This was the year of unprecedented recognition for Indian cricket. The T20 World Cup and the loss to New Zealand in the World Test Championship final were the eyesores in what, in a long time, was a spectacularly scripted journey that began at the Gabba and culminated at Centurion. All on the shoulders of some immensely gifted bunch of players who have made winning a habit.
Behind India’s success lies the mental resilience of the players who have come to conquer the challenges emanating from living in a bio-bubble. To endure the hardships of being confined to long periods of isolation and then to come out and perform certainly speaks of the mental strength of these cricketers.
They have treated the cricket field as the platform to express themselves, to give vent to their preparations to perform. The bonding forced by the shackles of bio-bubble has transformed them into a unit that must celebrate the freedom of playing together in the most challenging phase of international sport.
Scaling new peaks
From Australia to England to South Africa, India has scaled new peaks in SENA countries – winning in style. Australia came to grief at Gabba even as India took the field without six of its leading bowlers – Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Also missing was Virat Kohli, who had taken paternity leave. But the replacements grabbed the opportunity.
For Navdeep Saini, Mohammad Siraj, Shardul Thakur, T. Natarajan and Washington Sundar, it was the moment of their career as riding on the batting exploits of Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant and Cheteshwar Pujara, India stunned the Australians in their biggest stronghold Gabba, where it had not lost for 32 years. The Brisbane triumph was rightly hailed as one of the greatest wins in Test history. For this generation of cricket lovers, it was the greatest – bigger even than the 2001 Kolkata feat against the same opponent.
To prove that the Gabba achievement was not a fluke, India set new benchmarks when it travelled to England, winning two Tests. It was an extension of India’s domination of England in a one-sided series at home which preceded the tour. Once again, it was a tribute to the team overcoming the bio-bubble restrictions and maintaining the focus to beat a resurgent England.
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The transition from the Ravi Shastri way of guiding the team to the Rahul Dravid style of calling the shots was a key factor. True, Dravid took over the reins only towards the end of the year when New Zealand travelled to play two Tests at Kanpur and Mumbai, he was clearly well-prepared to leave his mark instantly.’
The talking point of the year involved Kohli. His own form, poor by his standards, and his removal as captain of the ODI team. His public showdown with BCCI president Sourav Ganguly left fans of the game in a state of shock. But why blame Kohli for a debate which was triggered by Ganguly when he revealed an alleged private conversation between the two.
No laughing matter: Virat Kohli’s public showdown with BCCI president Sourav Ganguly left fans of the game in a state of shock. – K. R. DEEPAK
Kohli’s response came when he was asked to clarify at a platform facilitated by the Board at the pre-departure media interaction before the South African tour. Quite similar to his brave and stirring support to Mohammed Shami who was trolled following India’s World T20 defeat to Pakistan. On both these occasions, Kohli took the questions related to the issue at Board-organised press conferences.
Kohli had little option but to put forward what transpired between him and Ganguly. It was his word against Ganguly’s, to which the latter, thankfully, put a stop by announcing the Board shall deal with the issue. A few days later, Dravid, in his inimitable style, made a stern declaration that henceforth private discussions between him and the players would not make it to public domain.
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Typical Dravid, protecting the dressing room ethics by not letting the media take a peep.
The awesome talent at India’s disposal became clear during the year as initially K. L. Rahul, and later Hanuma Vihari, struggled to secure their spots in the Test playing XI. Vihari’s was an unfortunate case since he has not had the chance to play a home Test and been under pressure to deliver since the selectors looked at him as a batter who can bowl, too.
Rahul had to bide his time but made a strong statement when he earned the place in the XI. His scores this year have been 84, 26, 129, 5, 0, 8, 17, 46, 123, 23 and the elevation to vice-captaincy, in the absence of Rohit Sharma, was a deserving move. Hard to believe this Karnataka strokeplayer has been around for seven years now and just about looking to make his slot a permanent one. With Dravid around, he can look to grow in stature as an opening batter.
Rishabh Pant’s 89 (unbeaten) in the Brisbane Test was one of the greatest knocks by an Indian on foreign soil. – GETTY IMAGES
The horses-for-courses policy seems to have worked well for India. How else could you explain the case of Axar Patel, who made five appearances, all at home, to finish with a whopping 36 Test wickets with his left-arm spin. He can draw inspiration from Ashwin, who made the most of his home appearances, picking 300 of his 429 wickets. Not his fault that often he has been overlooked when playing overseas. There can’t be a more combative cricketer than Ashwin, a genuine Test all-rounder.
It was a superb year for Rohit Sharma, with match-winning centuries against England at Chennai and The Oval. But the Test innings of 2021 was crafted by Pant on the final day of the Gabba encounter. It was one of the greatest knocks by an Indian on foreign soil as he went after the Aussies bowlers, who were sniffing victory.
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Walking in at 167 for three and confronted with a target of 328, Pant tore into the attack, creating a victory when the team management would have been thrilled with a draw. Asked to bat cautiously in the final session, Pant, resuming at 10, left the dressing room in a trance as he belted the Australian attack with a series of astonishing shots. In no time, the Australians were bowling to save the game but Pant was unstoppable, playing some shots as he would at the ‘nets’ in Delhi’s Sonnet Club.
The Gabba spectacle, and Pant’s heroics, will find a glorious mention in India’s cricket folklore. Just as the magnificent chase at Port of Spain against the West Indies in 1976 when Sunil Gavaskar and G. R. Viswanath gave lessons in batsmanship to a cocky Clive Lloyd or the majestic fourth-day show at the Eden Gardens by Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman.
Kohli’s form – 536 runs in 11 Tests, 129 in 3 ODIs, 299 in 10 T20s – obviously has been a matter of grave concern. Most importantly, as his detractors so delightfully point out, he has not scored a Test century in 14 Tests (25 innings), with a highest of 74 in the 2020 pink-ball Test at Adelaide. It is for Kohli to revive his batting fortunes and who better than Dravid to monitor.
Starting and ending the year with Tests triumphs were much-loved gifts for fans of Indian cricket. It is now for this fearless team to set new benchmarks in 2022 in all formats of the game. There is talent enough in the Indian dressing room to nurture such lofty dreams.