INDIA TOUR OF AUSTRALIA, 2020-21
From the lows of Adelaide, India made an incredible comeback at the MCG ©AFP
Five deliveries before one of Indian cricket’s most famous wins was achieved at the MCG, Ajinkya Rahane played one of the more delectable cover-drives to a loopy full delivery on off-stump from Marnus Labuschagne. It was hit so well that you assumed it would race past the boundary. If it had, you couldn’t have asked for a more resounding statement from the man of the moment, the captain himself, to cap off what had been a career-defining contest for him and his team.
But of course it pulled up just inches from the ropes and Rahane could complete only a three along with Shubman Gill. That left Rahane with the rightful task of scoring the winning run in the next over off Nathan Lyon. He did so with a gentle nurdle around the corner before scampering across for a run with the ball being fumbled.
And that was it. So anticlimactic was the finish that even the handshakes between the players seemed a tad delayed. Maybe it also had to do with the extremely subdued reaction from Rahane, Gill and the Indian contingent who’d all gathered around the dug-out. It felt like even the Aussies expected more of a hullaballoo.
But there was no wild celebration. There was no mad rush of players on to the field. There was no uprooting of the stump. There were no bear hugs or anyone jumping on anyone. The Indians could have justifiably indulged in any of them, if not all.
This was after all one of India’s greatest wins ever. They came here after having lost their captain, their serial wicket-taker and to an extent their dignity following the 36 all out debacle. Then they lost the toss on what looked like a Boxing Day designed for batting.
They then also lost their seniormost seamer, Umesh Yadav, in the early stages of Australia’s second innings. But they kept finding the gumption, the way and enough players putting their hand up to overcome all that to give the Aussies a comprehensive pasting. Yet, a simple clip off the legs seemed the most apt finish to a simply remarkable performance by a team captained by a simple man who, to borrow a cliche, achieved greatness over four days at the MCG by keeping it simple.
To indulge in a debate over whether Rahane is suddenly a better captain than Virat Kohli would be facile if not farcical. This is Kohli’s team and will be so till he remains in-charge. What Rahane does deserve though is for his inspirational display as stand-in captain to be highlighted and celebrated. He’d been thrown, or submerged, in the deep end after all post Adelaide. It was like being sent to the Oscar’s in a suit that doesn’t fit you but still being judged for you.
It’s no secret that this was a summer of cricket that was built around Kohli. And slogans or promos announcing “King Kohli is next”, “Can King Kohli’s crew chase this target down?” “the week of King Kohli” were commonplace on TV and in the papers throughout the time the Indian captain was still in Australia.
Rahane arrived here with no moniker or title. Even on Boxing Day, he was just the man who was put in place of King Kohli, or worse, the “jinx” who ran him out in Adelaide. What he’s shown over the last four days is that there’s of course much more to him, but also that he’s his own man. Better captain or not, he certainly is a different captain.
India’s feats in Melbourne also proved that there is no one way to winning in Australia. That a visiting team doesn’t need to really take the game to the Aussies or try to beat them at their own game in order to be successful. It’s especially true for a team from the subcontinent, more so an Indian team. While there’s nothing wrong in the Kohli way of approaching the Australian challenge – he is still the only Indian captain to have won a Test series here – the biggest takeaway from MCG 2020 courtesy Rahane & Co is that it can be done without the naked aggression that’s become a mantra of this Indian team in more recent tours Down Under.
It also brings to question or discussion the outside world’s view that Virat Kohli is the perfect representation of modern India. While there’s no doubt that he is from a cricketing sense, you wonder to what extent that statement is influenced by his larger than life personality and also the weight of his incredible success as a cricketer.
For, you’d think the likes of Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Jasprit Bumrah too perfectly capture where India is as a country in 2020. Firstly, it was on the collective weight of their contributions that the turnaround of the year was achieved in Melbourne, even if Pujara had a relatively quiet game with the bat. And more importantly, the way this core group of India’s Test team carries themselves is as much an indicator of India’s rise as a global power as Kohli’s inherent approach to take on the world head-on.
It works for Kohli because it comes naturally to him. But what we’ve seen from this bunch, who’ve all grown as cricketers under his reign, is that they too are very comfortable in their own skin. And it’s this confidence that comes from backing and taking pride in who you are, without feeling the need to conform to preconceived notions about dealing with places like Australia is what defines a modern-day Indian.
Led by Rahane, this team oozes with that confidence. And over the last four days they’ve shown that that self-belief coupled with some wonderful skills is enough to win yourself a monumental Test match.
It shone through in Rahane’s captaincy on the field and certainly in his knock. It came through in Ashwin’s desire to constantly evolve and do so in front of the public glare. It dazzled through the rustic charm of everything that Jadeja does on a cricket field. And it was brimming as ever in Bumrah’s nonchalance over executing his seemingly ceaseless bag of talent.
Not surprisingly, it helped that they carried out their plans and tactics to the Aussie batsmen with unerring accuracy. And it helped that they attacked the Australians in pairs, each bowler complementing the other.
By being so immersed in keeping their head down and focusing their energies purely on the plans they’d put in place for the Aussies, Rahane’s team also managed to immunise themselves from the non-cricketing challenges of facing the Aussies in their den. It showed when Matthew Wade kept trying to chide them and get them going, but how they didn’t take the bait. It showed in how they did not retaliate with a like for like bouncer barrage against the Aussie tail despite their tail having copped it from the likes of Mitchell Starc. So much so that, their firm resolves began bothering the Aussies, if not annoy them.
Nothing though really screamed out modern-day India as much as watching Mohammed Siraj and Shubman Gill make their debuts. For, Siraj bowled like someone who’s played 50 Tests and Shubman Gill batted like someone who’ll play a 100 Tests. The final day’s play belonged to the duo.
It was Siraj’s spell that really hastened the mopping up of the middle to late order on Tuesday (December 29). He’s shown that he can improve literally with every spell, and with his accuracy and nippiness, he is likely to be the third seamer for a while to come. His self-assuredness in terms of what he was doing with the ball and how he was reacting to the batsmen, were only some of the aspects that stood out. Rarely was there an occasion where Siraj had the ball in his hands and something didn’t happen. He dished out a number of nippy bouncers, striking a couple of the Aussies and troubling them with his angle of attack. But there was no word spoken or even a glare thrown at any of them.
Watching Gill bat was like dipping your foot in a fountain of unabashed youthfulness. The fearlessness he brought to the crease without having to display or express it in any fashion, is what sums up the attitudinal evolution of the Indian psyche. Not to forget the way in which he was able to put away the plays and misses from his head and still be prepared to drive the next ball on the up for a boundary. There were times during his unbeaten knock on the fourth day where you could see how the Aussie slip cordon including Steve Smith were enamoured by his strokeplay.
It was that presence with which he owned the crease though that showed the Aussies that even in his first Test, he was as good as if not better than any of them. And it is this unhinged assertiveness that is the cornerstone of India’s standing as a superpower, not to forget their cricket team’s formula for what was a legacy-defining win.