After India had been shot out for 36 in the first Test at Adelaide, there were two kinds of reactions which dominated the social media and cricket columns: One was of shock and horror at this unexpected turn of events after a balanced start to the Test with India in a lead going into day three, while the other was to fight the fire which could have engulfed the team in case an inquisition was carried out.
Some critics call for deeper introspection into the troubles of Indian cricket, while others called it a one-off event, something that might happen to any side. Having witnessed some disasters in the past, former players and fans alike could tell that the Indian side was in a spot of bother.
On some occasions one can tell what a team is going through. Teams can feel like they are ready for a fight even when down (India in the 2008 tour were crushed in the first Test, however the team managed to unite after the Sydney Test and became the first side to beat Australia at home in five years) or look like they are going through motions (India in England 2011 – the second test was evenly balanced at aone point, but after that defeat India felt like they were playing to finish the series rather than compete for the remaining Tests)
Sometimes teams spring a surprise as well, for example, the Indian team under extreme pressure in World Cup 2003 ended up reaching the finals after a poor start.
The best thing from an Indian perspective was the relative lack of understanding of how Ajinkya’s India would play in these circumstances. With Virat, there was always the willingness to fight to the last breath, however the team was often plagued with selection errors (wrong selections like dropping Bhuvneshwar versus South Africa in the second Test during the 2018 tour, when he was the leading wicket taker in the first Test even stunned the likes of VVS Laxman and Allan Donald) or tactical errors (from not playing practice games to reducing their length).
The result being that of late, while India did have some results to show, (barring the New Zealand tour in 2020, India has won an overseas Test on every tour since 2016) they made enough mistakes to let the better opponents take series away from them. This is what led some critics to make a 4-0 assumption against India, based on the idea that India’s success on the last tour down under was due to absence of Smith and Warner and once the duo returned India would suffer the same fate as most of sides suffer downunder.
However, despite all the clamour around 36, there were a few things that were in India’s favour going into the second Test.
For one, over the years the team management had dealt with player fitness well, keeping the players match ready for different formats. This was visible when Bumrah turned up at Nottingham in 2018, not having played a game for weeks due to an injury, and went on to deliver a match-winning performance.
Secondly, (at the risk of sounding Shastrisque) this team didn’t carry any baggage when away from home. They trailed 0-2 in both South Africa and England and came back to win games. While this was something that could have been expected from India of the mid 2000s, in the first half of the 2010s under MS Dhoni Indian fans got used to a sinking feeling once the team started losing games abroad. This fighting spirit was best illustrated at the Oval in 2018, when young guns KL Rahul and Pant decided to go for a win rather than settle for a draw.
Thirdly, the schedule under the impact of Covid-19 forced India to play two First Class games before the Tests, something that they have shied away from doing in the recent past. The First Class games always put the teams in a match situation and even if the side is in a tough spot they need to find a way out, thus keeping players match-ready. The team management did well to give a try-out to most of the players, even backup players like Kartik Tyagi, so that they can be called upon in case the situation demands.
Fourthly, while India’s performance has improved overseas since the turn of the millennium, the previous decade saw India perform better in South African and Australian conditions as compared to England and New Zealand. After the disaster of the 2011 tour India, though hit by selection issues, gave a creditable performance in 2014 (coming close to winning a Test, competing well in another defeat and securing a couple of draws) to eventually winning a series in 2018. The core of this team in Ashwin, Pujara and Rahane have a good experience of playing in Australia and, more importantly, of winning there.
India, under a new leader in Rahane, went against a spirited Australia at MCG, making four changes in Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammad Siraj. Not one of these players was to disappoint as India held on to a breathtaking fightback to beat Australia by eight wickets.
This was a big win for Indian cricket, with quite a few comparing this to the Perth win in 2008, another occasion when India was able to shut off the noise from outside and triumph over both the conditions and a formidable opponent. Another fact adding to this win is that it came in Australia, still considered to be one of the toughest places to tour in the world. Since 2000 only South Africa (5), England (4), India (5) and New Zealand (1) have been able to secure a win in the country.
However, one cannot look at Test cricket in terms of solitary games. The series is far from over. There is a lot more to be played for in terms of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and ICC Test championship points. Australia have been bested for most of this series, but to count them out would be a folly that no team can afford. They have one of the best batsmen in the world, one of the finest bowling attacks to represent the country and a return looming for David Warner, who averages a whopping 66 in Australia. India so far have been skilful in making the best use of their bowling attack (even when they are missing out on Bhuvneshwar, Shami, Umesh and Ishant). Their batting might be reinforced with some old faces for the remaining Tests, they have the x-factor in players like Jadeja and Pant and are ably led by Ajinkya Rahane, who led by example scoring an exemplary hundred in trying circumstances at the MCG.
It would not be prudent to predict a score-line for the final result, but what one can say is that an exciting series remains to be played out. Fans would do well to remember that West Indies, under heavy pressure from a thrashing at South Africa and after being shot out for 51 in the first Test, made a memorable comeback to hold Australia to 2-2 in the 1999 Frank Worrell Trophy, with Brian Charles Lara playing the innings of his life-time in the third Test at Bridgetown.
Whether it is 3-1, 2-1, 1-1 or 2-2, as long as exciting cricket is played out, everyone wins.