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Feb
20

21 Again

Is it already a month yesterday? Do you know when one-month anniversaries get importance? When you are dating the first time and experiencing the feeling of being in love, when you are newly married, when your baby is born, when you get your first job and the first salary arrives. The first ‘month’ anniversaries are special – like this one was yesterday!

A month since that historic, incredible, unfathomable, improbable, I-still-can’t-believe-it-happened-even-though-I-have-watched-the-winning-moment-a-millions-time WIN!

What am I talking about you ask? Why are you even here if you have that question in your mind?

I have not written on the game in 6 years – many reasons – moved countries, jobs, professional life got super busy, could hardly watch matches live, but most of all minimal or zero emotional investment in the team. How did this happen – maturity with age, ability to rationalise, ability to get over debacles, ability to detach, too much cricket?

My 20s were not my best decade personally – lots of ups and downs, but it was my best decade as a cricket fan. That team of the 00s – that team had my heart, mind and soul – it still does. I get nostalgic and I hunt the youtube videos often, or I bring out my DVDs to reminiscence their improbable wins, most of which I witnessed live on TV. I lament that I don’t feel the same connect with the current lot – the game has changed. I don’t feel the same euphoria of a win or the same dejection after a loss. Cricket has been my first love and like most first loves are not successful, this seemed too seemed to be fading away with time. I was hurting, but willing to let go.

And then 2020 hit, one of the worst years of my life (I won’t be wasting this precious space lamenting on the whys of it!) and one of the worst years universally. With all sports stopped due to the pandemic, it was a miracle that cricket even resumed and India managed to get on the plane to Australia; while we managed to catch a break to India from UK. It meant I could get up in the wee hours of the morning and follow the series. Given the time zone in UK, it’s impossible to follow matches in Aus – I simply can no longer stay up all night! I did not feel the euphoria of the 2018-19 series win in Aus, because I could hardly watch any games live, but this series was different. I was on a break, at home in India, no work pressures and no time zone constraints. 5:00 am wake-up call – that I can manage!

The excitement of the day-night test at reasonable hours in India faded away with that debacle of a 36 all out in the 4th innings at Adelaide. What had I just witnessed! How could such a professional, well trained outfit collapse like that – I mean this wasn’t the 90s to remind us of 81 all out! But then it was still 2020, I mean, I knew I was not going to get any joy in my life, what was I expecting? That cricket would serve me one? It had in the past, at some of my lowest points in life, it had come to my rescue; but 2020 was against everyone, so what chance did I stand?

Although collectively, it felt a lot worse, I still felt a weird kind of optimism that this team would bounce back. This bowling unit that we have built in the last 4-5 years that’s the one that gives you hope. Despite no Ishant , Bhuvi and Shami (injured in the first test ) the unit was still lethal that could give us a fighting chance, hell maybe even level the series. I don’t have the same confidence in our batting unit unfortunately, all I wanted was them to make a match of it and put up scores that our bowling could defend.

I thought the win at MCG was one of the finest comebacks given what had transpired at Adelaide. I can’t even imagine the pressure on Rahane – average run in last few years (although his record away has been good), made a crucial mistake that cost Kohli’s wicket in the first innings at Adelaide, and then the horror-show of 36 all out. To lead a deflated team from the front with one of the best centuries I have watched, to be aggressive from the word go with his bowling unit– it was one of the finest displays of batting and captaincy I had watched. Not to forget the delightful partnership with Jadeja, whose presence not only lifted the spirit of the team but also added more strength to the team composition. He gets runs and wickets, but his fielding provides an extended arm to the bowling unit, literally and metaphorically speaking, because he will invariably affect a run-out or pressure the batsmen into making a mistake. And then there was Shubman Gill, may god give us all Gill’s confidence to get through 2021. The assurity and calmness he got to the crease was fascinating to watch from a guy who is only 21 and making his debut in Australia! Unfazed, not enamoured by the occasion, felt like he was meant to be at the grand stage! What a delightful, easy on the eyes that debut was! The team did not miss Kohli, Ishant, Bhuvi, Shami – let that sink in and won at MCG to level the series.

And while we were revelling in the win, Umesh got injured in the match and so another debutant Navdeep Saini came in to the attack at Sydney. Jadeja got injured during the first innings and could not bowl in the second. India was getting hammered and looked down and out after 3.5 days. A target of 407 was set, Rohit and Gill both out on Day 4 evening and we all were convinced it was matter of time the batting would fold away. But we were now in 2021 and not 2020, so miracles seemed a possibility, a faint one, but still a possibility – a glimmer of hope that was ignited by the audacious stroke play of Rishabh Pant. Only 23 years of age – much maligned or hyped by the word ‘talent’. He formed a unique partnership with Pujara – the stoic warrior man of this team.  Losing Rahane in the first over of the day had no impact on Pant’s mindset, who changed the course of the game. I missed the morning session of the SCG test, I cursed myself a lot but I did not budge from my seat for the last two sessions. The Pujara-Pant partnership reduced the chance of the Aus win and actually made an Indian win look probable. If Vihari had not pulled his hamstring, Jadeja was not with a fractured arm and Ashwin’s back had not broken away – India would have gone for the win. They just pulled all the breaks once Vihari got injured. It was a matter of one wicket for Aus to get to the fragile Indian tail with Jadeja almost unlikely to bat with a fractured wrist. Aus’s famed world-class bowling attack failed to get that wicket for 2 whole sessions. Let that sink in too.

The rear-guard action by Vihari-Ashwin took me back to VVS-Dravid partnership of Kolkata 2001. Not in the same mould in terms of runs scored, but both partnerships crucial to the end result of the team; a wicket gone and it would have meant series lost.  Sydney was a draw, but it made me happier than I was at the win at MCG. I can’t explain this feeling to my friends and family, who don’t follow cricket and look at me with concerned looks as to why am I celebrating a no-result in a match after 5 days. Why am I ecstatic at the batsman crawling at SR of 14 and 30 for 4 hours, when I don’t care about 400 runs being scored in 4 hours. Have you been able to explain? Teach me how! I seem to have failed over the years.

We went to Gabba – Aha the fortress of the Aussies. See ya at Gabba mate is what we heard Tim Paine say to Ashwin at Sydney. Ashwin with a broken back could not turn up at the Gabba, neither did Jadeja, nor could Bumrah and no Vihari either. What kind of cruel joke was God playing I thought? India without all their first and second choice frontline bowlers and their captain/main batsman and another seasoned batsman! Two debutants in the series – one could not be home for the birth of his first child and the other for his father’s last rites. There could not be more odds stocked against you ever!

Thank god for the coaches and team management’s foresight to retain the net bowlers and a wider squad for the entire duration of the tour. We had to field a bowling attack which had collective 13 wickets (two of those were from Rohit Sharma) amongst them vs Aus’s 1000+. Siraj in his 3rd test was the leader of the attack, Saini 2nd test, Shardul 2nd test, Nattarajan and Sundar debut. Good luck to us I thought, if we take this match into Day 4 or 5 it’s a win for us! I kept saying that all we had to do was focus on not losing the match to retain the trophy; the real pressure was on Aus who had to force a win to win the trophy back.

With this inexperienced bowling attack, we bowled out Aus in their backyard for 369 – how was that not a win? I was pleasantly surprised. Aus could have raced to 450+ and we stalled them. But as confident I’m of our bowling line-up to save our face, I’m equally confident of our batting line-up mucking up when not needed. And so, it did, we were 186-6 with all batsman getting starts but not staying for long. What played out for the next 36 overs was one of the happiest moments I have experienced as a cricket fan. Oh! The joy I felt watching that Shardul-Sundar partnership unfold in front of me – I fail to find words to describe it! It was like having ice-cream in the rain! Do you know the feeling? Have you tried it? The unexpected happiness of it all – at that point I couldn’t care if we went onto lose the game, the bowlers and these two had given me sufficient happiness to overcome the loss.

Every time we were put on a backfoot, one soldier came forward and hit the ball out of the park – every single person in the team put their hand up! When was the last time we saw this kind of effort from a team? When was the last time you felt this unadulterated joy? Their partnership restricted that Aus lead to 33 – a number famously associated with the Adelaide test of 2003. Could we? Would we repeat it? Nah! This was good enough, don’t build unnecessary hopes!

And then Aus got bowled out for 294 and we had to chase 328. The highest run chase at Gabba until then was 236, 50 years ago. Aus had last lost a test at Gabba in 1988 to the then mighty West Indies. I mean talk about odds stacked up against you – India was staring at Jack’s beanstalk!

I was scheduled to fly back to the UK on 19th Jan, something I could not avoid for personal and professional reasons and I made my peace with it – that if India hunts this down, I will miss the most epic chase or series finale ever! I was confident we would draw the match and watched the first session play out at the airport lounge. I boarded my flight in peace knowing I would not land in UK to the news of a series loss. But then to switch on my phone to tweets, DMs and multiple WhatsApp messages from my friends and my core twitter cricket circle gave me the shock of my life!

How on earth did we effing chase the score how? Gill in his debut series played a solid 91? He is 21! Pant again the mastermind? He is 23! Two successive match altering knocks! Rahane attacked with a 6 off Lyon showing intent, Pujara bruised and battered but held one end strongly, Sundar upping the chase, taking it from a draw to win with that audacious hook for a six off Cummins – Cummins the best test bowler in the world, Sundar on his debut! This again after that no-look six off Lyon in the first innings. He is 21! Siraj got a fifer in Aus’ s second innings – he is 26. Who are these guys?  Where have they turned up from? Do they know no fear? Are they never in awe of the occasion? Do they realise they have pulled off the greatest escape ever – If Houdini were alive, he would be cheering them aloud!

Is this an illusion or a dream? What did we witness, or did we just hallucinate? What on earth happened! How did India win a second successive series in Australia without 9 of their main players? It’s been a month and I still don’t have the answers, do you? I read lots of articles, lots of lovely quotes, lots of tweets – I tried to make sense of what we had witnessed session after session, innings after innings, day after day, match after match since that debacle in Adelaide. I cannot rationalise it; I cannot fathom it. After the high of Kolkata win in 2001 and the test series win in Chennai that year, I never thought I would witness a miracle again on the cricket field – and that too after the disaster that was 2020 that had sucked all hope out of mankind. But in 2021, I was witnessing one again!

I said at the start of this post, I was beginning to disconnect from the game emotionally, and here I’m today, celebrating the first month anniversary of my new found love for the game.

I feel like I am 21 again!

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