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India's mental strength and trust in skills helps them bounce back again

India are showing the reserve of skills and physical and mental fitness of this team

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Most of the players in this India Test XI left home mid-August at the height of the pandemic when we knew very little of the virus. Some of them saw people around them losing their lives to Covid-19, and still left their families behind. Nobody knew what to expect. The Suresh Raina controversy as soon as they reached the UAE, followed by the lack of communication around it, left them living in fear as they ate from cardboard boxes and couldn't even speak to their team-mates in the corridors. They were in biosecure bubbles so strict they were sent back into quarantine if they as much as went to the reception to collect their key card.
As the cricket began, life must have become a little easier, but only one of the IPL teams, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, travelled with a mental-health expert. Towards the end of the IPL, there was confusion around whether the BCCI could negotiate to let them have their families over in Australia. They were now going straight into another bubble. The Indian team doesn't travel with a mental-health expert. To be confined to your rooms during such times of fear and uncertainty takes a toll on any normal person, and these are athletes used to playing outdoor sport and going out when they are in a new country.
Some of the other touring teams - Pakistan and West Indies in New Zealand at least - have committed some breach of the protocol or the other, but not India. A few of them have publicly spoken about how they have seen the bigger picture, that they are lucky to be doing what they are doing after seeing first-hand what the pandemic has been putting people through. One member of the touring party lost his father back home, another missed the birth of his child and is yet to see his baby. Players world over have spoken of the toll being in these bubbles has taken on their mental health, but this team has shown none of the entitlement elite athletes used to getting things done for them can show.
It is not easy to play elite cricket in such times when sometimes you are playing for your place in the side, on other times you are being trolled if you go online - which you tend to do more when trapped indoors - and are worried about families and friends back home rest of the time. The BCCI's agreeing to an unforgiving schedule - three ODIs in a week, three T20Is in another, practice game simultaneously, followed by four Tests in four weeks - doesn't help.
Add to it the three missing first-choice players - Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami - for the Boxing Day Test after you have just been bowled out for 36. It is one thing to sit outside and write that that innings was one of the freak things that happens in cricket, and was down much more to luck and the opposition's brilliance than their own skill and application, but quite another to believe it when it happens to you.
It takes a lot of mental strength and wisdom and trust in own skills to come back from such a result - imagine how much one must rue coming within striking distance of beating Australia in a day-night Test at your first attempt - and the team management needs to be complimented and congratulated for not only keeping the team going mentally but also making smart cricketing choices. This space has criticised their selections in the past, but for this Test they were spot on.
Accepting that a wicketkeeper's runs matter more than his keeping was a start, but replacing your best batsman with a bowling allrounder in the aftermath of 36 all out takes serious guts. It makes all the cricketing sense - you need to strengthen the bowling because you are missing two champion bowlers and also need to bolster the batting by playing the allrounder and batsman-wicketkeeper in place of a wicketkeeper-batsman - but not everybody has the conviction to do it in the face of criticism India's batting got in Adelaide.
And conviction it takes to believe that if you repeat your bowling plans, you can again bowl Australia out for under 200 in these conditions. That if they managed to do that, it would once again be down to their batsmen to back themselves and get back into the position they once were in Adelaide before Ajinkya Rahane, captain for the rest of the series, ran out Kohli, India's regular captain who would travel back for the birth of his child.
And what a plan it was, a proper work of genius. They flipped the game on its head with their leg trap. It might be tempting to credit Rahane alone for it, but the plan was in place in Adelaide too, under Kohli. It is a plan devised by the bowlers and the bowling coach with the faith of both captains and coach, and has strangled the Australia batsmen. If India can keep this up, they are on their way to consigning Australia to their slowest-scoring series this millennium, which will beat India's efforts in Australia last time around.
The pressure India have created with dots with straight deliveries and leg-side fields has been palpable. The key wickets they have got with the leg-side fields - Steven Smith twice, Marnus Labuschagne once, Tim Paine once to go with the various lbws - is staggering.
A plan is only as good as its execution, and they have had it made difficult for them with a further loss of a bowler mid-Test, Umesh Yadav this time with a calf injury. R Ashwin, fighting personal criticism of his performances in these countries, especially as the series goes deeper, and Jasprit Bumrah have risen to the occasion.
Ravindra Jadeja, not as versatile a bowler as these two, has contributed by doubling up as a batsman and then doing his best with the ball in conditions that are not ideally suited to his style. The newcomers have shown they have had a solid base of first-class and India A cricket before their debuts. The captain has trusted them all with their plans, and also his own batting to take up the No. 4 position and score a century against an attack for all times.
This team has now made it a habit of bouncing back from crushing losses, the kind that have known to deflate teams in the past. To follow Pune 2016-17, where they were outspun on a home Bunsen, and Lord's 2018, where they were bowled out for 107 and 130, with wins have shown the reserve of skills and physical and mental fitness of this team. The leadership has played its part too. If they finish off the formalities in Melbourne on the fourth day, they will have outdone even those two comebacks.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo