in Australia. This journey, this story for the team collectively, began a while back, a few trips and seasons ago. And for the likes of Siraj, this was but the first chapter of what promises to be a golden run.
The greatest torchbearers of that golden future are Gill and Pant. Too often we talk about who will take over the reins when Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma bid adieu. It is a worry that consumes the younger and older generations of Indian cricket fans alike. Nobody gave India a chance in Kohli’s absence, while Rohit didn’t entirely replicate his home Test form in the second half of this series. Who rose to the occasion? Yes, Gill and Pant.
Their knocks were in remarkable contrast, yet at the same time, their calculated attacks paved the way for India’s victory. Simultaneously, their runs also underlined a key learning for us all.
Gill showed how to achieve the balance between natural game and a patient approach, laying the very foundation of India’s strategy to bat around Cheteshwar Pujara. Perhaps the younger generation of fans, born and bred in the IPL era and idolising Gill as their hero, now realise why every Test batting line-up needs a Pujara. Why strike-rates in Test cricket are pointless and why every Virender Sehwag needs a Rahul Dravid at the other end.
Meanwhile, Pant taught a new lesson to the oldies that have seen it all mostly end in heartbreak. We are afflicted by that aforementioned fear of failure. He shrugged it off. If we were afraid of a painful Chennai echo, Pant held his bat handle tight and smacked Australia to all parts, signalling the rise of a Brisbane sun. He taught us to not let the fear of failure take away the joy of success. He made us soar higher than a tame draw, which was not even part of the conversation.
In Gill, in Pant, in Siraj and their accompanying heroes, the future has arrived. And Indian cricket has grown up, once again.