Why this Australia series made India likeable

Without the large shadow cast by their captain, the attention was diffused across a big cast of characters

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Saini, Siraj, Pant: three of the parts that made up India's whole  •  Albert Perez/CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Saini, Siraj, Pant: three of the parts that made up India's whole  •  Albert Perez/CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

I can't pinpoint the exact moment. At a guess, it was somewhere between Ajinkya Rahane's century at the MCG and the almighty battering Hanuma Vihari and R Ashwin took at the SCG. As with the business of growing old, it probably wasn't a moment, per se but, a gradual realisation. Incrementally, surreptitiously, and then it was done: this India team had become likeable.
No filter in Statsguru will give you a measure for likeability, but nor can the lack of one - or the combined might of all metrics - dispute that this has definitively happened, and that it stands this Indian side apart from many modern Indian sides. I haven't been drawn to one like it since the days of peak Virender Sehwag - and I don't think it's me alone. Not if various WhatsApp groups, scrolls down social media timelines, and Zoom calls across borders, with Indians and otherwise, is any sample.
The harder-nosed among us will argue this is trivial. Sport is not a popularity contest and athletes and sports teams don't play to be liked. They play - no, they function - to be effective, to win. Everything else - about whether they play with panache or are dour, whether they make friends or enemies - is secondary, an inconsequence. It is a valid, if slightly buzzkill way, to interpret sport.
But - and don't tell them this - it is in this very grand inconsequence that life lives itself out. This is where sport actually happens, where we carefully tend to our loves and meticulously nurture our hates. It is also here, further away but not completely removed from that tribal heat, that we come to admire, fear and respect sides. Or, as is the case with this India side, we come to like them, in the way of that old idea of everybody's second-favourite side, be it West Indies in cricket or Brazil in football.
Even if it isn't important that India is liked, it needs acknowledging as a notable development because it has not been that way for a while. Not since India realised that its behemoth nature was a strength not a sufferance. Somewhere along the way, as the BCCI started flexing those muscles off the field, not liking what the board was doing simply - if unfairly - melded into not liking its team on the field. Admired, respected, feared, but liked? How do you like the classroom bully?
This is not the new normal, let's not get carried away. It's important to be precise and identify this side as the one that has slowly been bound together by falling apart over the last three Tests, because the next India side will be fundamentally different in personnel and spirit - more of which later. India were, for much of this series, genuine underdogs, and everybody loves an underdog. That hasn't been the case with India for a long time. Twenty years ago, arguably, they were, in the series that kicked off this rivalry. India went into that series no longer the home dominators of the 90s (nine wins and seven losses in their previous 25 home Tests), not far from the stink of match-fixing, and unsure about a still fresh captain who was meant to drag them out. Anil Kumble was missing too. So thinly resourced were they that they became, literally, a one-man attack. A different world.
Now it's almost impossible for them to be that ever again, given that they are in the employ of the world's richest board and selected from the largest talent pool in the sport. They still don't travel as well as they should, but with a full-strength side that status brings an entitlement and expectation of success. And when they don't win, they put up with a tremendous global outpouring of schadenfreude. It would need, literally, an unparalleled plague of injuries, an epidemic, to weaken them so much that they were considered underdogs. Which is precisely what happened on this tour, leaving them with a combination of a 2nd and 3rd XI, for whom even underdog status felt like an aspiration. (Of course, you could take the fact that they won the series with this side not as extraordinary but as what is to be expected from a country with as much resource and depth, as Justin Langer sort of did, but where's the romance in that?)
Undoubtedly it helped they were playing Australia, fellow member of the Big Three in which each side is on rotation to be the most disliked. When they play each other, it isn't unknown for people to wonder if both sides can lose. Not this time, though, because Australia currently are a bit Ned Flanders. Homer Simpson's neighbour, you might remember, was revealed to once have undergone anger-management therapy as a child. All that anger was pushed away inside, deep beneath the exterior of the jolliest guy you'll ever meet. There it remained, waiting to burst out, until one day it did. Australia aren't there… yet. There's much to admire about Australian cricket but the handwringing over culture and elite honesty turns them into a natural target for the schadenfreude that otherwise might have been shared between the two teams.
Nothing, though, helped form this impression as much as the fact that this series represented a rare and sustained opportunity to better acquaint ourselves with a team that otherwise finds itself perennially under the shadow cast by Virat Kohli. If we break down Kohli to be Sourav Ganguly's attitude plus Sachin Tendulkar's batting, then it's easy to understand why he can swallow whole any scene he happens to be in, unlike any Indian leader before him.
Not just the team either - shadow is so vast and infinite, it eclipses cricket itself. How unhealthily invested cricket is in him was clear from some of the panicked reportage around his absence from part of the tour. It became the new twist to some old scaremongering. No longer was it that every team needs an India tour to survive and thrive. It now needed Kohli to tour to survive. This is not Kohli's fault. This one is on the media, and we at ESPNcricinfo have not been blameless.
The more relevant tendency has become to kind of see the entire side in his image: a bristling presence, bathing each situation in its own tensile force until it breaks and gives way, most times in some burst of genius but also sometimes in moments of crude chauvinism and confrontation.
Over the course of this series, it became clear that wasn't the case, and instead, here was a collective presence of far less motion and agitation but no less action. Here emerged Rahane, narrow-shouldered and droopy-eyed, as if created specifically to contrast Kohli's fierce eyes and chest-out stomp. There was something inherently human - rather than superhuman - in Rahane's blending of fallible batting with sharp captaincy. This, too, was representative of a team that worked with its humanness, in spilling catches, in Rishabh Pant being Rishabh Pant, in breaking down but in not being broken. And Cheteshwar Pujara, who in taking as many blows on the final day as he did, stood up to the challenges Kohli had said his "new India" stands up to, except on the literal and figurative back foot, in almost the opposite way to the what the idea of the new India implies.
Or Ashwin, who outside of this shadow, it should be easier to acknowledge, is the most impactful player in the Indian side - and if that is arguable, it is probably because you identify as a batting person. He was part of a leadership collective too with Rahane and Rohit Sharma, and was instrumental in tackling the racist chants directed at Mohammed Siraj.
Siraj, Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan, Vihari, Pant, Washington Sundar - countless others, which is precisely the point. None of them are anonymous, but because they ordinarily would not get as much attention, they brought an unexpectedness to how this series played out. And with the focus diffused across all of them, it wasn't about any of them as much as it was truly about the whole of them, pleasant relief from the usually intense gaze hung on one man as the prism through which an entire team, sport and country is seen.
The facelessness was endearing and it left this team feeling like one from a less frantic age, before that of the Indian Cricket Superstar. Before Kohli, MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar, when India series went ahead without pinning a billion hopes on one pair of shoulders, or talk of how the BCCI was leveraging an opportunity to get richer, or of some new, shiny India. All that was left was a side of cricketers banding together to do extraordinary things in an extraordinary sport. What's not to like about that?

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo