The remarkable win in Australia is a symbol of what our nation could be, but in reality is not
Indian skipper Virat Kohli’s comment, before the India-Australia Test series, that he was representative of “new India” couldn’t have been worse timed. Soon after, India crashed to its lowest ever score, raising the spectre of a whitewash. Now that Adelaide and 36 all out is a distant memory and India has sealed one of its greatest ever Test series wins, the “new India” comment has been resurrected. Many are wishing that Team India’s performance mirrors what new India should ideally be like.
While the Brisbane Test and its denouement will be indelibly marked in the memory of every Indian cricket fan, the Indian team’s feats were as extraordinary as they were implausible. Avijit Ghosh has written in these pages (‘A Miracle Down Under’, 20 January) on how India’s comeback put even the Bollywood blockbuster Lagaan in the shade.
It wasn’t as if India hadn’t beaten Australia earlier. It has done so on several occasions in India and for the first time in Australia, as recently as 2018-19. But this victory had a magical aura to it for several reasons. The first was the Indian team’s ability to bounce back from its lowest possible point. Post-Adelaide and following Kohli’s departure, most pundits had written off India.
They had good reason to do so. Rarely do teams recover after such a beating. When India collapsed to 42 all out in England in 1974, an innings defeat duly followed in the next game. This Indian team though is made of sterner stuff. Not only did India win the second Test at Melbourne, they battled for 131 overs for an unlikely draw in Sydney and then conquered the Australians at a venue where they had not lost since 1988.
If this wasn’t enough, Team India reeled off these extraordinary exploits hobbled by injuries, in the midst of weeks of quarantine and having faced crowd abuse in Sydney. By the time the Indian cricket team reached Brisbane, it was even having trouble fielding a fit eleven.
The team that eventually took the field had five bowlers with four Tests between them. It was India’s most inexperienced bowling attack since 1932. One statistic captured the disparity between the two teams: before the Brisbane Test, the number of wickets taken by the Australian bowlers was 1,033 against 13 for the Indians.
Unlike some stellar shows by Indian teams of the past, this series win was very much a team effort. The final day in Brisbane was testimony to that. India wouldn’t have won without the incredible grit and courage of Cheteshwar Pujara – described by Gideon Haigh as recruiting “the whole of his body in the act of resistance” – and the fearlessness and impetuosity of Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar, which turned a likely draw into a magnificent win.
A self-effacing and astute Ajinkya Rahane, as stand-in captain, too contributed to the victory. At a time when snarling at the opposition and animated celebrations are seen as markers of aggression, Rahane’s calm and generous reaction after India pulled off the stunning victory was exemplary.
Finally, the current Indian team is a wonderful representation of the diversity of India, including some fairy tale success stories. Indeed, independent India’s first overseas cricket tour to Australia in 1947-48 was celebrated more for its diversity than for its on-field performance. A commentator had then noted that “Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Scheduled Classes, Christians” were “all brushing shoulders, playing in the happiest spirit of amity, knowing no distinction of class or creed.” This was in stark contrast to the Australian team, which was composed of and still continues to be, all white with rare exceptions.
Much has been written about Mohammad Siraj, son of an auto rickshaw driver from Hyderabad whose father died while he was away, and T Natarajan, whose parents ran a roadside stall and whose first child was born when he was on tour. Both made their debut in the series and wouldn’t have played if the injury list wasn’t so long.
They could make it to the team since cricket is the only profession in India which is mostly meritocratic. A famous surname might sometimes get you into age-group teams or even state squads, but it will never be enough to succeed at the highest levels.
Over time, cricket has moved beyond the metros and elites to every corner of the country and also rid itself of regionalism. Rahul Dravid emphasised this attribute in his Bradman Oration when he said cricket in India represents “people from vastly different cultures, who speak different languages, follow different religions, belong to different classes.” The paucity of Dalit cricketers is perhaps the only blot on cricket’s inclusiveness.
To judge whether India’s victory is symbolic of a new India though is virtually to fall from the giddying heights of Brisbane to the abysmal lows of Adelaide. Contemporary India displays few of the characteristics of the Indian cricket team. An ordinary person with the surname Siraj is likely to be treated as a second class citizen in most parts of India.
Meritocracy is absent in many spheres of our lives and one doesn’t have to look too far from the cricket field to find evidence of dynasticism and privilege. The Indian cricket board, despite the court’s strenuous efforts, is a bastion of nepotism. In politics, personality cults are the order of the day and violence is commonplace.
India’s remarkable win in Australia is a symbol of what new India could be, but in reality is not.