The victorious Indian team at the Gabba in Brisbane, January 19 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE GABBA IS a fortress. It is to the Australian cricket team what Roland-Garros is to Rafael Nadal. Maybe more. No cricket team has dominated a ground like the Australians do here (with the exception of Pakistan and its 34-match undefeated streak at Karachi’s National Cricket Stadium between 1955 to 2000). Visiting teams don’t play as much as get slaughtered here. Leading to that other popular name by which the venue goes: the Gabbatoir.
The ground is massive by the standards of most cricket grounds in the world today. It has a surfeit of pace and bounce, the two things Asian teams have historically feared and struggled against. And by the fourth and fifth days, the cracks grow so wide as to make the pitch dangerous. When a batsman looks around, it is said, he can feel as though he has been dropped into a gladiatorial pit. Back in the 1950s, the English cricket writer John Kay remarked, ‘It is not a cricket ground at all. It is a concentration camp.’ Kay was referring to the poor conditions of the stadium and the difficulty of playing on the wicket, especially after it rained. ‘Then it is a strip of turf with thousands of demons prancing up and down,’ he said, ‘…only a Hutton [the great English batsman Len Hutton] could stay, let alone score runs.’
The stadium has been redesigned and renovated over the years. But its fierce reputation has survived. Australia had gone unbeaten in 32 matches at this venue, their last defeat coming at the hands of the mighty West Indian team of 1988. This has been on occasion the first venue visiting teams play on. And the psychological scar of the mauling they receive here travels with them for the rest of their tour. Everybody knows this. Best of all, the Australian team. On the final day of the Sydney Test match, when the shadows lengthened and it became all but certain that India would draw the match, the Australian captain Tim Paine uttered an obscenity and told R Ashwin, ‘Can’t wait to get you to the Gabba.’ There is a bit of history to that remark. India defeated Australia in a Test series last time round not just because there was no David Warner and Steven Smith, but also, some said, because no match was scheduled at the Gabba. When news emerged that India was apprehensive of undergoing the harsh quarantine rules at Brisbane this time, a few Australians put it down to the fear of playing at the Gabba.
There were both Warner and Smith for the final match at the Gabba, along with what is considered the best bowling attack in the world. At the other end, the Indian team, beset with injuries and leaves through the tour, had cobbled together a bowling unit of first-timers and net bowlers. (The pandemic having fortuitously forced India to travel with its own net bowlers.) The preview sheet at the start of the match made for quite a contrast. Australia’s bowlers had taken 1,013 wickets between themselves before the match. India, just 11.
At the end of the fourth day, after rain had washed off almost an entire session, the overwhelming feeling everywhere was that India should aim for a draw. A loss was a heartbreaking but likely event. A draw, especially if rain arrived as predicted, was achievable. The other likelihood, to win by chasing 328 runs against that bowling attack, that too at the Gabba, could only be a cricket romantic’s punt.
India had provided several big moments throughout the series. From being blown away to its lowest score in history, to achieving one of its greatest Test match victories a week later, followed by one of the great rearguard battles which led to a draw but, as Ajinkya Rahane put it later, felt every bit like a win. Even up to those four days in the final Test, India had refused to throw in the towel. Irrespective of what transpired on the final day, this was already one of India’s greatest Test series. They were going to return home as heroes, no matter what. A loss wouldn’t have been grudged. A drawn Test, which would mean India still retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy, would have provided a near-perfect ending.
Through this match—and, in fact, the series—young player after another came, from Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant to Washington Sundar to Shardul Thakur, each one of them without an iota of self-doubt, to dismiss such celebrated names at such mythologised venues
Share this on
But that is where everyone, even the fans of this cricket team, got it wrong. We all suffered from a lack of imagination. Near-perfect was never going to do for this team.
India produced its greatest cricket moment in Tests the following day. Cheteshwar Pujara, an anachronism in today’s aggressive batsmanship, literally put his body on the line as he held one end up. He offered his body willingly, and he was hit by Australian bowlers several times all through the day, on his helmet, ribs, hands and fingers. His strategy was akin to that of the boxer Muhammad Ali who took upon himself one punishing blow after another to tire his stronger rival George Foreman in the match dubbed as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’. Except that the counter-punches came from the stroke-players at the other end, first from Shubman Gill and later by the wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant. Through this match—and, in fact, the series—young player after another came, from Gill and Pant to Washington Sundar to Shardul Thakur, each one of them without an iota of self-doubt, to dismiss such celebrated names at such mythologised venues. They hooked fast bowlers for sixes. They hit spinners on a fifth day pitch against the turn for sixes. Every time the team found themselves at an impasse, a new individual took them across. In fact, if you look at the batting and bowling charts of the series, it is led by Australians, exhibiting just how much of a team effort led to this series win.
Where does this impossible series win leave team India? Perhaps, it will not mean anything more than what transpired over that month. But in the players—and, more importantly, the team character—this series has unearthed, it feels like it will mean something much more.
For some time Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have insisted that theirs is a new Indian side, Kohli even dismissing Greg Chappell’s compliment that the Indian captain is the most Australian non-Australian cricketer, calling himself instead a representation of a new India.. This team has shown glimpses over the last few years of that newness in approach and belief, in its Test series win in Australia back in 2018-2019, victories in England and South Africa. Now it has submitted clinching evidence.
This year is lined up with several marquee tournaments for India. They will be hosting England and South Africa, and more importantly, travelling to those countries later. They are considered impregnable in their homes. But if the Indian team could pull off such a series win with a depleted squad in Australia, who is to say they cannot take those countries down in their own homes. And then there is the inaugural World Test Championship final, which India now has a very good chance of reaching, and the T20 Asia and World Cups.
This Australia series, as bright a moment as it is for Indian cricket history, could just be the launching pad that takes the Indian team into uncharted territory.