Written by Sumant S. Dangi
If you decide to sit down one day and make a list of all the obstacles that Team India faced during this particular tour Down Under, let me warn you in advance — keep several boxes of tissues handy. You’ll need them. It is incredibly difficult to describe this Indian team in a single word, so I’ll take two: daring and resilient. What the Indian Cricket Team has achieved over the past two months in Australia is nothing short of legendary. Why is it such a big deal, you ask? Well, let’s answer your question right away, old sport. Settle down in a comfy chair and remove all possible distractions. It’s storytime.
As the infamous year of 2020 was coming to a close, India arrived in Sydney on the 12th of November for a special all-format tour of Australia. After enduring over 7 months without international cricket, Indian cricket fans were suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms. They had received a booster shot in the form of IPL 2020, but it wasn’t enough. They craved more. Their hearts beat for the Men in Blue and every day’s wait for this Australia tour was unbearable.
The Indians arrived all right, albeit in a new-look retro jersey, and raised Covid-dampened cricketing spirits all across the globe. Team India fought hard, but couldn’t halt the Australian juggernaut as the Aussies won the ODI series 2-1. The Indian contingent decided that enough was enough; they wouldn’t meekly surrender to the Aussies. With valiant contributions from captain Kohli, vice-captain Rahul, Pandya, Jadeja, Chahal, Natarajan, and Dhawan, India redeemed themselves by earning a 2-1 T20I series victory. The appetizers had been gobbled, the limited-overs madness was over, and both India and Australia were neck and neck, having won 3 matches apiece. Now, the main course remained — 4 mouth-watering Test matches against a formidable Aussie side in their own backyard.
On a chilly winter morning in December 2020, a middle-aged man named Michael Vaughan confidently stated on a Cricbuzz Preview show, “If Australia win that [pink ball] Test match and then you lose Virat Kohli for the remaining three, this could be 4-0 for the Australians.”
7 days after the former England skipper’s audacious statement, the Indians were massacred in Adelaide by the notorious Australian pace trio of Cummins, Starc, and Hazlewood. The visitors knew that nothing was going to come easy, but after bundling the Aussies out for just 191 in the first innings and obtaining a healthy lead of over 60 runs, the Indian dressing room believed that they were well ahead in the game. What followed was a scene straight out of a horror flick as Aussie pacers sliced through the Indian batting order like a hot knife through butter. On the 3rd day of the 1st Test Match of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, India collapsed for a combined team total of just 36 runs in 21.2 overs. Taking wickets had never looked so easy, and not edging the ball had never looked so difficult. Australia made a mockery of the 90-run target in the 4th innings and cruised to an 8-wicket victory. The Indians were left buried six feet under.
After being thoroughly demolished in the Adelaide Test, not a single soul believed that India could spring back, let alone convincingly snatch a series win from the Aussie dragon’s lair. What follows such a man-made disaster? Fans were devastated, players were numb, and the team management was distraught. The storms of criticism in the media from experts, former players, and fans were growing stronger by the minute. India didn’t realize that this was just the beginning of a tsunami of mishaps. When a team reeling from defeat needed someone to convince them that the series wasn’t over, they lost their captain. After imparting some motivational words, Captain Kohli boarded a flight back to India for the birth of his first child. Many believed at the time that India’s hopes of a comeback departed on the same flight carrying their beloved captain and star batsman. An Indian team with crushed spirits was left behind.
The reigns of this hearse were handed to the second-in-command — Ajinkya Rahane. Captain Rahane and Head Coach Ravi Shastri knew one thing for sure — this innings was a blip on the radar. India hadn’t been the No.1 Test team in the world for years by accident. Rahane and Shastri knew that they had to keep this team afloat and not surrender after one bad innings. The players needed to be reminded that this innings was a rare exception and that India had been ahead in the match until that fateful session on Day 3. Dwelling on mistakes wasn’t going to help the team. This realization was crucial for India’s recovery; they had to understand that they played well for the majority of the 1st Test. India had bounced back before and they had to do it again — for the nation, for the fans, and most importantly, for themselves.
The Aussies enjoyed their Christmas festivities. After all, their team was 1 up in the series and their dominance looked set to continue. A new Indian skipper walked out for the toss on Boxing Day in Melbourne. The new captain couldn’t reverse fortunes with the coin as Australia won the toss and elected to bat first, but Ajinkya Rahane was about to reverse something much bigger.
Thanks to some fabulous captaincy, excellent fielding, and treacherous spells from Bumrah and Ashwin, India bundled the sky-high Aussies out for just 195 runs. Australia were stunned by India’s intensity in the field. Despite losing Agarwal for a duck in the first innings, Indian opener Shubhman Gill scored a fearless 45 on debut, foreshadowing the carnage that was coming. An under-fire Rahane persevered, and by scoring a valiant 112 (223), forced the Aussie bowlers to look to the other end for wickets. With contributions from Pujara, Vihari, Pant, Ashwin, and Jadeja’s fighting 57 (159), India racked up a total of 326. With a lead of well over 100, India were in the driver’s seat.
The Australian batsmen were under immense pressure to score big in their 2nd innings. Despite fighting knocks from make-shift opener Wade, Labuschagne, Green, and Cummins, Australia were knocked over for 200. India were set a target of 70 runs in the 4th innings. Yet, after losing both Agarwal and Pujara in quick succession, Indian fans feared a repeat of the Adelaide 36-all out. The debutant Gill, and Rahane, however, calmed everyone’s nerves and pulled India to safe shores with nonchalance. It was a win for the ages. After getting annihilated in Adelaide, India had stormed back at the MCG and pounced onto the Kangaroos with utter ruthlessness, roaring with rage and conviction. This time, the Aussie dressing room was distraught.
As the world welcomed the new year with hope in their hearts, cricket fans shifted their focus to the New Year’s Test in Sydney. After witnessing an unforeseen comeback in Melbourne, Indian fans too started waiting with a renewed sense of hope.
The Sydney Test began on the 7th day of the new year, and Australia opted to bat first again, realizing the importance of 1st-innings runs on the board. Courtesy a dashing 62 (110) from debutant Pucovski, Labuschagne’s 91 (196), and a dominant 131 (226) from Smith, Australia put up 338, a stark contrast to previous low-scoring affairs.
The Indian batsmen dug deep against a relentless attack from Cummins and co., but only mustered 244 owing to fifties from Gill and Pujara. Australia batted again, and after big half-centuries from Labuschagne, Smith, and Green, declared at 312-6, setting a massive 407-run target. Most spectators and experts thought that the match was over. There was no way India could survive even 100 overs against this vicious Aussie bowling attack, let alone chase down 407 in the 4th innings. Rahane’s team was on tenterhooks once again.
Yet again, they proved everyone wrong. Returning India opener Rohit Sharma’s 52 (98), Gill’s 31 (64), Pujara’s marathon 77 (205), and Rishabh Pant’s breathtaking 97 (118) put India in a position that seemed impossible 24 hours ago. Pant’s counter-attacking knock stunned the Aussie bowlers and convinced a country of 1.36 billion that India could still chase down this mammoth total. Here was a 23-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman who, after conditioning himself to play through pain and taking a few painkillers to combat his injured elbow, was smashing Aussie bowlers for fun once again in Sydney. Rishabh’s century remained incomplete, and after his dismissal, millions of Indian fans were left aghast. But India still had a final throw of the dice. They weren’t done.
With Jadeja suffering from a fractured thumb, Ashwin joined Vihari in the middle. Things were looking very bleak as Jadeja, despite being willing to bat through the pain, would find it extremely difficult if he had to come in with India still needing over 130 runs to win. India virtually had no batsmen left after Vihari and Ashwin. To make matters worse, Ashwin was suffering from extreme back pain and soon copped multiple blows on his body, including one in the ribs. Watching Ashwin groaning in agony left spectators and the Indian dressing room terrified. That wasn’t all. Hanuma Vihari tore his hamstring while picking up a quick run and could barely walk thereafter, let alone run between the wickets. In short, the Indians were screwed.
Vihari and Ashwin however, didn’t think like the rest of the world. Vihari owed the team a draw and these two men weren’t about to let 4 days of hard work and sacrifice go to waste. Despite the injuries, sledging by the Aussie captain & co., and relentless bowling, they held their ground and frustrated the Australians. Vihari batted over 4 hours to score a 161-ball 23. Ashwin batted over 3.5 hours for a 128-ball 39. The Aussies just couldn’t get them out. The duo batted like possessed men, as if the pain in their bodies was egging them on, acting as a constant reminder that the mission wasn’t over yet. It was as if the words “come on, survive one more ball” were ringing in their ears every time they blocked a delivery successfully.
India pulled off one of the greatest draws in its cricket history despite half its side being sent to the hospital after the match. Cricket pundits and fans saw it as a heist, a comeback of epic proportions, a miracle, and a great escape from certain defeat. The Indian dressing room, however, recognized it for what it truly was — proof of the team’s resilience, character, and potential. With over 10 first-choice players either injured or unavailable, India barely had enough players to make a playing 11 for the upcoming game.
India went with the strongest (and fittest) options they had. When Captain Rahane announced the playing 11 at the toss in Brisbane, cricket experts were stunned. This bowling attack had a combined experience of only 4 Test matches! Washington Sundar and T Natarajan, both originally brought as net bowlers, had been handed Test debuts. Kuldeep had been overlooked for a young Sundar and 4 pacers were included the 11, with Mohammad Siraj as the interim leader of the attack. These 5 bowlers combined had only 13 Test wickets between them. Just 4 Australian bowlers, on the other hand, had 1013 wickets between them. The stage was set for another massacre. Since the Australians hadn’t lost a single Test match at the Gabba since 1988, the world, and the Australians, believed this match would be a cakewalk for the Men in Baggy Green. Overconfidence has led to the downfall of many unsuspecting men and women in history and it seemed that the Australians hadn’t read the tale of David and Goliath.
At the Gabba, the Australians once again put up a menacing total of 369 in the 1st innings, thanks to a Labuschagne hundred, Paine fifty, and contributions from the rest of the lineup. India’s “inexperienced” bowlers, Natarajan, Thakur, and Sundar, picked 3 wickets each. The top 6 Indian batsmen all got starts, but couldn’t go on longer. With the inexperienced Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar at the crease, it was all but over for India. The Aussies were into the tail and were hungry to finish the Indians off quickly. What happened then, you ask?
Well, the “inexperienced” duo of Thakur and Sundar stitched a mind-blowing partnership, hammering and frustrating the Aussie bowlers. Thanks to Sundar’s 62 (144) and Thakur’s 67 (115), India minimized the Aussie lead and put 336 up on the board. In reply, the Australians scored 294 in their 2nd innings to set India another massive 4th-innings chase of 328. The “inexperienced” duo of Siraj and Thakur ended with a five-for and a four-fer respectively to their names.
The stage was set for a thrilling finale on Day 5 of the 4th Test. After Rohit departed for just 7 runs, Gill and Pujara were left to rebuild the innings. However, these two didn’t just rebuild it; they constructed a lavish castle for the Indians. With Gill’s 91 (146) and Pujara’s 56 (211), India got a rock-solid platform for their murderous wicket-keeper, Rishabh Pant to walk in. Rishabh continuously kept the scoreboard ticking, and along with an injured (but still standing) Pujara, kept frustrating the Aussie bowlers. When Pujara’s penance finally broke and Washington Sundar walked out to replace him, Rishabh went berserk. For a few moments in the chase, Rishabh and Washington convinced everyone watching that they were seeing a blue T20 jersey, not the glistening whites. Pant attacked the bowlers with utter disdain, leaving the Aussies with no answers to his onslaught. Even the wickets of Sundar and Thakur couldn’t excite them as they watched Rishabh whack their bowler mates from the other end. With 3 runs to get off around 3 overs, Rishabh whacked the ball to long-off for a four and the Indian dressing room emptied onto the Gabba ground. The Gabba had been conquered.
An Indian team without Kohli, Bumrah, Shami, Ishant, Bhuvneshwar, Umesh, and Jadeja had shredded Australia’s 32-year-old Gabba pride. Australia had been served back-to-back Border-Gavaskar Trophy losses — this time with Smith, Labuschagne, Warner, Hazlewood, Starc, Cummins, and Lyon, all in the playing 11. Everyone was stunned. However, as Australia’s shock gave way to sorrow, India’s shock soon transformed into ecstasy. In any other year, half of India would have been out on the streets. Yet, the emotions in Indian people’s hearts, tears in their eyes, and pride for their team’s achievements were undeniable.
This victory will be etched into history books and Indian cricketing folklore for decades to come. When India won a Test series in Australia for the first time ever, back in 2019, the world undermined it by saying that Australia were not at full strength without Smith and Warner and that India defeated a weak Aussie team. This time, however, it was the Indians who were playing with a 2nd-string (almost 3rd-string) side, having lost most of their first-choice players, and their best batsman, Kohli. The fact that India managed to come back from the depths of oblivion and storm their way to the trophy through raw grit and determination speaks volumes about the quality and mindset of Indian cricketers — and their bench strength.
The world will look back at this underdog Indian side and marvel at the sheer resolve they displayed while playing. Whether it was Pujara enduring blows on his body to save his wicket, Jadeja bravely padding up to bat with a fractured hand, Vihari ignoring his torn hamstring to save his team from certain defeat, Ashwin battling a strained back and receiving body blows for hours to keep the Aussies at bay, Siraj giving the performance of his life despite enduring racial abuse from the crowds and the devastation of his father’s recent death, or Rishabh forcing himself to bat through an injured elbow and bludgeoning bowlers all over the park, every player made sacrifices and gave it their all for their country.
This series will be remembered for the resilience of a team ravaged by injuries, missing star players, and shattered in terms of confidence, that rose up, brushed off the dirt, and dismantled the pride of the Australians. History will never forget this Border-Gavaskar Trophy, and neither will we.