It is often said that you learn more in defeat than in victory, but here was an instance where even in victory a bright light was shone on the remarkable gains this Indian team has made, the rapid strides it has taken and the stars that were born in 20 scheduled days of remarkable cricket.
Rohit at home, away
When he walked out to open the batting in a Test match for the first time overseas, there were big question marks over whether he had the chops to do the job. For years it has been said that he is too good a batsman to be left out of the 11 in any format. But, despite being a colossus at home, Test runs eluded him away. With all other doors seemingly shut, Rohit gravitated to the top of the order. Returning from injury, untested in domestic cricket, Rohit was at once at ease at the crease. Mastering the moving new ball and an attack that asked all possible questions — seam, swing, pace, bounce and spin Rohit made the opening position his own.
There’s life beyond Kohli
Virat Kohli may be the best all-format batsman in the world at the moment, and one of the greatest of all time, but there is life beyond him. For no fault of his, Kohli attracts attention when he is on a cricket pitch. Whether he is dazzling with the bat or pumping his fists on the field, all eyes are on King Kohli. When he was ruled out of three of the four Tests of this series, there emerged a rare opportunity for the rest of India’s players to express themselves more freely. Here was a time when it was team first, second and last. While there were stunning individual performances all through the series, it was the team that was at the forefront. The result is there for all to see.
They also serve
Ravi Shastri has received plenty of criticism for the manner in which he talks up this team even when they don’t do well. For long it was thought that this old habit of his served Indian cricket better from the commentary box than the dressing-room. But, to take any credit away from him for the spirit instilled in this team would be churlish. After 36 all out in Adelaide, pundits lined up to predict a 4-0 blanking out, but Shastri said not one word about that spectacular collapse. He insisted that it was merely one poor passage of play, and clearly the team bought into this mentality. Add the stellar work Bharat Arun, the bowling coach, has put in with the fast dwindling resources and you have a backroom operation that clearly knows what it’s doing.
Service with a smile
With Kohli missing from the action, the Indian team were visibly less histrionic in the way they carried themselves on the field. Rahane, a man of few words at the best of times, laid down the marker with an innings of pure class and character in the Melbourne Test match. It told the opposition his team meant business and more importantly gave his mates the belief that they could put the runs on the board even when the main man was away. All through it, Rahane had a wry smile on his face, even when Rishabh Pant was taking the team home in a tense finish in the final moments of the series. Not all tough guys snarl, and not all guys who snarl are as tough as Rahane.
Experience matters, but there’s depth in youth
Indian cricket has always been good at looking after its first 11. The men who play for India have every possible resource at their disposal, the backing of the authorities and unending love of the largest fan base in the sport. But, traditionally, this love has stopped there. Domestic cricket is treated as a poor cousin and the feeder systems — the India A tours and the National Cricket Academy — were paid mere lip service. But, since the elevation of Rahul Dravid into the coaching set up in these vital roles, there has been a thoroughness and gravitas to the layers just below the national team. And, when the injuries just kept coming, India was able to absorb the blows and not get knocked out because the replacements did not just believe they were good enough, they knew they had put in the hard yards to belong at the highest level.
Siraj grows from boy to man
The death of a beloved parent can be a life altering event for anyone. For a young man to lose his father and not even be by his side in his final hours can be devastating. But, Mohammad Siraj did not merely endure this cruel blow, he turned into a positive force, as much as that can be done, delivering not only a five-wicket haul but the most wickets by an Indian in the series. When he came into the team for this Test series it can safely be said that even Siraj did not know just how good he is. By the time he was done with Australia, Siraj had made family and country proud, called out racism, and grown into a man who will be looked up to. How many young men can claim to have completed such a remarkable journey in such a short span of time?
There is always hope
Thangarasu Natarajan was bowling in tennis ball tournaments in Chennai for prize purses not long ago. He learnt to bowl yorkers and would travel from his village of Chinnappampati near Salem in Tamil Nadu to Chennai in the unreserved compartment. In Australia, thanks in some part to the bio bubble that restricted the infusion of replacements for injured players, Natarajan went from net bowler to a capped player in all three formats. And each time he answered the call with performances. Natarajan’s state mate Washington Sundar played for India Under-19 as an opening batsman who also bowled off breaks. Many captains and coaches did not see his value as a batsman and he was in danger of being labelled a T20 darting off-spinner. But it was his batting that got him his Test debut, when R Ashwin was injured, and he performed with bat and ball. Perhaps people will see him in a new light, and recognise his true worth from here on.
Forget strike rates, think heart rates
Cheteshwar Pujara took more blows to the body than the average prizefighter and did not flinch. But, even as he was doing his job, serving his team and setting them up to win matches, he has felt the pain of the barbs from experts and fans who questioned his intent and quoted his strike rate. In Test cricket, scoring runs always matters, and only rarely how quickly you get them. When Pujara is at the crease, the heart rates of the batsmen in the pavilion, waiting to come out to take on a stirring bowling attack, are becalmed. Just how important this is, and how special Pujara is to India’s success was underscored in this series. India have now won back-to-back Test series in Australia, and Pujara’s spine has been at the heart of both.
Spin, not turn, is a batsman’s nightmare
It is not every day that Nathan Lyon, with nearly 400 Test wickets, is out bowled on his home turf. The groundsman turned offie has been at the heart of Australia’s success in recent years, but, for once, his method was found wanting. Lyon’s success is built on his metronomic delivery, landing the ball on a spot with tremendous consistency and overspin to match it. But, he just could not adapt to an Indian batting line-up that was tackling him with heart and skill. In contrast, R Ashwin changed his game. The manner in which the Indian offie adapted his line, length, method and approach to Australian conditions showed his class. And, when a bad back ensured he could not even sit for fear that he may not be able to get back up again, Ashwin batted for three and a half hours to help save the Sydney Test. He may be closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it, but Ashwin has enhanced his reputation once more, as bowler, batsman, mentor and leader.
Savour the game, in winning and losing
This was the most watchable Test series in recent memory. And it almost did not happen. The huge effort put in by Cricket Australia and both the teams in just getting the games off the ground is worth remembering, given the times we live in. Through the series, the pitches allowed the teams to play cricket that was simply irresistible. You literally could not afford to take your eye off the ball, as a viewer. To put this in context, think of all the little things that drew you to the game. The ice-cool batting of young Shubman Gill making his debut, the Ravindra Jadeja direct hit that kept India in the game, the Hanuma Vihari go slow that defied Australia’s finest. Cricket is not all about fours and sixes. It’s not about watching the highlights package and puffing your chest out when your team wins, it’s about getting sucked into a game that is a metaphor for life itself, and enjoying it. Sport, when it is played like this, is not about aggression or anger or winning or losing, but is a return to the joys of playing for fun and with freedom. Enjoy this.
The author is a senior sports journalist