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With courage, composure, and captaincy, India make history

Hats off to Rahane and his coach, the frequently maligned Ravi Shastri.

By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Tue 19 Jan 2021, 11:25 PM

“I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.”

Those are GK Chesterton’s words, but you could imagine Rishabh Pant saying it. He attracts volleys of criticism each time he falls to a rash shot, and even gets left out of the team. But it’s courage, along with skill, that makes a match-winner. And he has oodles of both.

To come in to bat at the fall of Ajinkya Rahane, with 43 overs to go on a cracked, fifth day wicket in Brisbane, Australia, and score the winning boundary 40 overs later — it’s hard to recollect a greater triumph in the history of Indian Test cricket. This one ranks with India’s first series win in the West Indies in 1971 when Sunil Gavaskar made his Test debut.

India won the last Test series in Australia 2-1, but that was against a depleted, demoralised side coming off a ball-tampering scandal in South Africa. This time Australia was at full strength, with the world’s best bowling quartet, playing on a ground where they hadn’t lost a Test in 32 years.

A 4-0 whitewash is what some Aussie ex-cricketers predicted after the ignominious defeat in Adelaide where India got bowled out for 36. But three Tests later, Ajinkya Rahane, who took over the reins from Virat Kohli, is yet to register a loss as captain. This blackbelt in karate is an understated contrast to Kohli, but has consistently demonstrated aggression where it matters — game tactics.

After the heroic win in Melbourne and back-to-the-wall draw in Sydney, India fielded a second-string bowling attack in the final Test, with thier top five bowlers injured. But Rahane kept the pressure on the Aussie batsmen with fielders in catching positions. From the outset, it wasn’t a team playing for a draw to tie the seriEven then, the only question in most watchers’ minds on the final day, when India needed 324 on a wicket with uneven bounce, was if they could bat out the 98 overs. Cheteshwar Pujara played his customary anchor role and blunted the attack, taking blow after blow on the body from bouncers. But the others around him kept the scoreboard ticking, starting with opener Shubman Gill’s stylish 91.

Rahane stepped it up after lunch, scoring at a run a ball for his 24 before perishishing to an over-ambitious shot to the world’s best bowler, Pat Cummins, whose indefatigable strength and stamina kept the match on a knife edge. But India wasn’t backing off even at three down, sending out Pant ahead of Mayank Agarwal.

It wasn’t bravado that helped Pant come out trumps in this cauldron. He took his time at the start, and although your heart was in your mouth every time he swung at Nathan Lyon turning the ball off the rough outside his off-stump, it was mostly calculated positivism. What critics miss is the solidity of his defence, the ease with which he plays both pace and spin, and the calmness of his demeanour while batting with all the Aussie sledging which goes on under the guise of “banter”.

Sure, he throws the kitchen sink at it when the ball seems hittable, and that will misfire from time to time. But nothing risked, nothing gained. After his unbeaten 89 in Brisbane, hopefully the value of such a match-winner in the side will be undisputed.

The accolades will fly for Team India after a performance that brought so much joy to hundreds of millions watching it in their homes, especially as it comes after a year of Covid, lockdowns, and WFH. But there are some takeaways worth noting as well, for Indian cricket.

Rahane appears calm and astute on the field, maintaining pressure on the opposition and bringing the best out his men. He has been described as a “bowler’s captain”, which translates into allowing team members to take the initiative instead of overwhelming them with exhortations and instructions. It’s worth considering if he should continue as Test captain after Virat Kohli returns from paternity leave. That would also allow Kohli to concentrate on retaining his status as the best batsman in the world in all formats.

This Test series has had heroes galore, not the least of whom are the men behind the scenes in the Indian dressing room who kept morale up despite setback after setback. It was a mistake to leave out Gill and Pant from the first Test, but it was corrected. The selection of Ravindra Jadeja in place of captain Kohli was an inspired move that contributed to the win in Melbourne. Sticking with five bowlers, despite the growing list of injuries showed a mindset that was positive without being foolhardy.

Courage, composure, and captaincy under extreme pressure with depleted resources gave India a victory that will be talked about for a long, long time. Hats off to Rahane and his coach, the frequently maligned Ravi Shastri.

Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bangalore. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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