India overcame their humiliation in the Adelaide Test to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with their second series win in Australia
By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
From being blown away for 36 to chasing down an improbable 328 with less than a handful of overs to spare, in the space of a month, India scripted one of Test cricket’s most defiant turnarounds. Injuries jolted India at several points in the series, to the extent where it was impossible to field the same XI in consecutive games. Yet, India showed just how strong their backup is, with players on the fringes ready to step in and deliver against a fired-up Australian team looking to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
India has made it a habit of halting Australia’s unbeaten sequences in Tests. In 2001, Australia’s streak of 16 consecutive Test wins was broken in the epic Kolkata Test. When India chased 328 in Brisbane on Tuesday, it broke Australia’s record of not having lost a Test at the Gabba since 1988.
We look back at some key moments and situations in the 2020-21 Test series that contributed to India’s sensational 2-1 series win, in no particular order:
The COVID-19 restrictions and regulations has allowed touring teams to name larger contingents than before, saving the hassle of expediting travel visas for flying in replacement players and worrying about serving mandatory quarantine. Bizarre as it may seem, this unexpectedly worked in India’s favour when it came to finding emergency replacements during the injury crisis through the series. This allowed stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane to keep with his five-bowler strategy to win Tests. The selectors wisely sent net bowlers to travel with the team. Reserve players like T. Natarajan and Washington Sundar were handed unexpected Test debuts and both made important contributions in the decisive Brisbane Test.
The Pant factor
Pick the better wicketkeeper or the better batsman? The debate over Wriddhiman Saha vs Rishabh Pant may continue once India start playing again at home, but in Australia, the decision to pick Pant over Saha from the second Test onwards was vindicated thanks to his impactful contributions as a batsman. Pant, who had a scratchy IPL, found form in the final and scored a counterattacking century in the tour game ahead of the Tests. He overcame a blow on the elbow in Sydney with a marauding 97 in the second innings, making India believe they could chase 407. In Brisbane, the chances of India chasing the remaining 70 runs in the final hour hinged on Pant. It forced Tim Paine to set defensive fields when Pant was on strike facing Nathan Lyon’s off-spin. Having closed out the game, Pant’s occasional fumbles with the gloves in the series were forgotten.
The Siraj story
Mohammed Siraj spent the better part of the tour coping with the loss of his father back home in Hyderabad. On the field, he copped abuses from spectators in Sydney and wasn’t afraid to immediately report it to the umpires. Yet, the fast bowler ensured that his tour would be remembered mainly for his role as an unexpected leader of the pace attack, following the injuries first to Mohammed Shami, then Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah. His five-wicket haul in Brisbane was an indication of how fast he has matured as a bowler. The selectors will be in a real dilemma once the above fast bowlers plus Ishant Sharma are fit again.
Australia not hunting as a pack
Australia’s injury worries were no match to India’s, yet their frontline attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon were unable to blow a depleted Indian XI away after the Adelaide Test. While Cummins and Hazlewood combined to take 38 wickets in the series, Lyon and Starc managed only 20 wickets in total. Starc failed to deliver his famed yorkers and at times lacked control, allowing India easy boundaries to release the pressure. Lyon was cleverly negated by the Indian batsmen, and wasn’t a big threat on wearing fifth-day pitches. Australia ended up relying on two bowlers primarily and the fifth bowler was under-utilised.
Australia’s vaccum at the top
Both teams had to deal with underperforming specialist opening batsmen. While India llater found relative stability with Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill, Australia spent the entire series sweating on the return of a partially fit David Warner, rushing his selection after he injured his groin earlier in the tour. With the promising Will Pukovski down with concussion before the Tests, Australia persisted with an out of form Joe Burns, even pushed Matthew Wade to the top in yet another failed experiment. Pukovski was injured after an impressive debut. With Warner not proving the starts he is used to, India got early breakthroughs.
The series could have taken a different turn had Australian captain Tim Paine not fluffed some of the chances that came his way during India’s gritty chase at Sydney that ended in a draw. Paine dropped Pant twice during his innings of 97, and later dropped Hanuma Vihari. In Brisbane, Paine missed a stumping chance off Pant. While his batting helped Australia recover in Adelaide, his primary skill let him down when India were fighting back with the bat and his fast bowlers toiled with little reward.
The gritty partnerships
By a quirk of fate, Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar found themselves playing Test cricket on this tour and playing crucial roles in it. Thakur has a decent record in first-class cricket as a batsman and Sundar has opened for his TNPL franchise in T20 cricket. It’s likely the Australians got complacent when they had India down at 186 for 6 in the first innings at Brisbane. Thakur and Sundar added a brisk 123, and it helped narrow down the deficit. Australia were primed to enjoy a lead of over 100, but this stand helped bring it down to 33. With the threat of rain and time at the essence, their stand played a critical role in the final outcome.
In Sydney, R. Ashwin overcame terrible back pain and Hanuma Vihari a dodgy hamstring to help India save the Test. Both took several blows to the body from the Australian seamers who were running out of ideas to dislodge them.
The Pujara factor
Cheteshwar Pujara likes to stick to the style he knows best, yet he inadvertently divides fans on his style of batting. Pujara likes to drop anchor and he doesn’t mind being not out on 12 off 90 balls if the team is okay with it. Yet, fans at times question his “intent”. In the previous tour of Australia, Pujara scored 521 runs sticking to his natural game. While he didn’t score as many this time, his resolute defiance in Sydney and Brisbane played a big part in India standing their ground on wearing pitches. He took a painful blow to the glove in Brisbane but bravely soldiered on as a frustrated Australian pace attack ran out of ideas, resorting to the short stuff.