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India have created the greatest moment in their Test history

How many fairy tales is too many?

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
It doesn't get any more romantic in Test cricket than this Indian series win  •  Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

It doesn't get any more romantic in Test cricket than this Indian series win  •  Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Catch your breath. Settle your heart. Calm your nerves. And soak in it. Let it wash over you. Luxuriate in the feeling. Bask in your good fortune, whoever you are and wherever you are: you have just had the ride of a lifetime. Sport doesn't do much better than this: this is beyond special, beyond the imagination, beyond dreams. As sports fans we live for days such as these, when hopeless odds are beaten, when the unimaginable is achieved, when new heroes emerge and when history is scripted.
And India, what do we say to you? All through this magnificent series you have tugged at our hearts. Now you own them.
Faith, courage, belief, grit, character, spirit - in the context of the cricket at least, you have raised the bar for these words, which are often worn from overuse. Not only have you - and I do not use these words lightly - created the greatest moment in India's Test history, you have provided a glorious hurrah to the most epic, the most layered, form of sport known to us.
Test cricket is life itself: not only is it a game of the highest skill, it is also a test of endurance and adaptability, patience and courage. There is the toil, ball after ball, session after session, day after day. You can glide on the waves only if you have the heart to weather the storms. There is heartbreak and there is redemption: Test cricket always gives you a second chance. How well India forged steel from the debris of Adelaide, numerically the lowest point of their Test history, with their captain and best batsman, and one of their strike bowlers gone.
Given all that they had to overcome, it was appropriate that they should have finished their trial in the toughest arena. For subcontinental teams, Australia, with its hard pitches, big grounds, tall and muscular fast bowlers, and the aura of intimidation in the air, is the hardest land. And nothing amplifies the Australianness of Australian cricket as much as the Gabba, where the pitch, not yet a drop-in, yields bounce and movement, and where the cracks lengthen as the match wears on, making the aforementioned fast bowlers feel even deadlier; where Australia had not lost a Test since 1988, and where India have never won one. When it emerged that India were reluctant to travel to Queensland, it was put down in some quarters to their fear of the "Gabbattoir" rather than to legitimate concerns about the hard quarantine norms in Queensland.
And what did they have at their disposal? Barely 11 fit men to put on the park, with six of their first-choice bowlers, two of whom had made match-defining contributions with the bat, lost to injury (one more would be incapacitated in the first innings of the match) and two middle-order batsmen, in addition to their captain, gone too. The number of wickets taken by the bowlers of the two teams read 1033 to 13, going into the game.
And their captain loses the toss, his third in a row, at a ground where no opposition team has ever mounted a successful chase of over 200. And Australia's bowling attack is one of their best ever.
Given all the fairy tales they have woven on this tour, how could India do anything but cap it with the biggest of them all: the most audacious of heists, a chase of 328 on the final day. It's a Test they didn't need to win; a draw would have done enough to see them hold on to the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, which they won handsomely on these shores two years ago. But just how could they not go for the win?
It was appropriate the charge was led by two young men who represent, in contrasting style, the dauntlessness of this team. Tellingly, neither played in the only Test India lost on the tour. Shubman Gill, 21 but marked out as a future star, caressed boundaries with the finesse of a Mahela Jayawardene in his prime, and took on the bouncer trap with the spirit of a pugilist. Rishabh Pant, who came on this tour off a horrid IPL and with questions over his attitude and fitness, and was picked over the first-choice wicketkeeper, Wriddhiman Saha, only because India needed to compensate for Kohli's absence, was able to take on the dare of the final-session chase not just because he had the wares but mainly because he was prepared to bear the cost of failure. Or perhaps he chose never to contemplate it. Impossible odds are never beaten without a dose of audacity.
Sandwiched in between was the phlegmatic figure of Cheteshwar Pujara, whose batting through the series has aroused many a debate. In 2018 he was the architect of India's first-ever series win in Australia, with 521 runs and three hundreds. Australia were better prepared for him this time, and his run-scoring was reduced to a trickle even by his own standards. But he still was the hardest to dislodge, weathering 928 balls, grinding down the bowlers with each one he blunted. Apart from two innings - the Adelaide horror show and the small chase in Melbourne - the fewest deliveries he absorbed in an innings this series was 70, and his 211-ball vigil in Brisbane, during which he copped the nastiest blows because the Australian quicks homed in on him, gave his young partners insurance against the collapse. Every Test team needs a Pujara, one of a dying but priceless breed.
The story of India's series is that the fairy tales just kept coming. There were three match-altering partnerships involving the No. 8s: in Melbourne, Ravindra Jadeja, playing his first game after being concussed in the T20I series, added 121 with Ajinkya Rahane; in Sydney, R Ashwin batted 128 balls in a 42.4-over partnership with Hanuma Vihari, who batted 161 balls on one leg. Ashwin, who has four Test hundreds, had not gone past 25 since December 2018. He perhaps wouldn't have played the first Test, and possibly also the second, had Jadeja not been injured. Ashwin was, in the words of his wife, crawling on the hotel-room floor the night before the last day of the Sydney Test with a back injury that would deny him the opportunity of a final tilt in his best series outside the subcontinent.
And what of Mohammed Siraj, the son of an auto-rickshaw driver, who came into the spotlight through a talent-hunt contest, who stayed on the tour to honour his father, who died while Siraj was in Australia, and who made his Test debut because of an injury to Mohammed Shami. Two Tests later, Siraj was India's enforcer not only in name but in deed, hustling Australia's best with wicket-taking balls.
Or T Natarajan, who had bowled only with a tennis ball till 2010 or thereabouts, and found a place in India's T20I squad on the strength of his yorkers this IPL, who went to earn an ODI cap and then make his Test cap, having stayed back as a net bowler. His three wickets in the first innings in Brisbane contributed to keeping Australia's first-innings score under 400. As did the three-wicket hauls from fellow debutant Washington Sundar and near-debutant Shardul Thakur, who bowled only ten balls in his first Test before pulling up with an injury.
Sundar, another T20 specialist who would have, cross your heart, never been thought of as a Test prospect, and was played only because India couldn't afford a long tail, and Thakur, who was played as the fourth quick bowler as insurance against another injury, which duly came about when Navdeep Saini hobbled off with a groin strain, provided the penultimate twist with a 123-run partnership when at, 186 for 6, India's resistance seemed to have finally been broken.
As sports fans and writers we can usually consider ourselves fortunate if we are able to watch and write about one rousing story in a series. That this series between these two fierce rivals came down to the final hour of the final day of the final Test would have been enough. But this Indian team left us memories to keep us warm for a lifetime.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal