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Australia v India

Abused, bruised but unbroken, India live up to their captains’ example

India Sydney
Aadya Sharma by Aadya Sharma
@Aadya_Wisden 5 minute read

The Sydney Test ended in a draw, but the Indian team showed tremendous spirit to put up a fight, having battled through bruises and abuses both on and off the field over the past few weeks.

Ask any India fan about their most memorable Test fightbacks from recent memory. It’s either Kolkata 2001 or Mohali 2010. For some, it’s Napier 2009 or Johannesburg 2018. But there is something uniquely praiseworthy about Sydney 2021.

This particular combination has never played Test cricket together. It’s unlikely these 11 men will ever feature in the same team again once this series ends. In Indian cricket, there are plenty of moving cogs, and the constantly-rotating Persian wheel either crushes you or takes you along. Given the context, the scoreline after three Tests speaks volumes of this Indian team’s unbreakable spirit, one that couldn’t be crushed even by the continuous battering of on and off-field challenges.

For a start, most players in the squad have been in a bio-bubble since August, spending hours inside four walls, away from their families months on end. At a time when a pandemic has infested every corner of our lives, the Australia-India series was supposed to be the beacon of hope for several fans, and the medium to restore even a semblance of parity in the cricketing world. The results mattered, heck it’s Australia versus India, but the revival of Test cricket mattered even more.

As the tour began, the pieces started falling off one by one for India. Throughout the trip, the infirmary ward has been working overtime. It seemed to have culminated in a spectacularly crushing collapse after the first Test ended infamously, the figure 36 will not be forgotten easily.

In the context of the series, skipper Virat Kohli’s departure further widened the crevasse of absentees that kept extending with each Test. From dodgy backs to torn hamstrings, some of the main characters succumbed to injury, leaving those in the background to fill up the missing pieces.

But it wasn’t just the runs from the skipper that were going to be missed; he is most often the face of the team’s retaliation in the cauldron of a heated Australia-India contest. With him gone, the incessant jibes from the Australian press surrounding the Adelaide rout extended to off-field chatter, bringing in debates on biosecure protocols and reservations around venues. India were perceived as the ones who’d chicken out. It spilt over to the field: Paine’s continuous chatter veered beyond the blurry boundaries of ‘mental disintegration’. But the response was given on the field itself, and the Sydney fightback epitomised it. Kohli or no Kohli, you just couldn’t break this Indian team.

At the face of it is one of its youngest members, Mohammed Siraj. Over the past month, public respect for Siraj, a reasonably unheralded figure beyond the realm of the IPL, shot up considerably, first for deciding to stay behind after his father’s demise, and later for his heartwarming gesture towards Cameron Green in the practice game. It was followed by a debut performance worthy of a seasoned pro, and in only his second Test, he bravely called out abuse from the crowd, yet remaining focused on the task at hand.

Ravichandran Ashwin’s wife Prithi Narayanan couldn’t hide her amazement at what her husband had pulled off after soldiering through 128 deliveries for his 39 on the fifth day. “The man went to bed last night with a terrible back tweak and in unbelievable pain,” she tweeted. “He could not stand up straight when he woke up this morning. Could not bend down to tie his shoelaces.” He copped bouncer after bouncer, valiantly playing out more deliveries than he has in an innings in the last five years.

For the most part of Monday, Ravindra Jadeja sat in one corner of the dressing room balcony, his left glove possibly fused to his hand as he shielded his broken thumb, readying himself to be called upon to bat with injections at any time.

And lastly, Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant, two wounded victors. Vihari is easy to overlook; in a full-strength team, it’s difficult to find him a place, more so because his sedentary scoring style matches Pujara and Rahane in ways. He batted out of his skin through a hamstring problem, playing the innings of his life without any certainty over his future in the team. Triple centurions are often quickly forgotten in Indian cricket, a 23* could shamefully fade away just as easily.

Rishabh Pant has faced more attention than any other 23-year-old in world cricket at the moment; to have the gall to produce something as spectacular as he did with an elbow injury, in the manner he consistently manages despite the continuous criticism that comes his way, is far, far beyond the 97 on the scorebook.

This can’t be a one-off effort and wasn’t produced overnight. To bounce back the way they have after Adelaide required tremendous self-belief, and speaks volumes of the spirit of the group. Never back down: it’s a motto synonymous with Virat Kohli’s India for the past six years, a team he vehemently defends to play a certain way through all the hate and ridicule. The narrow losses in Adelaide 2014 and Edgbaston 2018 were small setbacks in the bigger picture, of a team that refuses to bow down even when the backs are to the wall. It’s unfair to make this Virat Kohli’s victory, but it’s also naive to not give him credit for building such a character in the team.

The other half belongs to the other captain, Ajinkya Rahane, whose comforting presence didn’t let the frustration boil over. Despite mounting tension from all quarters, Rahane remained astonishingly single-minded, first scoring a century in Melbourne to set the tone for a comeback victory, and then staying remarkably unperturbed through the entire storm of on and off-field issues. His contribution to Indian cricket is possibly more than any other stand-in skipper.

In a way, the two styles of the two captains were evident in India’s chase today – Pant batted with Kohli’s brazen exuberance, while Vihari battled with Rahane’s composure.

Is it the best Indian Test group ever? Debatable. Is it the toughest Indian Test group ever? Quite possibly.

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