Tour review

Australia vs India, 2020-21

Geoff Lemon

One-day internationals (3): Australia 2 (20pts), India 1 (9pts) Twenty20 internationals (3): Australia 1, India 2 Test matches (4): Australia 1 (36pts), India 2 (70pts)

To decide if something qualifies as great, we hold it up to other examples and seek commonality. Yet India's Test series win in Australia was an anomaly: patently great in its drama and skill, but in a manner unlike almost any other. A revered series usually has consistency at its centre, an ongoing struggle between a few titans. This was the opposite, as match after match saw India lose players to injury, departure, or poor form. Instead, a succession of new names and lesser lights each made a contribution to one of the most stirring comebacks the game has known.

Two years earlier, India had won in Australia for the first time in 12 attempts across 71 years, as an immaculately drilled outfit hit almost every mark. Never before had India enjoyed a fast-bowling cartel: then, Ishant Sharma,Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah had Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in support. Captaining with ferocity was Virat Kohli. The Australians were led by an emergency appointee in wicketkeeper Tim Paine, after suspending their two best batsmen, Steven Smith and David Warner. Their ball-tampering snafu had brought condemnation at home and abroad, leaving the team and Australian cricket badly shaken.

The 2020-21 series was supposed to be a return to normal. Smith and Warner were back, Paine had become a credible leader, the callow batting had mature graduates in Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head, all-rounder Cameron Green was the talk of the town, and Australia had a point to prove. India had become the side short-staffed: injury ruled Ishant and Bhuvneshwar out of the tour, batsman Rohit Sharma from the first two Tests, and all-rounder Hardik Pandya after the short-form matches, unable to bowl because of a back injury. Kohli, meanwhile, would leave after one Test for the birth of his daughter.

The other major player was the Covid-19 pandemic. Entering Australia required a fortnight's quarantine, eliminating India's chance of summoning mid-tour reinforcements. An extended Test squad using white-ball players as net bowlers had to suffice. There was constant doubt about venues, because of shifting state-border protocol: the ODIs and T20s were slated for Brisbane before moving to Sydney and Canberra; the Boxing Day Test was confirmed for Melbourne only once a viral wave had been suppressed; the First and Third Tests were imperilled after outbreaks in Adelaide and Sydney; so was the Fourth, because of restrictions travelling from Sydney to Brisbane.

Spending months in hotels was nothing new for either squad, but the constraints were more onerous. Players were supposed to mix only with their own group - stepping out of the rain or taking a photo with a fan could constitute a biosecurity breach, with major financial consequences. Justin Langer and Ravi Shastri, the head coaches, had to keep their squads mentally steady from mid-November to mid-January. When a video of five members of the touring party dining together at a Melbourne restaurant was posted on Twitter, the BCCI launched an investigation; all five tested negative.

The portents were grim for India when Smith started the tour with his two fastest centuries in one-day cricket - both from 62 balls - to win the opening two matches at a canter, though Warner injured his groin, ruling him out until the New Year. But India won the third, and the first two T20s. Then came the day/night Adelaide Test. Batting wasn't easy against the pink ball, but India couldn't blame the twilight when they collapsed under sunny skies to 36 all out. The match went from contested to decided within an hour, as Patrick Cummins and Josh Hazlewood bowled them out for their lowest ever score. Kohli went home, as did Shami, whose arm had been broken at the end of the rout.

Umesh was injured in the Second Test, then Bumrah, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Hanuma Vihari in the Third. Opening bats Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal, plus wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha, were dropped. By the Fourth, India had called on 20 players, the most by any side away from home. Only Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane appeared in all four matches. And yet.

At Melbourne, a week after the embarrassment at Adelaide, Rahane - captain in Kohli's absence - set aggressive fields, marshalled his bowlers with skill, then made a century. India levelled the series inside four days. At Sydney, a team halved by injury held on for a draw in the shadows. At Brisbane, one of the least experienced sides to represent India chased down 328, to win both match and series, and retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

It was an unthinkable achievement. Missing were their five best fast bowlers, two best spinners, two first-choice batsmen (including first-choice captain), and best all-rounder - ten certain picks. A result those players might never have achieved was driven by the audacity of youth: Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Mohammed Siraj, Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Navdeep Saini, Thangarasu Natarajan. Their senior help came from Rahane, a leader so different from Kohli in style, and Pujara, who soaked up every blow the fast bowlers could deliver, and faced 928 balls in the series, 366 more than any of his team-mates.

For Australia, it was just as unthinkable: a Test defeat in Brisbane for the first time since 1988-89, a second series loss in a row at home to India, and with no allowance this time for missing personnel. They had the two top run-scorers and the top two wicket-takers. After Adelaide, they won all three tosses. They set two daunting targets, and closed out neither. Perhaps a lack of enforced change became a hindrance: the adaptability Langer had used so well in England in 2019 was abandoned, and the same four bowlers contested all four matches. Cummins and Hazlewood were rarely less than outstanding, but Starc's 11 wickets cost 40, and Lyon's nine an unflattering 55, leaving him on 399.

Australia's administrators and public had accepted the loss in 2018-19, perhaps as a form of post-sandpaper penance. But 2020-21 brought heat on Paine, captain on both occasions. He had lowered his colours late in the Sydney Test, losing his temper as he sledged a stonewalling Ashwin. It raised doubts about Paine's three-year mission to change Australia's historical causticity, but his outburst was notable in its isolation, and the directness of his apology next day was unlike anything his predecessors would have offered.

In any case, his punishment was karmic: "I can't wait to get you to the Gabba, Ash," will go down as a famous story of comeuppance. Words fully deserving of condemnation came from spectators, after a Cricket Australia investigation found several Indian players were racially abused on the third day at Sydney. Other spectators were ejected on the fourth, for taunts later cleared of racism. It was this fraught environment that made Paine's outburst on the fifth so clanging in tone.

The emblem of the tour was Siraj, the bearded pace bowler, his long hair swept up in a topknot. When his father died in late November, quarantine issues meant he chose to stay on and pursue his dream of playing Test cricket, rather than attend the funeral. Despite no guarantee of being anything more than a net bowler, he won his debut in Melbourne, and wept during the anthem. In Sydney, he had the courage to halt a Test match to report crowd behaviour. By Brisbane, he was the attack leader, and took a five-for. He sent down nearly 135 overs, and was one run from equalling the best figures at the Gabba by an Indian seamer.

Yet, for India, everyone contributed, in a tight series in which neither team passed 369. Nobody needed to be dominant, because each new inclusion had an influence. For all the talk of cricket as a team sport, results usually rely on an exceptional few; in celebrity culture, attention stays on them, even when their performances don't warrant it. But this was team sport in its truest incarnation, a team shorn of superstars, and somehow harder to tackle because of it. This is what will be celebrated, as its own special strand of greatness.

© John Wisden & Co