I turned on the TV on the final day of the final test of 2021 India vs Australia only after the winning runs had been scored. I was following the game on cricinfo. After following each day of the series with a feverishness bordering on foolishness and providing running commentary and armchair analysis on our family whatsapp group, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the climax on TV and jinx the result.
This after rebuking my family for all kinds of ridiculous superstitions such as not commenting when a batsman was nearing a hundred or playing well, sending positive vibes to the team when they were in trouble, not changing your position when the team was playing well, etc.
I don’t for a minute believe any of these antics have anything to do with influencing the outcome of the game. I’ve read too much Carl Sagan and Steve Novella to think otherwise. Yet I found myself helplessly gravitating towards this kind of nonsensical thinking when in the thick of things.
The tension was reaching unbearable proportions. 2-3 months of grinding effort, building on years of preparation for the players, had come down to the proverbial wire, and a live wire sparking like a Diwali sparkler at that. Down to the last match, last day, last hour, last few overs. In the midst of tension so thick you could poke and cut it with a knife, Rishabh Pant was playing like it was a game of street cricket with the kids from the next apartment building. Like he wasn’t human, but an android with no concept of fear. It must have been truly unnerving to those nerveless poster children of tenaciousness, those never-say-die Aussies.
Audaciously, incredibly, this Indian team unlike pusillanimous Indian teams of yore, was actually going for the win. The best I had hoped for was a draw, and a rain assisted one at that. I had been mildly disappointed to hear no rain was forecast for the final day. The prediction software gave India a 1% chance of a win and a 70% chance of drawing it at 68/1. But first Gill, then Rahane, Pant and Sundar all seemed to believe they could pull off the win. The runs which were being meticulously whittled down at the start of the day with a knife were being mowed down in huge clumps with an ax towards the end.
And lets not forget the immovable monolith, the massive center of gravity around whom the whole chase revolved so intrepidly, Cheteshwar Pujara. If Pujara had given it away, then it is hard to imagine those who followed would have played with the same degree of freedom they did. Paradoxically, aggression and stability are best friends, be it in batting, bowling or life.
If Pujara provided the tethered axis of stability, Gill and Pant provided the torque to spin the flywheel. And in what style. Gill first demonstrated that it was possible to score at a good clip and that the wicket, though quick and with a few cracks and variable bounce, and a hostile bowling attack wasn’t unconquerable. Watching Gill play cuts, pulls and hooks against the quickest attack in the world, it seemed like he had 2 seconds more than any other player in international cricket to play those shots. Like you were watching slow motion replays not live action. Not one short ball hurried him. And the crisp sound his bat made when it struck the full ball seemed to be his way of slapping the bowler for the impudence of pitching it up. Here’s a player who has the potential and temperament to end up in the top 10 list of Indian test batsmen. Scaling Everest is easier than getting onto that list.
If Gill provided the initial uphill push, Pant provided that giant boulder relentless, unstoppable momentum. Does this chap have nerves of Kevlar (a synthetic fiber stronger than steel used to make bullet proof vests)? I couldn’t bear to watch when it got close, and this guy was nonchalantly playing scoop shots off a guy with 400 wickets on a 5th day pitch. His youthful audacity was as heart-warming as it was heart-stopping to watch (even to one just following scores). And those battle-hardened pros, those cricketing equivalents of the German football team who obdurately refuse to lie down like that punching bag clown who pops right back up, whose ancestors weren’t the most law-abiding of individuals, had no riposte even though they tried doggedly till the very end.
A word for the unvanquishable captain, Ajinkya Rahane who shepherded an inexperienced, wounded, homesick and quarantine-weary ragtag outfit cobbled together from the bench and support bowlers. Natarajan and Sundar had no business playing this game but there they were. And how they repaid the trust Rahane reposed in them. The trust he reposed in them - not something that can be said for the regular captain, whose style is to keep everyone on edge, and hog every photon of the limelight. If Kohli was the overbearing parent pressuring you to live upto his unrealistic expectations, Rahane was the genial uncle, quietly encouraging you on to be yourself and taking pressure off you. And though Rahane made mistakes on the field, he compensated by creating a team environment that let individuals shine. And he set the tone for the chase with his bat and his artful shuffling of the batting order, unleashing a rampaging Pant on an unsuspecting Australia caught off guard in a china shop.
I said to myself I would switch on the TV when less than 5 were required. Surely they couldn’t lose it from there. As soon as I did, Shardul Thakur promptly contrived a way to get out. The TV went on pause and back to cricinfo it was. Two balls left in the over and three mugs with the bat left to keep Pant company. It was a stroke of the most remarkable good fortune that Pant had managed to get back on strike as the catch was being taken. If Thakur had been out bowled or LBW or caught behind, imagine the plight of Saini and Natarajan. It might have been curtains. Defeat snatched from the jaws of certain victory as Indian teams of yore are notorious for doing. So gossamer-like are the margins in international cricket. But this was Pant’s day. The daredevil wasn’t to be denied his due. Pant doesn’t belong to that category of humans who die wondering. The very next delivery was all it required for him to shatter the Aussie ego and their meticulously cultivated aura of invincibility at this mythical, allegedly impregnable, media manufactured fortress they called the Gabbatoir.
For an Indian cricket fan who grew up watching the team being systematically thrashed overseas, and flattering to deceive more times than there are neurons in the brain to store, this was a heist beyond the wildest jingoistic imagination. Beyond the world of dreams and beyond the bounds of normal expectation. Beyond the pale of words to describe. Even if one hunted through dust filled archives dating back to the dawn of test cricket, one would struggle to find a comparable underdog victory against such Himalayan odds in the middle of a global pandemic. This is the stuff of grandfather tales. Magical, mystical, theatrical and sprinkled with pixie dust. An epic fairy tale full of Tolkienian drama. Savor it with as much gusto and for as long as you can. It will be a long time before we’ll see the likes of it again on a cricket field.