From Adelaide to Gabba- Lessons which can be drawn from India’s rise like a phoenix from a bottomless pit.
It is pitch dark, it is cold. 11:30 PM, wrapped up in a warm blanket, bleary eyed, book in a hand-craving for a bibliophile before sleep, reading about leadership- Obama and his promised land but in the background, mind chattering about 328 runs and 98 overs (Will Rahane’s Daredevils do the unthinkable?). Almost groggy, you switch on the app on your phone, the writing is on the wall, brain says to my heart, let’s wait on till lunch (2:00 AM), heart consoles the mind. It is the kind of match that demands a night out. You’ve done it as a teenager when you used to get up at 5:30 AM for a cricket match without an alarm clock, but needed an alarm clock to ring vociferously, to wake you up for school. That’s when I fell in love with this game: Pontings, Tendulkars, Dravids, Mcgrath, Warne, Waugh, Laxmans, Hayden, Langer and the soothing voice of Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. Cricket Down Under became an phenomenon and addiction. Now you’ve grown up, but the game never surprises you and keep plugging at your childhood memories. The mellifluous voice of Richie Benaud has given way to Harsha’s beaming smile. By the time you’ve settled in for a the glass of Diet Coke, Rohit Sharma is back in the hut. With him, you fear India’s slim chances have evaporated. Mind again has a quick discussion with the heart, “Let’s hit the bed”, Heart refuses to budge, “Let’s go on for another hour.” You even check for the latest whether updates from Brisbane: Thunderstorm have conspired (Probably). In between Shubman plays a lovely drive to give heart some fodder to fight the tired mind. He further caresses boundaries with the finesse of Hashim Amla in his pomp and takes the bouncers on with the spirit of a pugilist. Australia haven’t lost since 1988, but Gill was born in 1999, no scars, wounds or baggage of history to carry with. At the other end was Cheteshwar Pujara, an anomaly in the modern era. He is a throwback to the Gavaskar era where BLOCK was the default mode. He is a fixed deposit in the team, where most players bat like hedge funds. An extinct specie but priceless indeed. When Gill is out, short of a well-deserved first century, captain Rahane walks in. Like Pujara, he is too a museum piece in this era of glam and slam. He is our Amol Palekar in the era of Tiger Shroff; sincere and quiet middle-class boy who has come up the hard way taking an early morning commute from Dombivali (Mumbai suburb) to practice. His soul is made up of steel but won’t wear his heat on his sleeve. He has led the side with dignity and grace. It can’t have been easy replacing a charismatic skipper in the middle of the journey, but he’s done it unflinchingly, without a smirk on the face, and showing great amount of tactical nous and skill. Polite, simple, dignified to a fault is Rahane. When he’s out for a rapid cameo of 24, the game is in the balance. Heart completely over-rules my mind, by roaring, “Let us go the distance”. Out strides Rishab Pant, with question marks over his attitude and fitness, but not bringing the word fear in his kitbag, he takes the bait against impossible odds. 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 thunderstorm, maybe they have conspired to let the Pant storm take effect. 145 runs to get, seven wickets in hand, a fresh and lively heart brings the mind battling sleep back to its feet, waiting for the final session to unfold. Sandwiched in between is the immovable object-Pujara. From pillar to post his body has taken a pounding from the Australian bullets, it was as if an amateur shooter had finished his day’s work without hitting the target even once, but every missed bullet was a dent to Australia’s pride.
Aussies have a kryptonite in the second new ball, waiting, their last chance at redemption. Cummins has probably forgotten that five-letter word ‘tired’ exists, he has bowled with the heart of a lion, and makes ones last charge to dismiss Pujara and Agarwal. But Pant is still prowling, fighting the odds with unimaginable audacity, Sundar for company. Last played a first-class game in 2017, you wouldn’t know it from Sundar’s demeanour. These players are the torch-bearers of new India, which look into the face of the opposition with chutzpah. The final punch in the heavy-weight contest is landed by Pant with an impishness to one of Australia’s finest fast bowlers, Hazlewood just looks on in despair, with his hat hiding his face. The cricketer with the X factor finally plays to his potential, leaving the crowd on the edge of their seat with fluctuating ECG. But he isn’t alone, this has been an ultimate team effort. The hunters were now the hunted and Paine looks like a captain in the middle of the sea with the radar gone haywire.
Life throws opportunities when you least expect to. This test match is a mirror of that. This match has thrown Mohammad Siraj, son of a Hyderabad, lost his father while on tour but chose to stay back so that he could fulfill his dream of playing for India, racially abused in Sydney, channelizes adversity to snare 13 Australian wickets. There is T Natarajan from Salem, 200-odd km away from Tamil Nadu, another character in the fairytale story: his parents had a roadside chicken shop, poverty staring at the face, but now he is assured of his place in the cricketing sun. As is Navdeep Saini, a small town boy from Karnal, another of the reserve fast bowlers, with fire in his belly, who have changed the geography of the sport in India. Shardul Thakur from Palghar, which is 87 km from Mumbai, another of the fearless drummer in this team without any clutter with the theories and statistics of the game. Our cricket team is an emblem of democracy and meritocracy, where talent and skill is awarded rather than dynasty and lineage, something Indian politics can take a leaf out of.
There is an old Italian proverb: if you want to know that a fish is bad, look at its head:
A French general was once asked, after a famous win, if it hadn’t really won by his second-in-command. He took some time before answering, ‘Maybe so, but one thing is certain: if the battle had been lost, I would have lost it.’
A captain is held accountable when the things go haywire. Captaincy can be a hassle, a chair of thorns, more so when a team is coming off a back of a horror show of 36. The knives would have been out, and the defeat of this nature generally attracts scapegoats. Captain not only has to pick the pieces of the rubble but build a stable house out of it. Rahane not only gathered the pieces but made a palace out of it and the repair work started with a hundred in Melbourne, which was a thing of beauty and great fortitude. He maximised the potential of the team without suppressing the flair and uniqueness. Given all they had to endure and overcome, it was appropriate that they should have finished their litmus test in the world’s toughest arena: Gabbatoir. Australia aren’t meant to lose, are they ? Gabba mirrors Australian cricket, where the pitch yields bounce, and where the cracks lengthen as the match wears on, giving the tall and muscular Australian fast bowlers artillery to hit the sub-continental batsman with. And what did Rahane have at his disposal? Barely 11 fit men who could stand and walk, with six of their first-choice bowlers, incapacitated by injuries. The luck gods were against the team: captain at home nursing his newborn, no room-service available at the hotel, dressing looking more like a hospital ward and then then the wickets taken by each set of bowlers prior to the start of the fourth test match- 1033 by the Australian attack, 13 by the Indians
And to add insult to the injury, captain loses his third toss in a row, at a ground where chasing 200 was akin to scaling Mount Everest and unarguably against the world’s best bowling attack with the leader of the pack not understanding the meaning of the word ‘tired’. Rahane had woven all the fairy tales on this tour, but Gabba’s audacious heist was the biggest of them all. Rahane didn’t tinker with the batteries of his young brigade, instead he supplied fuel to their charge. In Melbourne, Rahane pulled a rabbit out of the hat by replacing Kohli with Jadeja- India’s three-dimensional wonder and unarguable best fielder in the world, and went for the offensive option of five bowlers where someone could have easily put the shutters down. And who can forget the heroes of Sydney: Defiant Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari, who batted an entire session with one hamstring and a brittle back to salvage a draw that tasted like a win. The warriors were bruised, battered but always ready for a combat with an ‘over-my-dead-body’ attitude, gracefully led and yes, well-managed too.
The thing I adore about Test cricket is that it resembles life: not only it is a game of the highest skill, it is also a test of endurance, patience, grit, determination, adaptability. The role of leadership is more profound than any other format
There is the grind, session after session. The road is bumpy, you can drive on it only if you can weather the storm. It gives you pain but also a shot at redemption in a single game. I have always felt it to be one of the charms of the game that it accomodates a Pujara, Gill, Pant, Rahane in the same match.
As sports enthusiasts and writers’, we usually consider ourselves fortunate, if we are able to watch and write about one rousing story in a series. That this series between these two fierce rivals went right down to the wire, would have been enough, but Rahane and Co have given us a blissful moment in these gloomy times.
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