Final notes from a bonkers match
The last time I cried after a cricket match, I was eight. The Indian team had just turned its back on a guaranteed Test victory against Pakistan. For a kid my age, the last hour of that Chennai Test was too much to take. I was distraught and disappointed. Till date, I can't quite explain how we ended up losing that.
Momentarily, by which I mean until the next match began, I hated cricket. Watching sport was supposed to be exciting and fun. Pain was not mentioned in the memo. Looking back, this was one of my earliest experiences of the unique romance of sport. Joy and sadness come in equal, heady amounts.
That same year, India went to Australia. That team was filled with greats and to-be greats. I won't be able to tell you minute details without checking the internet, but I can assure you that tears weren't involved. From very early in the series, it became a stroll in the park for Australia. India played three Tests and eight ODIs on that tour and won one match. This was a team that had Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman, Dravid, Kumble and Srinath. All of them are obvious selections in an all-time Test XI for India, and yet, they couldn't compete.
The abundance of technical talent made the Indian team attractive, but Test cricket in foreign conditions was always a steep mountain. Every flight out of the subcontinent was fraught with fear. Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies - different conditions, similar results. A great innings here and a good spell there were the only souvenirs they returned with.
This kind of conditioning has been difficult to wash off, even with our current riches. At Sydney last week, while Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin were erecting a fortress of their own, I was sure that the mortar will give way at some point. As India were inching closer to victory yesterday, as Rahane, Pant and Sundar telegraphed their intentions in bold font, the mind was pleading for a degree of caution. Take it easy and keep the series, lads. I have never been more wrong while predicting cricket than during the last month.
Like most kids from my generation, I took a swing at competitive cricket too. I wanted to be an opening batsman. This one time in secondary school, I got hit on my arm while batting at a net session. The pain subsided within forty-eight hours; the blue-black pigmentation went away within a week. However, I did not dare to face a cricket ball again.
Cheteshwar Pujara took eleven such blows on his body today, except at 90 miles an hour. Only one of them made him wince, but none could get him out of the crease. It was a poetic reminder of the physical toll and mental fortitude this series has exacted. On a day when India had to mix caution with aggression, Pujara provided the foundation on which more fluid shotmakers could build their castles. Honest to heart - as you are reading this, do you remember how many Pujara scored in this final innings? India is a land of 1.3 billion coaches and 11 fallible cricketers. All of us know how Cheteshwar Pujara should bat, but only a handful have his courage.
I will be quick about Shubman Gill. Watching him bat is a sensuous experience. Hearing him bat is like listening to vinyl recordings from Abbey Road. Your day would be complete with either, but you'd rather do both. Unless he catches a bad injury, there should be ample opportunity to indulge over the next few years.
As there should be with Rishabh Pant. Rishabh bloody Pant. Can you imagine being him? Can you imagine being 23 and have every professional performance dissected in public? Can you imagine not having the breathing space to learn on the job, to make your mistakes, to mature? Can you imagine being constantly torn apart by your fans because you treat cricket with childlike enthusiasm and not as a military exercise? Can you imagine averaging 50 in your first Test series in Australia and getting dropped for the first match next time around? Can you imagine being told that you have a bad technique and then play two innings, within a week, that most technical giants of this game would be proud to have one of? Yeah.
I wish I can do just one thing in my life with as much strength as Mohammed Siraj has shown over the last three weeks. His family, team, coaches and fans would have understood if he took the flight back to India after his father passed away. They would've understood a middling performance at the MCG because he did not get the time to mentally prepare for a Test debut. They would've understood a wayward strategy at Sydney and Brisbane because the weight of forced leadership can be crushing. Siraj ended the series with a five-wicket haul and a standing ovation.
I wish to someday have the endurance and spirit of Shardul Thakur, Washington Sundar, and Thangarasu Natarajan. None of them boarded the flight to Australia as Test candidates; all three returned as heroes who helped breach Australian cricket's great fortress.
They were led by a man we don't value enough in Indian cricket. Ajinkya Rahane is not the batsman he once used to be, but he still found enough to play the knock which turned the series around. He took over the ship just as it was beginning to crack and sway, in the darkest of hours, but carefully guided it to the kind of sunlight never seen before in Indian cricket. Rahane has written himself an entire chapter in Indian history because you can have him on the mat but he wouldn't tap out. He is a karate black-belt, isn’t he?
I broke into tears when Rahane and team rushed onto the Gabba turf today afternoon. I don’t read much fantasy fiction, but I’m sure the ball-by-ball commentary from this series can become the manuscript for a bestseller. Over the last month, this Indian team have played the perfect protagonists. They have been fearless and dogged, battered but never broken. It has been the kind of series when you look at a score of 1-2 and take pride.
Early today morning, as I was brewing my first cup of coffee, I was preparing for an Australian win. 324 on the last day, on a cracking pitch, on a patch of turf Australia haven’t lost at since 1988, is something that is beyond fiction.
Or so I thought. I will probably never comprehend how this team, running on one functioning limb, could show up on the last day of a gruelling tour, look at a fire-breathing dragon in the eye, and say: "Bring it." I cried today because I never thought an Indian cricket outfit was capable of such collective courage, strength, and character. I cried because I have waited twenty-two years to witness a triumph I will never be able to fully explain.