It would be an understatement to say that India’s strong comeback with an emphatic win at Melbourne warmed the hearts of cricket lovers across the country. For once, coach Ravi Shastri could not be accused of hyperbole when he announced that the victory in the second Test was “one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the game”. The opprobrium of being shot out for the one of the lowest scores in the annals of Test cricket is not one that can be easily wiped off. Only the most resolute and strong-willed of sides find the strength and resilience to pull themselves together and escape from the quagmire of despondency before it engulfs them. The Indian side under Ajinkya Rahane can be justifiably proud of its achievement in rising from the ashes of Adelaide to inflict a shocking defeat on Australia in the Test that followed just a few days later.
When one gets through the history of Test cricket during the last three decades, it is seen that there were only two other instances where sides that were bundled out for abysmally low scores bounced back to win the very next game. The first such instance took place at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1999 when the West Indies under Brian Lara came back strongly, after being dismissed for 51 runs in the second innings of previous Test to win the game by 10 wickets. The other occasion was when Australia defeated South Africa in the second Test at Johannesburg in 2011 by two wickets after facing the ignominy of being shot out a mere 47 runs in the first match of that series.
West Indies’ win at Kingston in 1999 was powered by a brilliant double century (213) by Lara, which helped them to pile up a first innings score that placed the match beyond the reach of Aussies. However, Lara could not repeat his magic when confronted with a similar situation seven years later, after England bundled out the West Indies for 47 in the first Test of the series at Kingston in 2004, as his side lost the next match played at Trinidad as well. Hence, the Indian victory in Melbourne merits comparison with the one achieved by the Aussies against the Proteas in 2011. It speaks volumes of the present side that they merit comparison with Australia under Ricky Ponting who came very close to breaking the record of 16 consecutive victories in Test matches. But the odds faced by the present Indian side at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) were much higher as they were without Virat Kohli, their captain and also their best batsman, and Mohamed Shami, their sharpest bowler, both of who were forced to return to India. This compounded the problems caused by the absence of Ishant Sharma, the most successful as well as experienced bowler in the conditions prevailing in Kangaroo land and the uncertainty over the participation of Rohit Sharma, one of the most accomplished batsmen in limited overs cricket today.
The challenges that India faced on the eve of the encounter at Melbourne can find just comparison with those confronted by the national side before the start of the last Test of 1974, the “annus horribilis” of Indian cricket. India had lost all the five Tests played during that year - three to England in the summer and two to the West Indies in the series that commenced towards the end of 1974. Fans in India had expected that the side would forget the traumas of the humiliating defeats suffered in England, and resurrect themselves, when the home series against the West Indies began. But the visitors rode roughshod over the hosts winning the first two games comfortably and threatened to wrap up the five-match series at Kolkata, where the third Test began in the last week of that year.
Stunned by the reverses in the first two Tests, India made five changes to the playing eleven when the match began at Kolkata. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi returned as skipper of the side after missing the previous Test due to an injury sustained in the first game. Dropped from the eleven that played at Delhi were S Venkataraghavan, captain of the side for the second Test, Hemant Kanitkar, Brijesh Patel, Eknath Solkar and Abid Ali. Coming in their place were two debutants - Karsan Ghavri and Anshuman Gaekwad - along with Madan Lal, who was dropped after poor showing in two Tests in England while Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra) was brought back after being inexplicably dropped for the game at Delhi.
In Melbourne, India wrung in four changes from the playing eleven of Adelaide and handed debut to Shubhman Gill and Mohamed Siraj. But more importantly, both sides were missing the services of their top batsmen - Sunil Gavaskar could not play at Kolkata in 1974 as he had not recovered from a fracture of the thumb that he suffered while playing a Ranji Trophy match, while Kohli was given permission by the Board of Control for Cricket in India to return to India for being with his wife during her delivery.
Record books will tell us that India won the Kolkata Test riding on the back of a splendid century (139) by Gundappa Viswanath in the second innings. Similarly, India’s victory at MCG was fashioned by a superb innings of 112 by skipper Ajinkya Rahane, who guided the side to a substantive lead of 131 runs in the first innings. Similarities between Viswanath and Rahane do not end either with the fact of scoring hundreds or of batting at No. 4 position in the batting order. After scoring a century on his first Test match, Viswanath had scored the occasional dazzling fifty and even a struck a hundred, but the general impression was that he had not done justice to his talent and was more accustomed to parading his repertoire of strokes, usually leaving the hard grind of accumulating runs to his good friend Gavaskar. The forced absence of Gavaskar due to injury suddenly catapulted Viswanath to the pole position of holding the Indian innings together and he rose to this task magnificently. On a similar note, Rahane, who had left the burden of run scoring to Kohli since 2018, was suddenly forced to take over the onerous task of holding together the Indian middle order, besides leading the side, when Kohli took the flight back to India. Rahane moved into the slot vacated by Kohli without breaking a stride and charted the course of Indian batting with ease and competence that would have done any world-class batsman proud.
Like in Kolkata in 1974, both the debutants did well in 2020. If Gaekwad showed guts and temperament of the highest order while tackling the thunderbolts sent down by Andy Roberts at Kolkata, Gill achieved no less, batting with poise and confidence when confronted with the thunderbolts sent down by Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins on a track giving them considerable help. Ghavri bowled within his limitations on his debut as did Siraj and one can expect the latter to become one of the workhorses on the Indian bowling front as the former was, during his playing days.
Comparisons do not end there. Rahane’s calm and composure while leading the side was a throwback to the days when Pataudi used to marshal his resources with elan and panache. It was Pataudi’s cool handling of the bowlers that fetched India the win in a closely-fought tie at Kolkata. His decision to continue with Chandra, even after Clive Lloyd had struck the bowler for three boundaries in an over, was not just sagacious but courageous as well, in the face of 80,000 spectators at Eden Gardens roaring their collective disapproval at this move. Rahane’s conduct and demeanour on and off the field stood out in sharp contrast to the “in the face aggression” that has been the hallmark of Kohli’s captaincy and even won the former many admirers!
India go to Sydney for the next Test starting on Thursday in a more confident frame of mind. However, it would be foolhardy to think that they have gained any upper hand over the Aussies. They will be without the services of Umesh Yadav, who has been forced to withdraw from the tour due to an injury suffered in the second Test. The arrival of Rohit Sharma and he being made the vice captain also brings up the question of who he would replace in the batting order - Mayank Agarwal at the top or Hanuma Vihari in the middle?
The first two Tests have demonstrated that there is little to choose between the two evenly-matched sides. A victory in this series will make India worthy of the title of the best side in Test cricket, irrespective of rankings and points, as only the toughest and strongest can tame the Aussies in their own den. The remaining matches will tell us whether Rahane and his boys have the fire and grit inside them to take the country to this pedestal.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)