From Melbourne to Lord’s and from Gabba to The Oval, the Indian Test team has enjoyed the wondrous highs of overseas triumphs within a period of nine months, the grandiosity of which is perhaps unlike anything before. The success story though, goes much beyond the star cast.
While Virat Kohli’s India haven’t quite set a benchmark like Clive Lloyd’s West Indies, and are still distant from being as lethal a force as Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting's Australia, their unwavering fortitude and phenomenal squad-depth is something to marvel at.
Let’s put the Manchester episode aside, and cast our minds back to cricket. India, over a period of less than a year, have conquered Melbourne, Sydney (yes, that deserves a worthy mention too!), Brisbane, Lord’s and The Oval to script one of the most glorious phases in their Test cricket history. For context, as on December 28, 2020, they had won three of their 14 Tests at the MCG, none from six at The Gabba, two from 18 at Lord’s and one from 13 at The Oval. Till then, they'd managed just one series win in Australia and three in England, from 12 and 18 attempts respectively.
That the resurgence began after a bizarre 36 all-out in Adelaide makes the tale all the more fascinating. The recurring theme has been that of unlikely men turning gamechangers.
On the final day at The Oval, before Jasprit Bumrah would cast his magic on the England middle-order, Mayank Agarwal, the substitute fielder, sprinted across the cover-point region to run Dawid Malan out. Here was a man who had earned his Test cap in 2018 after heaps of runs in domestic cricket, and had struck three hundreds (two doubles) in his first eight Tests, only to somewhat fall down in the pecking order following Shubman Gill’s emergence. The commitment and the joy after he’d affected the dismissal prompted plaudits from Sunil Gavaskar, who was all in admiration for “the perfect team man” during the post-match show. We were instantly drawn to the memories of Agarwal's chest-bumping celebration with Mohammed Siraj in Australia.
RUN OUT! ☝— Sky Sports Cricket (@SkyCricket) September 6, 2021
Complete mix-up between Hameed and Malan, and Malan has to go for 5.
Sharp fielding from substitute fielder Mayank Agarwal! 👏
England 121-2 🏏#ENGvIND | 🏴🆚🇮🇳
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Umesh Yadav, playing his first Test of the year, finished the task with three late strikes to make it six in the game. India denied England a home series win for the first time since 2007 - the days they were blessed to have the famed Fab Four, the ever-reliable Anil Kumble and a peak Zaheer Khan, who’d make the English summer his own.
The seeds of the ongoing sequence were sown Down Under, with young guns Gill and Siraj, oozing class and exuberance on debut in Melbourne. While Gill followed his promising starts with a sublime, game-setting 91 on the final day at the Gabba, Siraj would finish the tour with 13 scalps, concluding with a five-for that included wickets of Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.
It’s impossible to not remember Hanuma Vihari, for battling a Grade 2 hamstring tear to survive 42.4 overs in company of Ravichandran Ashwin to salvage a draw at the SCG. It goes without saying that if not for him in Sydney, Brisbane wouldn’t have been as spectacular.
Then, of course, it was all about Rishabh Pant, the dasher who has kept the seasoned Wriddhiman Saha away since Adelaide. Irrespective of whether the Delhi kid matches the Adam Gilchrist zenith in future, or progresses however, Sydney and Brisbane 2021 will be his and his alone, so will Motera for that audacious stroke off James Anderson.
There was Washington Sundar, stamping his own authority with a classy 62 at the Gabba – a knock featuring sumptuous drives that’d make Matthew Hayden proud, and a neat clip off his thighs over which, one could superimpose Graeme Smith. Oh, and there was a no-look six off Nathan Lyon too! Wickets of Steve Smith and David Warner across the two innings rounded off a highly memorable debut.
His 85* and 96* against England at home were far from anomalies, for Sundar is much beyond a bowling all-rounder batting at No.8, when he represents Tamil Nadu.
Young T Natarajan and Navdeep Saini too, had their moments Down Under.
Ajinkya Rahane's recent dip in form shouldn't overshadow his exemplary leadership during that tour. His calm and assuring demeanour, which comes in stark contrast to Kohli's explicit aggression, somewhat clouds the doggedness within. There was every sense of "intent" in his shrewd tactics, which hardly offered hosts a sniff. Simply put, he played David, under the skin of Goliath.
During England's India trip, Axar Patel, in his maiden Test series, tormented the visitors with his left-arm spin, bagging 27 wickets at 10.59 with a staggering four five-fors from six innings, thereby further stiffening the competition in the spin-bowling all-rounders' bracket.
Back to the UK.
KL Rahul, in all likelihood, would’ve had to wait longer for a return to Test cricket, if not for Agarwal suffering a concussion in lead-up to the first Test. As it stands, his neat 84 at Trent Bridge and a crafty hundred at Lord’s, might've made him an immovable presence at the top, at least for the time being.
"If you go after one of our guys, you are going after the whole team, all XI of us will come right back,” he would attest after India's Lord's win.
It was a statement from a team willing to put up a fight even with their backs against the wall. The relentless intensity, bringing about a dramatic turnaround on August 16, 2021, justifies the assessment.
Our final plaudits are reserved for a man known to “make things happen”. Shardul Thakur, after years of grind at the domestic level, has quickly taken giant strides on the biggest stage. At The Oval on Day 1, walking in at 117/6, which would soon become 127/7, Thakur unleashed audacious straight hits, all along the ground as well as the lofted ones, to go with the occasional pulls as his 36-ball 57 powered India to 191. It was backed up by a brisk 72-ball 60 in the second innings.
We'd seen it all before at the Gabba, where the 29-year-old had treated Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Lyon with disdain. There is no element of surprise anymore. After all, the ‘Lord’ hails from the land of the Merchants, Umrigars, Gavaskars, Tendulkars and Sharmas!
More importantly, India have found another player who thrives in adversity.
And yes, Thakur has 221 first-class wickets too - 14 of them from four Tests - including two of an in-form Joe Root recently.
5️⃣0️⃣ in the first innings ✅— Sony Sports (@SonySportsIndia) September 5, 2021
5️⃣0️⃣ In the second innings ✅
1️⃣ Shardul Thakur!
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Apart from all the protagonists, India had the promising Abhimanyu Easwaran and Prasidh Krishna waiting in the wings in England, not to forget Suryakumar Yadav, who, as substitute, grabbed Moeen Ali at short-leg not long after Agarwal’s brilliance. Most notably, India could afford to leave out their premier spinner – the second-ranked Test bowler currently – to achieve the desired results in seaming and swing-friendly conditions.
Back in 2011, when India toured England as the top-ranked Test side, they were dented significantly after injuries to Zaheer and Gautam Gambhir during the series opener at Lord’s (after Virender Sehwag had already been ruled out for the first two games), and could never recover. A 0-4 mauling was followed by another in Australia, and thus began a slump overseas in a phase of transition, which saw the team slide to No. 7 by the start of 2015.
India, under Kohli, have progressed to great heights since, consolidating their status as an invincible force at home, while showcasing excellence overseas. The immense belief, hunger and bench strength is unlike ever before, and the leadership group and management deserve all the accolades.
Whether they emerge as outright world beaters in the near future remains to be seen. For now, Kohli's men have surely put a strong claim to be hailed as one of India’s greatest Test outfits.