Two of the greatest underdog stories in Indian cricket history involved the mighty West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s.
India won a Test series in the West Indies for the first time in 1971. After India’s famous win in the second Test in Port of Spain, the stunned Windies, led by Gary Sobers, tried in vain to equalise in the next three Tests. Those days the last Test could be extended to six days but “the West Indies couldn’t out Gavaskar at all”, as a hyperbolic calypso song recorded later.
Then, in the 1983 World Cup, at a time when India were seen as minnows in One Day cricket, Kapil’s Devils made pundits eat crow by reaching the final and beating Clive Lloyd’s West Indies.
For a long time, it was hard to imagine anything surpassing those underdog triumphs. But India’s Test series win in Australia in 2020-21 against all odds, with a side down to almost the last man standing due to injury and absence, became the mother of all underdog cricket stories for its sheer drama, grit and unlikelihood.
Documentaries have been made about it and every Indian cricket fan is probably familiar with each twist in that epic series. But a new book, The Miracle Makers, lets you relive the Homeric feat from a unique perspective.
The authors, two Indian cricket writers based in Australia, Bharat Sundaresan and Gaurav Joshi, had the privilege of covering the tour as journalists and gaining access to players and coaches. Their passion for the game and familiarity with the Indian team for over a decade gave them a frame of reference to infuse the book with background and character.
This vantage point brings the protagonists of this epic to life beyond their feats in the field. Take Ajinkya Rahane, whose steely resolve and aggressive game plan took Australian expert commentators by surprise. They had predicted a 4-0 whitewash after India were bowled out for 36 in the first Test in Adelaide and skipper Virat Kohli returned to India for the birth of his child.
That India would rise from the depths to which they had fallen, with the understated Rahane at the helm, to win the second Test in Melbourne was beyond their ken. But the chapter on Rahane in the book takes us back to 2017, when he first took over from Kohli to lead India against Australia in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. Attack was the mantra as he insisted on playing with five bowlers and backed newbie left-arm leg-spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who bowled 23 overs and took four wickets in the first innings.
Cut to the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in 2020, where Rahane introduced off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin into the attack early on the first day. Ashwin got Steve Smith for a duck; the rest is history. “Seemingly cautious and timid on the outside, but deep down confident in his own ability as a player and leader,” sum up the authors, tracing it back to Rahane’s junior cricket days.
The anecdote I liked best on Rahane’s character came after India won the Test series 2-1. Back home at his apartment complex in Mumbai, he refused to cut a welcome cake. The icing on the cake was a kangaroo and he did not want to insult the Australians.
Behind-the-scenes detailing of what transpired on the tour helps us understand how the improbable became possible. The impudent Rishabh Pant dogging the heels of head coach Ravi Shastri to ask at every turn, “Sirji, am I playing?”, reveals what made them both tick.
The coaches felt Pant was overweight after nine months of living in covid-19 bubbles. Shastri insisted he should hit the gym. Pant took it on the chin when Wriddhiman Saha was preferred as the wicketkeeper-batsman in the first Test. He ground it out in the gym and spent hours at the nets. His electrifying century in a practice game got him into the second Test in place of Saha.
It was in the third Test in Sydney that Pant began to put his stamp on the series. He had copped a blow on his forearm in the first innings; this put a question mark on his ability to bat in the second innings. The book describes his net session before the final day, grunting with pain but constantly challenging the throwdown specialists to hit him with all they had. He smashed 97 in 118 balls on the final day.
Ashwin, suffering back spasms, and Hanuma Vihari, with a torn hamstring, endured 40 overs of excruciating pain after that to save the Test. But Pant’s audacious knock, which had raised hopes of an improbable victory, was a precursor to what was to follow in the last Test in Brisbane.
Away from the action in the middle, the backstory of the coaching team and their part in this epic is equally fascinating. Shastri had devised a “leg theory”, noting that the two main Aussie batsmen, Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, scored most of their boundaries on the offside even though they shuffled across the stumps to bunt the ball on the leg side for singles and twos. Other teams had bowled outside off-stump to deny them access to the leg side but India chose to bowl straight, choking offside boundaries and placing attacking fielders on the leg side to cut off singles and take catches. This proved to be a strategic masterstroke.
It’s one thing to make plans and quite another to execute them. This is where bowling coach Bharat Arun’s role was so crucial that it merited a chapter in the book. His career as an all-rounder cut short by knee injuries, Arun had worked closely with India’s upcoming fast bowlers. How he adapted to each bowler’s temperament to implement the overall strategy in this series is revealing.
But even Shastri and Arun could not have anticipated that all of India’s five main bowlers would be sidelined owing to injury by the last Test. Mohammed Siraj, playing his third Test, led a bowling attack of rookies. That they contained the Aussies and set up Pant’s fairy-tale run chase on the final day is a testament to the acumen of the coaches.
The coaching team’s final act was to do nothing. At various points on the last day of the series, it had seemed like the more pragmatic option was to pull the shutters down and play for a draw. But they gave Pant free rein and India won.
“They can never take this away from me,” a still emotional Shastri told the authors the next morning. He had been in and out of the team but saw India reach new heights in both his coaching stints.
Even though it comes two years after that epic series, this book is a worthy addition to Indian cricket folklore, replete with characters who simply refused to give up in the face of one adversity after another. It’s an enduring, inspiring tale and the authors have done justice to recounting it. One quibble is that they did not provide the four scorecards for easy reference at the back end of the book.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.