Every generation has its greatest cricket match ever. 83 World Cup. 2001 Eden. Adelaide test, 2003. 2007 T20 World Cup. 2011 World Cup. And now Gabba and the 2021 Test series. Was Warne a better bowler than Lyon (he was, though Lyon has possibly the better record against India)? Can the current Australian side hold a candle, in terms of batting, to a team that had Hayden, Langer, Ponting, and some Waughs, and Gilchrist? Can anything be a better story than a bunch of no-hopers besting the mighty West Indies at the height of their glory?
Which Indian cricket achievement was truly the greatest? Between recency bias and the perfection of nostalgia, it is very difficult to be objective, and one can say one should not even try to be, for we are in the realm of emotion. The measure of the “greatest match ever” is what it means to us, how it resonates, and how much we shall remember years later.
So for me, while I can never put this above ’83 World Cup or 2001 Eden in terms of raw overpowering emotion, I also recognize that it is just me, being me, nothing in life can top your “first time” , be it in sports or be it in other things.
But in a way, it also takes a 90s teen to truly internalize the significance of a Test series win against Australia, because I am part of a generation that can never even imagine, even in our boyhood fantasies where running with Pamela Anderson on a beach in Santa Monica or interrogating Sharon Stone in the precinct seems attainable, that India would win a series against Australia in Australia.
It’s not as if that final frontier had not been crossed before. Virat Kohli did it last Australia tour, but that was a side that was bereft of its best two batsmen, Warner and Smith. This time, the Australians were the Australians we remember, full strength and full mouthed, and on pitches tailor-made for their brand of cricket.
That’s what gives it the context, and without that there is no drama.
A side that is shot out for 36 runs, and has its best batsman and captain leave right after that, and then periodically over the next three tests has most of its first eleven injured, still come back, win the second, heroically hold onto for a draw in the third with two men, unable to move, batting out time, and then come back roaring to take the fourth, is a script so outrageous, it would be rejected as too fantastical by the standards of the sappy sports movie. The victory here isn’t just scoring more runs or taking more wickets than the other guy, but in showing the strength and resilience to come back, again and again, hitting the mat, taking the count, putting the gloves in front, and come back jabbing and punching.
Cricket’s not just blood and tears and sweat, there is pure art too: Pujara wearing the bowlers down through attrition, Pant swivelling around, Shardul Thakur (or Tagore as a news anchor would call him) going Viv Richards, Vihari wincing and grinding through, and Gill, thumping the ball through the cover, pure minimalism in motion.
But greatness isn’t great, if there is no meaning, no significance in the larger scheme of things. This one, though, I believe does have that too.
For too long, India, when it has won, has won through individual brilliance. Remove the individual, also called the Sachin effect, and the wheels fall off.
This time, one could see the system, one that has been working for years now, bearing fruit, where the fate of the nation does not depend on the frailty of a Sachin-elbow or the jaw of a Kumble, or Laxman’s knee or Zaheer’s groin. Now, we have roles, and when one individual steps away, be it someone as important as a Kohli or a Bumrah, another can come in and fill that role.
Two things about the system need to be called out.
First Rahul Dravid.
Having him as the coach the U-19, has created a generation of cricketers that are mentally strong and technically able to deal with Test match batting. The role of an early stage mentor for talented young individuals cannot be over-emphasized. One only needs ask Vinod Kambli why.
And then the IPL.
While it is true that IPL has led to fundamental changes in the basic instincts of Indian batsmen with respect to initial foot movement and body balance, which is why against a class opposition on a very helpful wicket, they collapse in 36, it has also exposed young players to the best opposition in the world at a very early age. The Washington Sundar who strode into bat at the Gabba was a very different debutant from the Devang Gandhi who was flown in to face a rampaging Brett Lee. None of the debutants and near-debuntants in this series, and there were many, seemed even slightly overawed by the situation or by the opposition, and this is as much about what IPL has taught them, as it is about the existence of the IPL itself, with a “set for life” income guaranteed and a contract with a franchise. The Test match is no longer the financial life-and-death matter as it was to the generation of Sunil Joshi or Chetan Sharma, which in turn liberates their mind from fear, and let them, truly, to use the word of the great coach, “express themselves” without the fear that insolvency is only one bad shot-selection away.
But there is always the risk of reading too much into the significance of victory that is but a few hours old, at the time of writing. Maybe it was all chance, maybe it was just everything falling into place, maybe this is idle theorizing, and all it needs for everything to come tumbling down is a tour of New Zealand, but be as it may, nothing can take away what this victory means for every Indian fan, not for the win, but for how it was won, and whether it is for you the “greatest Test ever” or not, if you are an Indian, and if you were there, you will not forget this, not for as long as you live, an image seared into our collective memories, of a setting sun on a wearing pitch, and Rishabh Pant bringing it home, in a world more dangerous than it has ever been in our lifetimes, a reminder that even in the worst of times, good things happen, if we can just outlast the bad.
And finally, while cherishing this game for all time to come, let us be thankful, to sports, to cricket, to the Indian team, and of having been alive to see it all.