How do you describe the magnitude of the unprecedented? There is no benchmark to compare with, no scale set to measure it. What the Indian cricket team has accomplished in Australia is uncharted territory. The game hasn’t seen anything like it.
You can turn to mythology and call this a David vs Goliath. You can turn to fiction and compare them with a bruised and battered Rocky Balboa taking blow after blow but refusing to get knocked out. For me, it felt like Team India was playing a survival game on a console.
Survival games are a video game genre where you are expected to survive a quest in a hostile environment. You start with minimal resources and collect or craft weapons and other equipment you require on the go. Your path is paved with threats of wild animals or zombies, and you are supposed to not just survive against all odds, but also win at the end. Sounds similar to Team India’s quest in Australia?
India has had a few famous cricket victories that have come against the odds. The 1983 World Cup final triumph against the mighty West Indians is rated as our most incredible, odds-defying win of all time. But that was true before 19 January 2021. Thirty-eight years later, we have written a new chapter in India’s cricket history.
In a regular sporting contest, the most significant challenge comes from the opponent. An Australian team consisting of the top-ranked Test batsman in Steve Smith and top-ranked Test bowler in Pat Cummins is a massive obstacle to conquer, especially when playing at home.
But this Indian team wasn’t just taking on the Aussies; they were battling life itself. Five-plus months in a bio bubble, frequent travels, heckling and racial slurs from the crowd, personal losses, missing their leader, and the biggest one of them all, injuries. The impact of damages was so bad that, had India not retained an additional bench strength of net bowlers, they would have had to forfeit the tour for not having 11 fit men available to take the ground.
On the field, Australians kept knocking them down. In Adelaide, in Sydney, in Brisbane. The young Indian underdogs were on the mat. But every time it seemed that the team had used up everything they had in their reserves, someone stood up. Rahane at Melbourne, Pujara at Sydney and Brisbane, Bumrah bowled despite injuries.
Ashwin took blows and still got behind every ball, Sundar and Thakur batted like a dream, Siraj tirelessly ran in all day, every day. Rishabh Pant fought fire with fire. Team India had more heroes in this series than Team Avengers. All the odds, all the setbacks, they took everything in their stride, and they wore everything on their heart.
The defiance rattled Australia. Steve Waugh coined the term “mental disintegration” to describe their verbal volleys to soften an opponent. India’s mental disintegration was silent and way more assertive. America’s great long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine once said, “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” By the end of the series India was receiving body blows, but the Australians were bleeding. If you know your history, you shouldn’t miss how quintessentially Indian that trait is of just defying the enemy till he has nothing left. And then they counterpunched.
Watch American athlete and motivational speaker David Goggins describe the look on Apollo Creed’s face when he thought he had finally knocked Rocky Balboa, but the rookie kept standing up and kept goading him to keep punching. “The look I saw on Apollo Creed’s face was this look of total awe of ‘Who the hell are you? Who am I fighting?’ It looked like Apollo Creed’s soul left his body and Rocky got his gloves and motioned him to come on. Apollo Creed put his head down and shook his head.”
Like Apollo Creed, by the end of the Sydney Test, the Australians were in awe and fear of India’s defiance. When Tim Paine sledged Ravichandran Ashwin with “Can’t wait to take you to the Gabba”, it was an unconscious acceptance of that fear and frustration because he had already conceded the battle of Sydney.
When Australia couldn’t declare in Brisbane at the end of Tea, this fear factor caused it. On the last day, Indians sensed it and ran with it. This awareness drove their dance of destiny on the final day where they took on the Australians at their so-called fortress of Gabba on a tough final-day pitch.
A fight that gave us lessons for life
Team India battled the Aussie brawn with their brain. They plotted their downfall on the field. Australians mostly drove in one gear; they always wanted to go for all-out attack, hence their bouncer barrage at Indian batsmen. But Team India played it like a seasoned rally car driver who knows when to drive in 2nd gear to prevent damage to the car and when to step on the gas. The Indians attacked with gusto when they had to. At other times, they tired them down or set traps and let the Australians fall into them. The Indians exhibited better skills, better game awareness and immense courage.
What makes this win even more impressive was how it was not just a win for individuals. Every game had a new hero. It wasn’t just a win for the 11 men on the field even. Look at how Bumrah and Ashwin were relaying advice to their more inexperienced teammates on the field. It wasn’t just about this squad either. The skills and confidence of India’s bench players weren’t built overnight.
This win was a culmination of how the entire Indian cricketing system has worked over the past few years. India has a robust First Class system where bowlers like Thakur and Siraj have honed their skills for years. They have a strong coaching system starting from grassroots levels to the National Cricket Academy. Rahul Dravid has helped build a pipeline of players at India A and India U-19 level.
Remember how Rahul Dravid imposed this restriction of not letting one player participate in more than one U-19 World Cup? He knew it isn’t just about the wins at that level; it’s about exposure. Indian players breaking into the highest level have already been through finishing schools of IPL and A tours that teach them skills and prepare them to handle the pressure.
India’s win has given us so many reasons to celebrate in these times of doom and gloom. But more than the win, the manner in which they played gave us even more pleasure. At the end of Day 4, India still had a herculean task ahead of them to either save or win the last Test match. The fans, though, were already feeling as if their team had won the series for them. They were proud of the team even before the series was decided. In all my years of watching Indian cricket, I have never seen fans taking so much pride in the men representing their team.
These men who conquered Australia will be remembered in history as not just winners, but as heroes. Their win gave us immense pleasure, but more importantly, their fight gave us lessons for life.