There is nothing like the feeling after a classic Test series. There may be greater peaks of human joy or pleasure, but this is a high that fades into a particular satisfaction, elation dimming warmly within us like the spot of light that remains when turning off an old television.
It’s because of the amount of time and effort and energy invested, even from those of us who watch rather than play. We have lived that experience until the final payoff and in the great contests the payoff is immense.
Australia and India have made a habit of such contests. The modern context starts in 2001, when Steve Waugh’s champions reached a record 16 wins in a row by annihilating India in Mumbai, then had them four wickets down while following on at Kolkata. Turning that around should have been impossible, but VVS Laxman did and India won in the dying overs of day five before taking the third and deciding Test in just as much of a thriller.
The two boards expanded their contests to four Tests. In Australia in 2003-04, in India in 2004, Australia in 2007-08, India in 2017, and Australia in 2018-19, the series tilted one way and then the other and were defined by matches with grandstand finishes.
The conclusion in Brisbane on Tuesday fits this tradition, featuring a couple of teams wiling to scrap all the way to the end. It fits the tradition of storylines that are hard to believe, performances that come out of nowhere. At the same time, it also has its own story, one that isn’t a repeat.
When India won in Australia two years ago, it was a first. None of the former greats had pulled that off. They had drawn and had come close but that win eluded them. The conditions were too foreign, the competition too fierce. The result was based on the most professional and well-drilled team India had sent to Australia. Virat Kohli’s intensity as captain shaped the same qualities in his players. He had a five-man pace battery and a main trio that played every match.
This time around was the opposite. Injury after injury meant players vanished like chips at the pub. There was no continuity. Only the batsmen Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane played all four Tests. The decider relied on net bowlers who had been kept on the tour after some white-ball matches in November. All of this came after having been humiliated in the first Test at Adelaide by being bowled out for 36 to lose from a strong position.
It’s worth considering the quality of those missing. Ishant Sharma, tall and fast and able to dart the ball in both directions, India’s attack leader from the previous tour. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, a brilliant exponent of swing bowling who can also bat as a proper No 8. Neither made it on to the plane.
Mohammed Shami, the team’s most relentlessly accurate operator, had his arm broken as the closing insult of the Adelaide collapse. Umesh Yadav, fast and with four Australian tours of experience, pinged his calf in Melbourne. Jasprit Bumrah, India’s most exciting bowler, strained his side in Sydney. Ravindra Jadeja was a huge influence in the Melbourne win and the Sydney draw before hurting his thumb while batting. Ravinchandran Ashwin was India’s leading wicket-taker through three Tests before hurting his back.
That adds up to India’s five best fast bowlers and two best spinners – the latter pair with five Test centuries between them. Throw in the best all-format batsman in the world, after Kohli went home to see his daughter born, and the damaging opener KL Rahul, who went home with an arm injury, while Hanuma Vihari tore a hamstring while batting to save the match in Sydney.
Finish up with the fast-bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya, who was sent home unable to bowl after dominating the preceding one-day series with the bat, and you have an entire India XI of fine players missing by the time Brisbane rolled around. The five-bowler attack for that match had four Tests and 11 wickets between them. Australia’s four bowlers had taken more than 1,000.
This was the context in which India went to a venue where the home team had not lost in 33 years. It was the context in which India bowled out Australia in both innings at the Gabba, something that had happened in two other matches in those decades. And it was the context in which the batting side of India’s operation decided to charge down 328 in the fourth innings to win the match and the series.
There had been 18 bigger run chases in 2,403 Tests, but no matter. Under Kohli’s urging, India had set off after 364 at Adelaide in 2014 and fallen narrowly short. Under his deputy, Rahane, India had set off after 407 a week ago in Sydney, and may well have won instead of drawing had Vihari and Ashwin not been too injured to move between wickets for the final couple of hours.
The Brisbane win came via another young operator. Rishabh Pant, the 23-year-old wicketkeeper who did not start this series in the side due to his glovework, chose his moments of aggression and ran the chase with 89 not out. In Sydney, he had made thoughts of a win possible by smashing 97. Both times he had knocked Australia off kilter.
Of Indian batsmen doing what Pant had done – making 89 or more in the fourth innings while winning or saving a Test – the only ones with multiple instances were Sunil Gavaskar four times, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly twice. Pant has done it twice in a week.
But his audacity was built on his team’s bloody-mindedness. The way he batted after being smashed on the elbow in Sydney, hampering his grip. The way Pujara took blow after blow in Brisbane to make sure Pant had solidity at the other end. The way Rahane took charge of a team at its lowest and lifted it up. The way Vihari and Ashwin battled while hurt in Sydney to keep the series alive. The months in hotel isolation, Mohammed Siraj missing his father’s funeral, T Natarajan missing his daughter’s birth, in the hope of making an Indian debut.
Duly they did. As did Navdeep Saini and Washington Sundar and Shubman Gill, and effectively Shardul Thakur after his debut three years ago lasted minutes. New players came into this situation and did not flinch. They made vital contributions beyond what was fair to expect.
For the third time in these recent Australia contests, after 2001 and 2017, India lost the first match but fought back to win the series. This alone is a rare thing in Test cricket. But to have done it in these circumstances, under these constraints, is what sets this result apart. It exists in a tradition, but the effort of these players also sits squarely on its own.