Cricket and that winning attitude

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Ruchir Joshi 22 January 2021 14:53 IST
Updated: 23 January 2021 15:08 IST

Gabba was summited because India first climbed the steep cliff of the draw at Sydney

I have a painfully clear memory of Imran Khan giving the Pataudi Memorial Lecture in Kolkata in 2012. “I have been asked to talk about Indian cricket,” he said, with a grin. “At the moment, I’ll just use one word for Indian cricket — consistent.” The audience exploded with the kind of laughter you’re forced to release through gritted teeth. “To lose eight test matches in a row, it’s an achievement,” continued the Great Ustad of our rivals, relishing each word. “I mean, you would at least draw one match, but to lose eight is, uh...” Khan let the sentence peter out in a low guffaw. India had won the World Cup in March 2011 and then, in the Test arena, the team had possibly its worst 12 months, first being wiped out 0-4 in England and then repeating the feat Down Under, losing 0-4 to Michael Clarke’s Australians.

Having delivered the first, inescapable bouncer-insult to the head, Khan then proceeded to pulverise the toes with patronising advice: it was all very well to have won the World Cup, but no country could be a great power in ‘real cricket’ if it continued to pay so much attention to T-20. You could get away with things in the shorter versions of the game but your skill, temperament and courage were only challenged properly in a test series. Therefore India needed to orient its first-class structure towards tests. The Khan then ended with the good-humoured warning that his party was coming to power in Pakistan, “and when that happens we will fix our structure, and if you don’t fix yours you’re going to get lots of thrashing!”

Since then, every time India has lost a series or failed to draw a test when we needed to, I’ve remembered Khan’s goading. Despite all our victories in the last eight years, the worst of these moments came when India were rolled up for 36 at Adelaide; in the middle of dominating a test match it seemed as though we’d been assailed by a viral attack of T-20-itis that had killed us, not just in this test series but possibly a few series to come. The spectre of the 0-8 run loomed again.


Sheer joy

The win at Melbourne in the next test match was heartening. Our bowlers continued to prune the Aussie batting; the revelation of Shubman Gill provided sheer joy; Rahane’s century indicated that Indian batting had resumed normal service, with no deep lacerations from the ‘36 moment’; Virat Kohli was not missed.

While all this was good, I found the draw in Sydney far more satisfying. It’s never easy to win a test match against solid opposition, however there are matches where the dice all fall in your favour. It’s how you overcome your own setbacks that really shows your mettle, and at the SCG there was startling evidence that this rag-tag team had some. Starting the third test, we had only three of our first-choice bowlers, and by the second innings only two. India had kept this Australian batting from crossing 200 till now (in three times of trying), but it could not continue. India may have dipped to 36 and risen to 326 but we seemed to be in a serious relationship with the score of 244.

Not done yet

Set 407 to win, many would have thought the series was over. And yet, this is where the components of the next test get put into place: a solid contribution from one opener; Pujara slow and inexorable as a giant earth-mover, excavating the overs, digging into the bowlers’ energy; then, at the other end, brutal dynamiting from a nonchalant Pant knocking the whole state of play off-kilter, almost making 407 look possible; and then the fightback from the batsmen that follow; at least one batsman absorbing the blows from the dreaded short-pitched stuff.

The Melbourne win contributed, of course, but Gabba was summited because India first climbed the steep cliff of the draw at Sydney. That momentum shift was hugely important, in a way that only happens in a test cricket series and no other sport. Ashwin and Vihari joined the casualties but, along with Pujara’s, their epic intransigence transmitted something to Sundar and Thakur. Nietzsche’s famous axiom ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’ comes into play here. By the time India started to bat in that fourth innings at Brisbane, all sorts of fears were lying spent, like crushed mineral water bottles outside the boundary. Perhaps the players and support team had already done the losing in their minds and this held no threat — maybe the only interesting thing was the possibility of a legend-creating win. In this there was certainly the unforeseen contribution of a decade of intense T-20, coupled with two contrasting cricketing DNA strands that go back, one strand through Sunil Gavaskar to Vijay Hazare and Vijay Manjrekar, the other to Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi.

Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist.

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