No superlative is exaggerated in describing the fairy tale victory in Brisbane at the start of 2021 that launched a triumphant year of Test cricket for India. It can be compared to any of India’s famous Test wins since the very first one in February 1952 when Vinoo Mankad spun England out in Chennai. And you would have to say that in terms of the sheer drama of winning against all odds, Brisbane tops them all.
All four of India’s frontline pace bowlers—Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, and Ishant Sharma—were absent with injury. So were the two leading spinners— Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. The replacement bowling lineup was Mohammad Siraj, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan, and Washington Sundar. Siraj, who led the pack, was playing his third Test; Saini and Thakur were playing their second Test; Sundar and Natarajan were making their Test debuts.
Natarajan wasn’t even in the Test squad; he was kept back in Australia after the limited overs matches to provide net practice. Commentators commiserated with India on their plight after heroically equalizing the series in Melbourne, and staving off defeat in Sydney.
Everyone assumed Australia were going to win the series after all. They had their premium bowling lineup of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Cameron Green, and Nathan Lyon—almost the same set that is crushing England in the ongoing Ashes series. And Brisbane was their fortress where they had not lost a Test in 32 years.
Although India had won their previous Test series in Australia in 2018-19, that was against a demoralized lot after the sandpapering scandal which had resulted in the home team's two top batsmen, Steven Smith and David Warner, being banned for a year. This time Australia were full strength. India on the other hand were playing without skipper Virat Kohli, who had returned home for the birth of his daughter after the first Test. Ajinkya Rahane was captaining the side in his absence.
The odds against a happy ending to the series kept on mounting. Ashwin, who had helped turn the series around in Melbourne with the ball, and saved the Sydney Test with the bat, was the latest to join the injury roster. But his replacement, Sundar, not only took four wickets but also combined with medium pacer Thakur in a 123-run seventh wicket stand that prevented Australia from getting a big lead in the first innings.
He then partnered wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant in a 53-run sixth stand in the final act, accelerating the scoring rate in the last hour of the last day to go for a win. He got out 10 runs short of the victory target, attempting a reverse sweep, but soon erupted in joy as Pant took the team past the finish line. Such was the dreamlike debut Test of Washington Sundar.
There were many heroic deeds in Brisbane: Rahane’s positive captaincy that allowed India to go for victory instead of meekly playing for a draw as most observers expected; Thakur top-scoring with 67 in the first innings on top of his seven wickets in the match; Siraj’s five-wicket haul in the second innings; ‘net bowler’ Natarajan taking three wickets in the first innings; and young Shubman Gill’s classy 91 as an opener that set up the Indian chase on the last day.
The biggest hero was Pant who held his nerve to press for victory even after seven wickets had fallen and he only had tailenders with him. His unbeaten 89, with calculated risks to put the pressure back on the Aussie bowlers on a last day wicket in Brisbane, is one of the most remarkable Test innings the game has seen because of its sheer audacity.
Apart from the unlikelihood of a second-string team turning a series on its head and winning after India were bowled out for their lowest-ever total of 36 in the first Test at Adelaide, it heralded a new era in Indian cricket. Injuries and pandemic-induced absences have brought to the fore the depth of talent now available in India, thanks to the Indian Premier League (IPL) where upstarts rub shoulders with international stars, gaining the experience and confidence of competing against the best.
In the series at home against England following the Australia tour, India did not have their ace spinner for sharply turning tracks, left-armer Ravindra Jadeja. But his replacement, Axar Patel, became the highest wicket-taker in a debut series, even after covid kept him out of the first Test which India lost. The 2-1 series win over England put India in the inaugural World Test Championship final at Lord’s in London against New Zealand.
The loss in that final was the only aberration in a year of Test triumphs for India. The team leadership blundered in playing two spinners on a green top, leaving out all the pace bowling heroes of Brisbane. The lesson for selectors, coaches, and captains is to trust the emerging talent in Indian cricket. This will also keep the ones representing India on their toes.
The fairy tale in Brisbane happened by accident as those not even selected for the original Test squad got opportunities because of the absence of incumbents. Going forward, selectors and the team management can do this by design, maximizing the benefits of having such a deep pool of talent. That will let fans celebrate Indian cricket even more in the new year.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.