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Rookie XI: How the Inexperienced Indian squad made it big in Australia

*Apurba Ganguly

As of now (21st January 2021, 0933 IST), if you type in the words “Indian cricket”, “Indian cricket team”, or “Indian national cricket team” in the Google search engine, you will witness a handful of vibrant fireworks on your search result page. Well, that is Google India’s way of celebrating India’s victory at the Gabba.

India emerged victorious in their 4th test match at Brisbane, previously considered the lion’s den of the Australian side for the past 32 years, with just a bunch of rookies having zero experience in first-class cricket. No, this is not a rags-to-riches story. It’s a story of failure-to-fame that began with a 36-all out and concluded with the victory lap of the Indian cricket team, led by Rishabh Pant with the Indian flag in his hand.

The Adelaide Catastrophe

The first test between Australia and India in the Adelaide Oval is a nightmare that the visitors would want to forget. Registering their lowest score ever in Test cricket, India had proved the “prophecy” of some cricket legends like Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke, that “no one can fill Kohli’s boots”. Post-Adelaide, Mark Waugh was confident that India has “no hope” for a comeback and will be whitewashed in the hands of the hosts in the then-ongoing test series.

Former Australian skipper Ricky Ponting had a similar point to make. On India’s humiliating defeat, Ponting had told, “With Kohli not being there as well, there’s almost no-one to pick them back up after a loss like that. They’ve got to make a couple of changes. Rishabh Pant has to be in that middle order. With Kohli not being there, they’ve got to strengthen their batting; he’s got to come in.”

If viewed from an impartial lens, the first test match witnessed mediocrity at play on the part of both teams. The Australian batting line-up itself collapsed in the first innings with a 53-run trail. Unfortunately, a score of 191 is much better than a total of 36 all out in the second innings. The sensational bowling performance by Josh Hazlewood and the Australian Vice Captain Pat Cummins convinced the BCCI that India needed a better expert to prepare the batting order.

Cometh the Wall

Rahul Dravid’s stint as the U-19 Indian cricket team coach was showered with praises and honours. Dravid’s brilliant track record as a batsman was the only resource left for the Indian cricket team to study their weaknesses and work on their shortcomings. In addition to that, Virat Kohli’s paternal leave was a big blow on a team that has already had such a poor start in the test series. Thus, Rahane was to fill Kohli’s shoes just as much as the team needed Dravid’s expertise. And both the factors worked brilliantly in the Boxing Day Test match.

India’s transformation from a struggling squad to a team of tenacious players willing to seek vengeance was a wonderful sight to see. Besides dropped catches and instance of misfielding, India managed to win effortlessly, to conclude the year 2020 on a positive and hopeful note. Simultaneously, India realised Dravid’s indispensability as a batting expert, alongside the quiet, cool and calm captain in Ajinkya Rahane (adjudged the Man of the Match for his spectacular 112 off 223).

With a level score of 1-1, India and Australia were all set for the next test match at Sydney.

Grit and Determination

The third test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) was a stern test of mettle for both sides. Australia’s desperation to win was parallel to India’s perseverance to survive the ordeal of scoring 406 within a span of four sessions only. While Australia exhibited sheer brilliance in batting in both the innings, India displayed a greater degree of tenacity and determination.

For a batting line-up that relied most on its IPL stars - Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, and Ravindra Jadeja - it was unusual for the team to make it to a 406. Therefore, they did what Test cricketers do best - stalling.

The second innings of the Indian team saw a steady opening partnership by Rohit (52 off 98) and Gill (31 off 64), followed by Cheteshwar Pujara (77 of 205) and Rishabh Pant’s (97 off 118) phenomenal collaboration, scoring over 160 runs within 42 overs. However, the third Test match became a chief source of gossip, courtesy of Tim Paine and Steve Smith.

The Australian skipper’s frustrated sledging against Ashwin was recorded in the stump mic. At the same time, Steve Smith’s outstanding 131 off 226 was forgotten for a while after he was caught on the stump camera trying to rub off Rishabh Pant’s spot on the crease. But, the best was yet to come.

Hanuma Vihari’s campaign until the first innings of the third test match against Australia has not been impressive. In fact, among the previous two matches, he could not score more than 35 runs in an innings. On the other hand, Ravichandran Ashwin has presented his ability to bat in tough situations, but only in a handful of matches. So, how did Vihari and Ashwin give India a win in the guise of a tie?

After Pujara’s dismissal in 88.2 overs, the Aussies were certain that the game was in their grip. However, with each passing over, Vihari and Ashwin made it certain that they had the upper hand throughout Day 5 of the third Test at Sydney. Adding to their stubborn attitude was Vihari’s hamstring injury and Ashwin’s backache. Taking blows on their bodies, Vihari and Ashwin proved to the world that Test Cricket is yet to cease.

However, the post-lockdown world has not been too kind to cricketers, and the Indian team was no exception. The absence of KL Rahul, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, JaspritBumrah, Ravindra Jadeja, HanumaVihari, Ravichandran Ashwin seemed to be like an eerie conspiracy against a team that was forced to bring in rookies the final showdown at Brisbane.

The Gabba Heist

Brisbane was the impenetrable cricketing fortress of the Aussies since 1988, until 11th January 2021.

With weather forecasts announcing heavy rains in Days 3 and 4, the hosts were able to put up a challenging 369 in the first innings, thanks to Labuschagne’s wonderful 108 off 204 balls. For the Indian batting order, the first innings began quite poorly, with Pant’s departure in 66.3 overs and 186-6. The Australian team, the commentators, experts, and the viewers assumed that India would be dismissed quite soon with a steep trail of 100-120 runs. They could not have been more wrong.

Enter Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar

Sundar had stepped in as a replacement of Ravindra Jadeja, who had been a reliable figure as an all-rounder in all three formats of cricket. The Test cricket newbie was accompanied by a bowler who had only played in limited-overs cricket till then. To see such an odd duet fighting hard against the Australian bowling attack to put up an astonishing 123-run partnership is to witness something historic and momentous. In hindsight, it is not overstating things to state that Sundar and Shardul’s partnership anticipated India’s historic win at the Gabba.

Australia fought back really hard by putting up 294. With a deficit of 33 runs, India needed 327 to win the match and turn the series. Shubman Gill’s groundbreaking 91 off 146 balls in the second innings was the much-needed boost for India to propel to a decent stage where scoring 327 was not an impossibility anymore. Pujara (56 off 211) scored his slowest test half-century from 196 balls while taking blows on his body throughout the trials and tribulations during his 314-minute stay at the crease.

However, the most thrilling performance was displayed by Rishabh Pant’s hell-or-highwater attitude. The 23-year old, in the words of Harsha Bhogle, may not be a good wicketkeeper, but he certainly made sure that he will be remembered as an aggressive match-finisher in the Indian batting order.

Pant’s 89 off 138 is more valuable to viewers and cricket enthusiasts than his 97 in the Sydney Test, for determination, precision and perseverance were manifest in his batting. Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill, T. Natarajan, Shardul Thakur, and Washington Sundar have been successful in cementing their place in the Indian Men’s Cricket team.

So, what is more important? Experience? Talent? Well, both of these aspects should be deemed significant, especially to a team playing an international match. However, what matters most is positive intent. The intent to play till the end with all you have is what changes the game completely, and this is what Ajinkya Rahane & Co. proved to legends, experts, and the world in general. Let this series be remembered for ages to come, as a story of how a team of inexperienced cricketers won the game because of their mutual commitment to the game of Cricket.

Catch India take on England on their home turf in a four-match test series starting from 5th February, followed by five T20Is and 3 ODIs throughout the month of March 2021.

Australia will be travelling to New Zealand to play against the Kiwis in a five-match T20I series starting from 22nd February.

*The author is a scholar from The EFL University, Hyderabad.

(The image used here is for representational purposes only)

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