To understand test cricket, you first must realize just how much goes into it. One match is a five-day affair that requires the physical endurance to go from morning to evening, the toughness to play through injury to not leave your team shorthanded, and the mental fortitude to perform under pressure to perform for your country and relentless taunting from the opposition. It’s a one-of-a-kind game that tests every aspect of an athlete’s ability. In November, the Indian cricket team started their tour of Australia. This meant quarantining in hotels around the country from November to January, with much of the team already coming from quarantine in the UAE for the vaunted Indian Premier League. Like many international tours, it was kicked off by limited-overs showdowns. The Indian side took the 20 over series 2-1, and the Australians taking their 50 over series 2-1. All this led to the tour’s main event, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, a series of 4 tests held between India and Australia. Since the inaugural contest in 1996, India has been the more successful team, including being the two-time defending champions coming into the most recent edition. The events of this year’s contest have quickly arisen to near-legendary status. It takes recounting the events of all 4 tests to understand just how important this series was.
In test cricket, each team gets two times batting through their order within the 5-day window. If a team can come out of the first innings with a respectable lead, they’re in a good place to at least work a draw. After each team’s first innings in the first test, India had a reasonable, but not commanding, 53 run lead. This was sparked by India’s captain, Virat Kohli, ending the innings with 74 runs. However, after a strong start, disaster struck the Indian batting attack. Needing to roughly match the first innings total of 244 to be in a position for victory, India managed to accumulate just 36 runs. This marks the team’s lowest ever test score and is a number that’s tied for the 4th worst total of all time. It would take Australia just 21 overs to score the 90 runs necessary to walk away with a 1-0 series lead. The event drew mockery from around the sporting world and threatened to overshadow the whole series. To make matters worse, Kohli would leave the tour following the test to be with his pregnant wife. Along with losing Kohli, India lost opening batsman Prithvi Shaw and bowler Mohammed Shami.
Test number 2 would end up being a whole new story. In the first innings, Australia would be held to a sub-par total of just 195, with 2 of their first 4 batsmen going down without scoring a run. One of these players, Steve Smith, lost his position as the world’s top-ranked test batsman due to this performance. India proceeded to bounce back from their dreadful 36 with a strong total of 326. Acting captain Ajinkya Rahane carried the lineup with 112 runs, the highest score of the match, and the 12th test match 100+ score for Rahane. The third innings of the match would see India continue their strong start, nabbing Steve Smith early again, this time for 8 and Australian captain Tim Paine for 1. Australia was held to a slim score of 200, setting the Indian lineup for a quick chase. It would take just 16 overs for the visiting side to get to the 70 run threshold needed to win the match. Debutant Shubman Gill put up 36 runs, not out, for the innings’ high score, while Rahane followed his century with 27, not out, to push the team over the line.
The third match saw the Australian lineup get off to a roaring start. Indian bowler Ravichandran Ashwin, who had been one of the most effective members of the attack, was hammered 74 runs without taking a wicket. Steve Smith was able to get back on track with an excellent score of 131, along with 91 from Marnus Labuschagne’s 91 and opener Will Pucovski’s 62, gave the Aussie’s a great first innings total of 338. A sterling batting innings was followed by a massively impressive bowling performance. Despite hard-fought 50s from Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara, bowlers Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood managed to combine for 6 wickets that held India to just 244. With a commanding 96 run lead, Australia didn’t need a huge effort to put them in a solid position to win. While trying to manage the clock before turning the bats over to India, Australia was guided to 312 runs by Steve Smith’s 81 (where he was dismissed by Ravi Ashwin for the 3rd time in the series), declaring their innings closed. One important note about test cricket is that it has a much stricter time restriction than most other sports. There is no extra time, no tiebreaker, and if the 5 days end before all 4 innings have been completed, the match ends in a draw. This makes day 5 for a chasing team one of the most physically grueling periods of play that a lineup can experience. Because of this, India had a choice for their second innings. Swing for the fences to attempt to reach the lofty 407 necessary or close up shop and waste time until the end of day 5. Veteran Rohit Sharma and youngster Rishabh Pant gave the team a potential chance with a fast 52 from Rohit and a blistering 97 from Pant, but given the diminished depth of the team due to injuries and departures, this seemed to be hardly enough to win. This is why the match’s result came down to three men, Ashwin, Pujara, and Hanuma Vihari. Pujara was the first of these men up, sharing a partnership with the first part of the order. Alongside a hard nosed 77, he faced 205 balls and carried the bat for over 4 hours of match time. What ended up being the key section of the match was Vihari and Ashwin’s pairing at the end. Though they only managed to put up 62 runs combined, they saw 189 balls from the same bowlers that had diced stronger batsmen in a stronger lineup in the first match. Ashwin managed to match Pujara’s 286 minutes, while Vihari managed 3 hours of his own. At the end of the 5th day, Australia had still failed to dislodge India’s stalwarts leaving the match as a draw to keep the series tied at 1. Despite the heroic 4th innings performance, it wasn’t all good news for India. Vihari and Ashwin, the heroes of the match, sustained injuries that would hold them out of the series-deciding 4th match in Brisbane. These weren’t the only players India would lose for the finale. Star bowler Jasprit Bumrah and all-around mainstay Ravindra Jadeja were both unable to recover in time for Brisbane. To make matters worse, the Australian side had gone over 30 years without losing at The Brisbane Cricket Ground (AKA The Gabba).
January 4th marked the beginning of one of the most important cricket matches of the past decade. Representing 2 of the top 3 test squads globally, this was a key matchup in determining the rankings headed into the last test before the inaugural World Test Championship in June of 2021. Being the holders of the Border-Gavaskar trophy, India would hold onto that title with a draw in the 4th test, but Australia would hold the advantage in the standings for the Test Championship as they were ahead in the tables. The Australian first innings immediately seemed to put them in a spot to take back the trophy. Despite losing both openers for a combined 6 runs, Marnus Labuschagne steadied the ship with a brilliant 108, a total that was built on by getting scores of 35-plus from each of the next 4 batsmen. Despite big totals from the middle of the Australian lineup, India was able to find bright spots in the bowling as debutants Thangarasu Natarajan and Washington Sundar were able to take 3 wickets apiece. Even with these brave efforts from India’s young bowling side, sustained Aussie pressure pushed the first innings total to 336 over a day and a half to give India a tall task. The weather would end up playing a major role in the narrative of the match. With India on 62 runs with 2 outs after 26 overs, day 2 would come to a close early due to rain. The hobbled Indian lineup was carried by strong performances throughout the order. Rohit Sharma got the scoring started with 44 runs, while Shubman Gill managed just 7. After these 2, each of the next 6 batters managed to get scores of over 20. The innings were capped off by the debuting Sundar reaching 62 and Shardul Thakur, playing in just his 2nd career test match, netting the innings’ high score with 67. This middle order push was enough to get India close with a final tally of 336 but were still left trailing by 33 with 2 days remaining. Australia was put in a tricky situation for their second innings. With time running short on day 3, the hosting side only made it through 6 overs with 21 runs and no outs, setting up a crucial decision on day 4. Stay at-bat and dig in to build a big lead or declare early to attempt to give their bowlers more time to attack the Indian lineup. The Aussies would end up using all but the last 1.5 overs of the day to blow their lead up to 328 with a respectable 294. Totals of over 25 from each of the first 4 batters got the team off to a hot start. David Warner and Steve Smith getting 48 and 55, respectfully, to put the team in a position to win. India’s bowling was carried by two players who didn’t start the tour in the lineup. Mohammed Siraj, who made his debut in the second test, pulled in his first 5 wicket haul, with Shardul Thakur getting 4 of his own. With the total put on the board on day 4, both teams were being put in a race against the clock to find a win. The first development would go Australia’s way with the player of the series Pat Cummins dislodging Rohit Sharma for just 7. Australia wouldn’t make another breakthrough for hours, however. Sharma’s partner, Shubman Gill would play 208 minutes and use the time to score a career-high 91. Gill and one of the heroes of the 3rd match, Cheteshwar Pujara teamed up to make Sharma’s disappointing outing a distant memory. Following Gill’s dismissal, Pujara would bat through a brief spell from acting captain Ajinkya Rahane, who put up a respectable 24 run total. Young wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant would replace Rahane at the crease and put on an innings for the ages. With Pujara standing strong and absorbing punishment when his number came up, Pant took full advantage of a tiring bowling staff. After 314 minutes, Pujara was finally sent back to the bench by Patrick Cummins. Here, on 228, is where the Indian race against the clock would begin. As Pant continued to ramp up his striking, he would see brief cameos opposite him from Mayank Agarwal, Washington Sundar, and Shardul Thakur. Despite allowing just 33 runs from the 3 of them combined, the Aussie bowling simply could not contain Pant. Over the last 5 overs, Pant put up 27 runs to blow India past the finish line. With a final 4, Pant secured the Border-Gavaskar trophy for his side, and against all odds, gave India a win for the centuries as the stunned Australian team was forced to march out of The Gabba bearing their first defeat there since falling to the West Indies in 1988.
Test cricket was built to make athletes show their metal around the world. Facing all manner of conditions, teams have to adapt on the fly to every bump and hitch to pull off the improbable, and sometimes, the impossible. When India landed in Australia, every fan paying attention knew the tall task that both teams faced. India is a juggernaut in cricket that has spent the past several decades amassing a wealth of depth. Australia is a member of the sport’s old guard and has maintained a nearly unmatched pedigree for centuries. Both team’s captains, Virat Kohli and Steve Smith, are on career trajectories that would put them in rarified air among the greatest players to ever grace the pitch. After India’s embarrassing 36 in the first test, an Australian win seemed highly likely. Between this worst-ever performance and the loss of key talent up and down the roster, even after a win in the second test, it seemed as if the Indian side was doomed to fail. And yet, despite it all, India banded together to show just what makes the sport special. Every innings featured gutsy performances from the youngest players on the roster and unexpected veteran heroics.
The aftermath of this series loss would be harsher than initially thought for the Australian side. With just one more series scheduled before the World Test Championship and finding themselves on the outside looking in, their South Africa tour was canceled due to COVID, giving them a slim chance of making the finals. India is currently hosting England to determine who will take the last spot opposite New Zealand at the historic Lord’s Cricket Ground in England.