The Epic Comeback
Along with many others, I fall hard for a gutsy and resolute group of Indian cricketers.
A month ago, they leave Adelaide battered and humiliated, having been bowled out for 36 pitiful second inning runs in the first of four tests vs archrival Australia. Never mind the past history of enthralling matchups between the two countries, the ebbs and flows, the twists and turns. This is a slaughter, an epic collapse, in every way.
A few days ago, India departs for home having completed what can only be described as an astonishing turnaround. The squad recovers from a predicted 4-0 whitewash, recording stunning wins in Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as a steely draw in Sydney. At long odds, the team retains the coveted Border-Gavaskar trophy.
It is rare indeed for a national cricket side to win an away series having lost the first game, but India somehow manages to do it. Indeed, an intoxicating mix, of timely caution and real bravado, raw courage and grit, untapped depth and fierce determination, proves irresistible.
As well, a quite unbelievable injury list, including a broken thumb, a broken arm, a pulled hamstring, abdominal and calf strains, back spasms and exhaustion might have derailed other outfits, but not this one. The popular “next man up” mantra becomes a living, breathing thing, as India makes light of being without arguably its top seven bowlers, never mind its optimum starting XI.
Heroes emerge at every turn. Deprived of talismanic captain and batting ace Virat Kohli, who returns home for the birth of his first child, the Indians turn to Ajinkya Rahane. His calm, ice cool and collected leadership, in addition to a brilliant batting performance in Melbourne, is a tonic.
Rishabh Pant, a swashbuckling lefthander who himself had been felled in Melbourne when smashed on the elbow by a nasty delivery, bounces back to score a vital 97 in Sydney and then 89 not out at the Gabba in Brisbane. Playing with, at times, almost reckless abandon, he notches the series’ winning runs, with his teammates pouring on to the field in joy as the ball crosses the boundary.
Add Cheteshwar Pujara, wonderfully brave, resolute and patient in equal measure. Though scoring slowly, he constantly defies the Aussie bowlers. In Brisbane especially, he cops a nasty barrage of bouncers, balls rearing off the pitch at his body and head at over 140km an hour. Like a stone wall, he absorbs the punishment, being hit ten times, twice on the helmet, then on the wrist, hand, finger, ribs, shoulder, back. He knows intimidation is an accepted part of the game, but never capitulates. By way of comparison, imagine a baseball pitcher being allowed to throw at, and hit, batters on a regular basis – well, the bench clearing brawls would still be raging.
Also, save a thought for the young opening batsman Shubman Gill and the beautifully named Washington Sundar, two newcomers who step in seamlessly and rise to the occasion. Not to mention a completely rejigged bowling lineup, led by Mohammed Siraj, initially brought on tour to provide nothing more than net practice. Instead, these neophytes enter the crucible of the fourth and deciding test with a combined total of 11 test wickets, compared to the 1033 already taken by the opposition’s deep and high quality attack. Yet, they more than surpass expectations.
And there is more. Captain, coach and senior management, having somehow lifted morale in the wake of the Adelaide debacle, implement clear and precise game plans. The inexperienced youngsters are not shackled or forced to defend, but rather encouraged to play positively and expansively in thrilling and extraordinary run chases.
As a result, perhaps fresher and less predictable, they win most of the key moments, seemingly able to always secure a critical wicket, take a vital catch or register important runs. It is a recipe for success. In contrast, the heavily favoured Australians, from winning positions in both Sydney and Brisbane, lose momentum and discipline at key junctures.
Other issues provide further drama. Yet, the Indians do not let some unsavoury sledging and alleged racial abuse knock them off stride. They cope well enough with various Covid restrictions, the bio-secure hotel quarantines, lengthy separations from family and friends. Such is the loyalty to the squad and desire to make a national debut, one player misses his father’s funeral and another his daughter’s birth.
Happily, whether for us to enjoy, to rejoice, despair or marvel at, sport through the ages is littered with epic comebacks. Red Sox-Yankees in 2004. The Americas Cup of 2013. So many others as well. In turn, they excite, exhilarate and electrify.
Certainly, the recently completed India-Australia cricket tests draw on every emotion. Quite simply, it ranks as one of the greatest series ever played. Two elite teams, packed with skilled performers and emerging stars, go toe to toe. It is breathtaking action right through to the bitter end.
Hail the victors for such a massive achievement. Consider the many obstacles faced and overcome. Honour the teamwork, resilience, fearlessness and bravery of all involved.
And honour the power of their example, the splendid and stirring recovery from a difficult position. May it be an omen for an equally strong, united and successful 2021 response to the global pandemic.