Sydney to Centurion, Kohli & co were brave, sometimes astonishing. The bad stuff was off pitch.
If Test cricket is art and aesthetics the Indian fan experienced a generous helping of the navrasa or nine emotions, as articulated in the ancient texts of dramatic theory, in 2021. The veer(bravery) rasa, which medieval poets of valour feasted on, was personified by Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin at Sydney last January.
Vihari was tormented by a strained hamstring. Ashwin couldn’t bend down to tie his shoelaces that morning. Injured in body but indomitable in spirit, the two battled pacers and pain for three hours together to hobble India to safety against Australia, That draw, essential to keep India’s Test championship dream alive, laid the psychological basis of the miracle at the Gabba. Vihari and Ashwin showed that impossible is a state of mind. It is this mantra that the team, led by Ajinkya Rahane, carried forward to the Gabba.
India had come close to winning there in 1968 (lost by 39 runs) and 1977 (lost by 16 runs). But the venue was constructed as impregmable by former Aussie players. The opposition’s mental disintegration has always been intrinsicto their strategic architecture. The tone of the tweets after India’s humiliating 36 at Adelaide and England’s recent defeats reflect that. But the world experienced a combo of the adbhut (astonishing) and the shringar (romance) rasas at the Gabba.
What’s more romantic than an Indian Test playing 11, without Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohd Shami and Ashwin, winning a do-or-die encounter. But India again found the unlikeliest of high-performance all-rounders: Shardul Thakur (67 and 2) and debutant Washington Sundar (62 and 22). Thakur scalped seven wickets, the most in the game, Sundar took four, Mohd Siraj’s high-energy 5/73, debutant T Natarajan 3/78,
Shubhman Gill’s elegant 91 and Rishabh Pant’s unbeaten 89, a crackerjack innings under pressure that completed his transition from promise to fulfilment the injury-racked Team India offered more wonderment than Bollywood’s Lagan. The victory underlined
the power of positive thinking and the importance of keeping the faith in the young and the hungry.
When England visited India in March for a crucial four Test-series, debutante Axar Patel demolished the visitors snaring 27 wickets in three Tests by making the best use of the spinner-friendly tracks. The English reaction to the pitches prompted online memes in the
hasya rasa (funny) mould. The series was marked byRohit Sharma’s masterly form but India also benefitted immensely from the batting of Pant, Ashwin and Sundar. With a 3-1 triumph, captain Kohli’s team qualified for the Test Championship final.
In the final, India lost the plot in the last two days against the superior Kiwis at Southampton. Many felt karuna (compassion) for the team, which had struggled
valiantly to get there. But Team India bounced back. Kohl’s men lead the incomplete five Test series against England 2-1; the last Test being postponed due to a bio-bubble breach causing Covid fears.
The series underscored what’s become a pattern for the team. Good opening partnership (Rohit Sharma,and KL Rahul in England, Mayank Agarwal and Gill against New Zealand, Rahul and Mayank against South Africa now). Unsure and subpar middle-order (Pujara,
Kohli and Rahane). Time and again, the lower-order and the tail covered up for them in England: Thakur (57and 60) in the fourth Test and Shami (56) and Bumrah (34), both unbeaten in the second Test, being two examples. Yet there is an unwillingness to give the
others an uninterrupted run. Vihari hasn’t played again since the stonewalling knock in January. Shreyas Iyer got the opportunities ahead of him and has grabbed them with both hands. The truth is that ageing India’s middle-order isn’t what it used to be.
By not opting for changes, India is just postponing the future. At the heart of India’s incredible year is a battery of fast bowlers – Bumrah, Shami, Ishant, Siraj, Shardul, Umesh- who have made this unit unrecognisable from the other illustrious teams of the past. When India’s pace attack outguns Kagiso Rabada-spearheaded South Africa, the world knows that the hunted is now the hunter. They evoke fear (bhay) in the opposition. For Team India, if Gabba was the Royal Mint of Netflix’s Money Heist, Centurion was its Bank of Spain. Both
were deemed impenetrable. Both were breached. In this backdrop, an Indo-Pak Test series could be a mouth-watering battle of speed guns, the stuff that a cricket lover’s dreams are made of. In today’s political climate, however, that would be entering the zone of “fantasy cricket’, who were among the top advertisers of the game last year.
PS: Thankfully, the vibhats (disgusting stuff) happened off the pitch in 2021. The unpleasant episode between BCCI chief Sourav Ganguly and captain, Kohli left a distasteful aftertaste, without which Indian cricket is never complete.