The afternoon sun emerged from the veil of haze, and half a dozen Australians practising at the prosaic Kotla B nets, where washed curtains were put to dry on the side and torn cricket kits lay ignored by men and time, suddenly discovered their intensity. The faces grew intense, the chatter and banter stopped. You could only hear the screech of studs pounding the turf, the crack of leather on wood and Marnus Lahuschagne’s self-appraisals and self-admonishing. Depending on his level of satisfaction, he would break into an aside: “I like that shot,” or “I am so stupid.” Beside him, Matt Renshaw and Travis Head, after an extended session of bowling off-spin, batted with the grim urgency of a battalion guarding the last bunker from being blown up by their onrushing adversaries.
The Kotla Test is arguably Australia’s last hope of keeping the series alive as well as restoring the tattered reputation. Lose this, and they might slip uncontrollably into the abyss of embarrassment. Here, near the ruins of the Kotla Fort, would begin their own journey of picking up their pieces from the Nagpur debris, as well as the soul of their game, the ideals that had defined them, the defiance and ruthlessness, fight and fire, on which they built the empire of dominance. The number 91—their second-lowest score against India—captured the shambles.
The volume of criticism from back home has already shot to deafening levels. But more than the skills, they lashed out at Australia’s meekness. “They didn’t have the hard edge,” Allan Border blasted. A host of former captains and legends chorused his views. Almost all of them lamented their lack of fight. Prevalent is a school of thought that Australians are not combative and fearless as they once were. Even Pat Cummins and the coach Andrew McDonald have not been spared, and many consider them as soft, an embodiment of the flaws in Australian cricket, though to be fair, the India series is the toughest test yet for them. The demand to bring back former coach Justin Langer, a tough-as-nails personality, has seldom been louder. The Kotla Test, thus, is as much a test of their bouncebackability as their ability to rediscover the lost ideals.
‘A journey full of hard-work, persistence & grit’ 🙌 🙌
𝗗𝗢 𝗡𝗢𝗧 𝗠𝗜𝗦𝗦: Wishes & tributes pour in as #TeamIndia congratulate the ever-so-gutsy @cheteshwar1 ahead of his 💯th Test 👏 👏
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— BCCI (@BCCI) February 16, 2023
What could hurt them deeper is that India displayed the same streak of virtues that Australia had embodied in their invulnerable peak, to the effect that the new India were the old Australia in disguise, endowed with the remarkable gift of not just fighting back, but winning vital moments to ensure that the match doesn’t dribble onto a juncture wherein they are praying for magic and miracle to save them. Earlier teams required miraculous interventions to beat them, like Barbados 1997 and Kolkata 2001. The defeats of Australia in that era are remembered and bracketed in the miracle category because they were tough to beat, impenetrable and impregnable, just as India is.
The Nagpur Test, like the summer as a whole, was a demonstration of India’s focussed, ruthless cricket. The batting was orthodox, the captaincy unfunky, and there were no balls of the century. But India refused to concede an inch, ball by ball driving Australia to distraction and disenchantment. The outcome was something statistically jaw-dropping, inflicting an innings and 132-run crushing, but the gaudy numbers being etched into history are underpinned by discipline, graft and ruthlessness. Bowling first—not just the fear of bowling when the conditions are best for batting but the dread of batting last—hardly bothered them. They bundled Australia for 177. In reply, they teetered at 168 for five, but worry not, a familiar lower-order fightback followed, that continued even after the departure of centurion Rohit Sharma.
It was so reminiscent of Australia that generations grew up watching with covetous adulation. A top-order collapse, or a middle-order meltdown, but there always bursts forth a hero, a redeemer from the skies. If Rohit was the Nagpur saviour, it was Cheteshwar Pujara in Chattogram, Ravindra Jadeja in Mohali, Shreyas Iyer in Kanpur and so on and so forth. There always is someone, with the bat or the ball, and often both these days, like the all-round spin trio of Jadeja, Ravi Ashwin and Axar Patel. So much so that they could afford the luxury of granting their best batsman of the generation the time to rediscover his form.
This was once the Aussie pattern and their non-pattern in Nagpur. In the first innings, an hour either side of lunch, both Labuschagne and Smith batted as smoothly as any pair of Australian batsmen in Asia, but Labuschagne’s 49 remained their highest score in the game. Undeniably, a series in India cannot be won on the dazzle of one man alone, you need a raft of performers, but a guiding light could lead the rest of the flock from darkness to light. Needed is a Prometheus who stole the light from the heavens.
Some of the batsmen could rethink their approach, like shot-shy David Warner, or rejig their plans, like the sweep-savvy Alex Carey. The flexibility of plans of India’s batsmen is tough to replicate, but adamant adherence to failing methods would not benefit them.
Their endeavour to restore the lost soul of the game should begin from their batsmen, but the bowlers are not beyond scrutiny. Cummins’s uncharacteristically loose spell with the first new ball proved costly. As were the struggles of Nathan Lyon, whose 49 overs of erring lengths and faltering lines, produced just a wicket. He was economical, but the first-choice spinner is expected to pick wickets rather than deny run-scoring opportunities.
Thus, bouncing back from the Nagpur thrashing is a collective as well as personal endeavour, the latter seamlessly leading to the other. In this context, India’s stirring comeback from being 36 all out to winning the series Down Under has been forked up as an example of bouncing back from galling defeats. After the Nagpur win, both Sharma and Cummins were reminded of the series. Sharma grinned; Cummins smiled.
The difference is that India didn’t have to play with the pink ball in seaming conditions for the rest of that series; here Australia are likely to be dragged again into drier surfaces.
Whether Australia will source inspiration and channel the unflinching spirit of India 2021 could only be speculation at this time, but the symbolism of the moment was inescapable. For a long period, Australia was the touchstone of everything successful in the game. It is now India, and to beat India, you need to play like India, with fight and fire, grit and gumption, discipline and desire, the virtues that once defined Australia and now define India.