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Border-Gavaskar Trophy series review – A special effort disrupts Australia’s cricketing peace

Australian cricket is a proud institution. Ever since Billy Murdoch led his 1882 side from English shores with Ashes urn in hand, a sense of loyalty and passion has fallen upon the national team. Soon fermented by Bradman and turned into the golden generation of the early 2000s, Australian cricket steadily became a source of comfort for its followers. A shoo-in for a series win on home soil. A constant display of success every summertime.

But all good things never last. Having undergone a rollercoaster ride of results over the past decade, Australia finally seemed to have settled the dust surrounding them when Smith and Warner returned to square the 2019 Ashes series on foreign soil. When they then headed home with their freshly minted mate Marnus to smack Pakistan and New Zealand, normal hierarchy resumed. Warner was flaying triple tons while Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood were cleaning up foreign bats with ease. Whatever happened, Australia would come out on top in the cricket. Previously outraged supporters sunk back onto their recliners and returned to their freshly opened stubbies.

It’s what makes this latest instalment of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy all the more remarkable. A year off due to COVID-19 only helped Australia’s reputation. During the layoff period, an Amazon Prime documentary into their post-Cape Town recession and eventual redemption in England gained praise towards their success and attitude. Justin Langer became a figurehead for fighting tough only 15 years after doing so at the top of the order. Tim Paine was the nicest guy in the world; a level-headed warrior who gave Australia the leg-up required to fight for the number one test ranking. By the end of this four-test series, both would face their fair share of controversies and criticism.

Tim Paine and Justin Langer went into the series full of hope, and came out shocked (Getty Images)

Following a gritty one-day series where India fought back to nullify Smith’s genius, Virat Kohli led his side out onto the Adelaide Oval looking for a crucial first-up win. With Kohli’s presence soon to be taken away after the first test, many thought India’s only chance of digging into the series came in the city of churches. When Mitchell Starc seemingly returned to form with a wicket in the opening over of the series (as poor Prithvi Shaw lost his stumps and confidence), those stubby drinkers at home were toasting another cruisy summer.

But in a pattern that would repeat itself over and over throughout the four tests, India slammed their heels into the perfectly manicured Adelaide turf and fought to remain on a level standing. The 17 days of test cricket played became a massive tug-of-war. By the final day, India had barely enough combatants to continue pulling at the rope. But the important part was that they were there at all, as their will to continue touring was severely tested throughout the summer.

Adelaide – swings and round-abouts

What to say about this instalment of the Adelaide day-night test? Much was made over the pink ball and the gigantic swing Starc and co would extract from the drop-in Adelaide Oval pitch. To defy them, the pink Kookaburra did its wildest work in the early rays of afternoon sunlight.

Multiple partnerships from India’s three big dogs threatened to give them a competitive first innings total, but some unwavering line and length, as well as a few fortunate fielding opportunities, gifted Australia crucial wickets to disperse the runs. Starc cleaned up the tail (a luxury soon to be taken away from satisfied Aussies) and Cummins claimed three scalps to roll India for 244 – seemingly not enough.

Two years after their last confrontation, Kohli and Paine met again in Adelaide (Wisden)

But Australia never came out and scored freely against India. David Warner was out with a groin injury, while Joe Burns’ horrid form had left him deserted of tokens to buy a run. With makeshift opener Matty Wade also struggling, not even Smith could save the day. Labuschagne did his best to flay edges and drives around fielders, but the piece-de-resistance came from captain Paine.

His 73 not out was important on a night where Australia crumbled under Bumrah and Ashwin pressure once again. It had been two summers, but nothing had changed for the home side. Disgruntled spectators grumbled and sneered, as only Paine helped to guide the Aussies to 191. At the conclusion of the innings, his intervention was necessary. By the end of the next day, it was match winning. In 24 hours, the home skipper would be accepting player of the match awards for his gutsy knock.

It started with Cummins crashing through Shaw’s uncertain defence on the second night. It ended with Mohammad Shami copping a brutal Hazlewood short ball and subsequently retiring hurt with an injury that would bring curtains down on his series. In between, there was a scintillating afternoon session of new ball bowling from Cummins and Hazlewood. The pair linked arms and made the ball sing from each end, inducing nicks with flicks of the wrist and sending daggers into Indian hearts every time they landed it in the fourth stump channel. It was eerily reminiscent of Headingley 2019 – nothing could be done to stop Australia’s rampant efforts. Batters just had to enter and wait for the edge to come. Cummins snared four wickets, while Hazlewood decimated a star-studded Indian line up with figures of 5-8. Fans un-arched their spine and grinned smugly, sipping their stubbies and ridiculing an Indian side that fell all out for 36, and promptly lost by 10 wickets.

Josh Hazlewood tore through a top-class batting line up once again, this time snaring 5-8 (Photo by Dave Hunt/ AAP)

In that afternoon, Joe Burns found form, slashing his way to an unbeaten 51. It was a rare Mount Everest amongst molehills; Burns struggled to reach double figures in many innings prior, and would continue to struggle after this rare flurry. With Kohli now out of the picture (sent home to nurse his first-born child with his tail between his legs), India were sitting ducks. Australia had found their intent on a manic third day, and the aberrations of their first innings batting display were put on the back burner. Onto Melbourne we go with righteous smiles adorning our faces, and knowing chuckles thrown into every cricket discussion leading up to Boxing Day.

Melbourne – a right old shock

Boxing Day is Australia’s day. It’s not a national public holiday about the country and its identity, but it’s synonymous with the pastime of cricket. It’s what places such rich pressure onto its eleven best test players; to not perform on Australian cricket’s day of days is to blaspheme in front of the cricketing bible and its millions of disciples.

Unfortunately, Australia did just that. In a morning that had religious Aussie fans crossing and cursing, Burns and Smith both made ducks (confirming a horrifying run of bad form for the former skipper) while Wade threw away a positive start. Labuschagne once again chanced his luck and worked hard for 48, only to flick Mohammed Siraj’s maiden wicket to backward square for fellow debutant Shubman Gill to accept. Travis Head characteristically strode to 38 and then undid his hard work. This time there was no Tim Paine divine intervention – some late Nathan Lyon hitting took the score to a well below-par 195.

Marnus Labuschagne wasn’t the only Aussie left shaking their head during a shock MCG loss (Getty Images)

India’s many selection changes post-Adelaide quickly came to fruition. There was no drop-off; the spark of multiple debutants restored India to their high intensity efforts they displayed in the opening few days at Adelaide. Debutant Gill frustrated Australia late on day one, and continued to do so until Cummins brought his whirlwind 45 screeching to a halt. The world’s best pace bowler then went on to capture Pujara early, but was left smoothing his picturesque hair back in frustration when stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane returned to his MCG playground.

Five years after negating Mitchell’s Johnson and Starc alongside his fallen comrade Kohli, Rahane flashed and dashed his way to a marvellous ton that set up the game for India. Australia’s search for a quick run of wickets was soon decimated by Rahane’s exquisite cover driving and brave pull shots. With Ravindra Jadeja returning to the side and aiding Rahane with a dogged 57 (which included eventually running his new skipper out on the third morning), India could snatch a defining first innings lead of 131 runs.

Such is the unrequired optimism of Aussie fans, most believed this could be overcome with a dash of sweat and elbow grease. An afternoon of seeing off Bumrah and smacking the others would easily erase the damage. In no time, Australia’s wagon would be pristine and in the lead again.

Stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane soaks up the MCG’s applause once again after a stellar ton (Photo by William West /AFP via Getty Images)

But the wheels of this decaying car soon came rolling off. Burns and Smith failed again (this time Smith found a way to get bowled around his legs by Bumrah), Wade threw away a solid 40, while Labuschagne tried to take on the game and then lost his wicket to a defensive prod at Ashwin. Australia were all in their heads, and India gleefully placed the ball forward and allowed them to destroy themselves. The home side, usually so good at finding the right aggressive tempo in home conditions, were all at sea when it came to discovering their batting balance.

Australia, instead of returning to their famous mantra of fighting fire with fire, tried to douse the Indian flame with cold water. It didn’t work – it only delayed the inevitable blaze that thousands of Indian fans eventually cultivated in the Southern Stand on the final morning. The freshly blooded Cameron Green fought hard to gain a miniscule lead, but it was quickly erased by Gill and Rahane in a scene oh-so-similar to Adelaide’s triumphant run home in Adelaide. This time, it was a complete 180. As Australia trudged off the MCG with a plate of humble pie, minds slowly stirred to the fact that this series was only just starting to simmer.

Sydney – another lost opportunity, or a great escape (depending on the perspective)

Just days after being on top of the cricketing world and standing over India while they regathered, the shoe was on the other foot. Australia were in free-fall, trying to right themselves in time for the delayed SCG test. To do so, they brought in some fresh talent.

After years of concussion and mental health battles, Will Pucovski finally received his baggy green and took no time in alleviating fears about top order woes. Despite Warner’s return bringing a smattering of quickly made runs, Pucovski stole the opening day with a punchy 61. As his innings went on, his confidence grew. There was an element of class and control. His straight drives drew sharp gasps from the Sydney crowd, who sucked in breaths and chunks of their face masks simultaneously. Despite not reaching the vaunted triple figure mark, he made himself an instant crowd favourite by halting India’s momentum.

Enter Will Pucovski – a game changer in Sydney (Photo by Rick Rycroft/ AP)

The word ‘intent’ had been bandied about constantly in the aftermath of Australia’s MCG demise – Labuschagne and Smith were the chief executors of a Sydney show full of renewed aggression. The former struck 91, while the latter found his hands and form in one afternoon as he raced to a vital 131. Instead of discovering methods of removal, Smith had swiftly formulated a free-flowing plan. It worked; fans chuckled. Of course it was going to be fine – Smith and Labuschagne were just toying with the nation to make the series rewardingly exciting. Now, Australia would put their foot down and canter on, with heads held high for maximum praise.

But India refused to relent. Jadeja ran through the middle and low order to cut Australia’s innings to 338 – at least 50 shorter than what most expected when the three musketeers in Pucovski, Labuschagne and Smith were wreaking havoc. Gill and Pujara then proceeded to notch up frustrating half-centuries that ensured India passed 200. Crucially, it also took time out of the game. No matter how disciplined Australia’s bowling cartel were, they constantly struggled to take quick wickets. Pat Cummins’ 4-29 was brilliant, but it was still a slow burning effort.

As the game’s candle continued to burn its way down, Australia had a prime time to attack without overhanging punishment. Only Smith’s 81 and Green’s landmark 84 displayed constant stroke making. The Aussies took too long to declare, and let the rain run down the clock. In the meantime, their beloved fans disrupted the game and its spirit with accusations of crowd abuse coming into the fray. It was quickly getting ugly for the Aussies. Three tests in, and the stubby-drinkers were losing their patience.

Eventually skippers Rahane and Paine agreed to fist bump and call the SCG test a draw (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Despite needing over 400 to win, India came out throwing punches. Sharma and Gill opened strongly, and refuted any idea of a quick run through the top order by Australia’s bowlers. India, no matter how far behind, were not going to be demoralised. Quite the opposite – halfway through the final day, Pant and Pujara threatened to seal the impossible. The former’s 97 was a blistering knock; a firm boulder that stood in the way of Australia’s crescendo of a wave, preventing it from breaking and engulfing India’s tail. Both eventually surrendered, but an injured Vihari and Ashwin valiantly clung on to Pant’s beacon for the draw. With fingers sliding off, India still held onto the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, forcing Australia to win it at the Gabba.

Brisbane – a landmark chase, an unforgettable moment in cricket history

Even the pessimistic weren’t nervous. Despite letting a strong win go begging in Sydney (where Paine’s final day frustrated sledging landed him in hot water), India’s increasing injury toll made the decider as close to a dead rubber as could be. With Ashwin, Vihari, Jadeja and Bumrah all forced out of the Brisbane test, gleeful Aussie fans eyed the first day. Licking their lips for one final five-day feast of Australian glory, drawn out until January to tease the travelling party. The equation was simple, as it always is at the Gabba; bat first and grind unsuspecting visitors into the dust.

With Australia only swapping Marcus Harris for the injured Pucovski, the slight change was soon exploited. Harris and Warner both fell early; very early, in fact, for a Gabba test. Instead of dominating the first day, the home side felt an unexpected tide flying at them. Now, they had to cling on.

After a series of strong performances, Labuschagne finished with a vital ton at the Gabba (Exavibes)

But standing over the wave and settling down the surge was Smith and Labuschagne. The latter finally reached the century landmark this summer; a deserved reward for persistent effort. Flowing off his busy energy, the middle order all made solid contributions to a respectable 369. Once again, the rampant score of 500 plus remained elusive, India’s new brigade of fast bowlers still rigidly sticking to the discipline that their fallen teammates had deployed so brilliantly all series.

India’s reply ebbed and flowed. The openers continued to negate Starc’s wayward first spells and work through the dangerous pair of Cummins and Hazlewood. Once they picked their way past that web of hazard, Lyon and Starc offered only runs. With Australia’s bowling attack struggling to keep their flame flickering, India had opportunity to take full toll. But this series was not one of consistent batting dominance. At 6-186, the tourists were finally letting the weight of the world give way. It took two new players to strengthen Team India’s shoulders.

Just as the batting was seen to be relenting under four tests of pressure, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur produced a game changer. Without expectation, Aussie fans’ jaws hit the floor as the unlikely combo slashed and fought their way through a Brisbane afternoon. Both brought up maiden test half-centuries, and frustrated Australia to the point of delirium. When Cummins (surprise, surprise) finally rattled Thakur’s timber, the damage had been done. Instead of the third afternoon paving a one-way road for Australia to reach victory, the highway had been expanded. To beat this cobbled-together side, the hosts had to match India’s grit.

In the unlikeliest of afternoons, Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur changed the game (Photo by Patrick Hamilton/ AFP/ Getty Images)

It couldn’t be done. Australia did their best to eke out 294 (Siraj with a wonderful five-wicket haul that was richly deserved after an emotional few months abroad) and set India over 320 to win. They then attacked viciously with the ball for a day and a half, spurting out strong spells in between Brisbane downpours. Pat Cummins was at his reliable best, toiling one last time in a series he would later be given the player of the series crown for. With Cummins on fire, the odds were with the hosts to continue their Gabba dominance.

But India had refused to play by the odds all series. Since their Adelaide disaster, they had played consistently stronger cricket than their counterparts. They had heart. If that innings of 36 had a stroke of Headingley to it, then India completed the call-back with a final day chase for the ages. Without any frontline personnel, India used every ounce of their wilting energy on a day five miracle. Gill’s 91 started the day off well, signalling to all far and wide that India weren’t losing this match. Pujara copped bouncers, brutal balls and a myriad of hits to grind out another valuable half-century. Then, Rishabh Pant came to play.

The keeper-bat could have been satisfied with his Sydney rear-guard action. But that hadn’t resulted in victory; now, he had to go one step further.

He may have finished with two less runs then his SCG 91, but this unbeaten knock engulfed him in folklore status. A final swat off Hazlewood flew down to the Gabba boundary, and finally sealed shut the giant door of this Border-Gavaskar series. With one despairing heave, Australia had the door shut in their face, sent back to the cricket purgatory they were to face from their own fans and media. On the other hand, India cemented themselves as a side full of talent and heart. For two sides that finished so lopsided, it’s remarkable to consider that the pendulum had swung so far the other way. When there’s belief, there’s always an avenue to elevation.

Rishabh Pant went one further than his SCG efforts, and made a hero of himself (ABC)

It was an exhausting series. For only four tests, it produced classic moments, millions of memories and a newspaper full of great headlines. But the front-page news? India; an incredible unit. A side channelling Billy Murdoch’s spirit nearly 150 years later. A team strong enough to withstand all heat and disrupt Australia’s self-superiority complex on the test cricket stage. The stubbies were in danger that night at the Gabba for both of the sides and supporters involved in such an epic encounter.

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