The demolition squad

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The demolition squad

Sunday, 13 January 2019 | Harshit Bisht

The demolition squad

Skipper Virat Kohli's men demolished the tag of poor travellers to win the Test series in Australia for the first time. Glory is Team India's handmaiden, says HARSHIT BISHT

Indian cricket got its new seminal moment after the talismanic Virat Kohli led the country to a maiden Test series victory on Australian soil, ending a 71-year wait to script a golden chapter in the game’s history.

Gloomy weather and a dark Sydney skyline were witness to Indian cricket’s brightest hour in what was the country’s 12th attempt to achieve something perceived as impossible at one point in time. It was the rare first in Australia for India since Lala Amarnath’s side visited the country back in 1947-48 months after independence to face Sir Don Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’.

If this victory is put into perspective with some of Indian cricket’s famous away series wins, it will be right up there both in terms of novelty as well as quality. Alongside Ajit Wadekar’s side’s twin triumph in the West Indies and England in 1971, Kapil’s Devils or Rahul Dravid’s sides’ winning the 1986 or 2007 series in England, the members of the current side have now successfully etched their names in record books.

Skipper Kohli, who has always focussed on the endeavour to make his team the best travelling side, has been finally able to walk the talk after the disappointments in South Africa and England where poor batting let the team down during some of the defining sessions. In Australia, however, it was a near flawless team effort from India, especially the bowling unit which has set it up for its batsmen for the better part of last year.

While skipper Kohli hit the best hundred of the series in terms of sheer class on a difficult Perth Stadium track, the unflappable Pujara and the unconventional Jasprit Bumrah (21 wickets) were the heroes of the memorable ‘first’.

With their full focus on how to decode Kohli’s genius, an Australian team led by an out of depth Tim Paine realised late that Pujara has struck from the ‘blind side’ with his near perfect defensive technique and three hundred. However, it was their batting that let them down and one piece of statistic will scare the die-hard Aussie fans.

The highest score by an Australian batsman in the just-concluded four-match series is 79 by rookie opener Marcus Harris. Whether it was the awkward angles created by Bumrah along with some incisive movements, Mohammed Shami getting it to rip on occasions, Ishant Sharma hitting the right length over after over, India never had it so good in terms of consistency in overseas conditions.

Ravichandran Ashwin, before he got injured, Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav also played their part to perfection as Indian bowlers put up relentless pressure on the home team batsmen. While young Prithvi Shaw missed out due to an ankle injury, Mayank Agarwal made most of his chances after an eternal wait for the India cap with two half-centuries.

Rishabh Pant with 350 runs and a sparkling hundred at the SCG with a record number of dismissals in an away series has now established himself as India’s No 1 wicketkeeper in the Test format.

For Kohli, this series was more about his leadership choices rather than his insane batting efforts which were comparatively muted by his lofty standards. His bowling changes were spot on and while team selection in Perth came under the scanner, no one can question the intent of the Indian skipper, who has shown that he only plays to win a Test match.

No other Asian captain leave alone Indian captain has won four away Test matches in South Africa, England, and Australia in a single calendar year. However, this win didn’t come easily as what it is looking at the end. There were so many tough moments in the series that decided the fate but unlike the previous instances, this time India was on the receiving end of benefits from the crunch moments of the fixture.

After India was reduced to 56 for four in the first session of Adelaide Test, there were questions gearing up about Virat Kohli’s led side ability to perform well in overseas tours. Often referred as best chance to win first ever Test match series Down Under in 71 years, India faced a massive setback on the very first hour of the play after its batting unit faced a test of reality from Josh Hazlewood and his mates, who welcomed visitors by their excellent pace and bounce and put them straight under pressure.

Coming Down Under on the back of poor results in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) Virat was expected to turn down the fortunes against the depleted Australian side that was suffering from the crisis occurred due to ball tampering scandal, which leads to the ban of in-form batting duo of Steven Smith and David Warner for their role.

But unlike the past two tours of 2018, where the side failed to capitalise chances even after their bowling unit gave an early edge. In Adelaide, Cheteshwar Pujara stood firm and added valuable runs in partnership with the tail after the top order’s miserable run continues, to set a challenging total for the in-form pace attack to defend.

And the pace battery in collaboration with Ravichandran Ashwin, who was desperate to abolish his poor overseas record produced yet another superb spell to put India on front foot and by the end of the second day of the play, the fragile visitors were eyeing to get the result in their favor, something which they haven’t achieved before in their previous tours.

In the second innings, India was bowled out for 307 runs, setting 323 runs for the Kangaroo’s to chase with more than five sessions of play still to go. The unsettled hosts failed again and lost wickets in quick succession to put India in command but the scene was not yet done. The last three Aussie batsmen showed fighting spirit in the field and tried their level best to produce something in their favour by adding 104 runs but their efforts weren’t enough to stop India from going to the top in Adelaide.

In the overseas tour, winning the first game provides a completely different set of belief to the visitors and that is why this was one of the much-discussed topics before the start of the tour, that how India needs to compile all its energy and win the first game to give Aussies a punching setback in their own yard.

The last time India won the first game of the series against these top four nations travelling overseas was way back in 2009, when under Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s leadership India bundled out hosts New Zealand for 279 runs in both the innings to win the Hamilton Test by 10 wickets and go 1-0 ahead in the three-match series.

That win in Hamilton paid its dividend then too in the series, when in the second Test after playing follow-on and on the verge of losing the game. Gautam Gambhir played the knock of his career by spending six sessions on the crease and produces a draw from the mouth of certain defeat.

India’s celebration of Adelaide’s win gained praise from all around the corner but the impact was very short lived as in the immediate next game at the newly constructed Optus stadium in Perth, India’s gamble of going with four front-line pacers keeping in mind the green wicket went against them & Australia produced a superb comeback bring series back on level terms.

Batting first for the only time in four-game series, the opening duo of Marcus Harris and Aaron Finch spend sufficient time on the crease and added 112 runs for the first wicket, this was the sole occasion when the opening duo produced more than hundred run partnership in the series.

However, their good start wasn’t properly utilised by the remaining batsmen and Ishant Sharma leads India’s fightback after the wicketless first session to bowl out ‘Baggy Greens’ for 326 runs. With the remaining nine players adding only 206 runs. But that proved to be enough for Tim Paine boys to gain the lead in the first innings.

Indian skipper Virat Kohli (123) smashed a superb century in the first innings and was taking his side close to reduce the first innings deficit but was caught out by Peter Handscomb in the slip cordon.

The dismissal led to controversy after field umpire Kumar Dharmasena straightaway gave Kohli out after Handscomb said it was a clean catch. The Indian skipper was baffled by the decision took the DRS and was pretty confident to get the decision overturned. However, third umpire Nigel Llong went with the soft dismissal and declared Kohli out.

The captain’s dismissal was the turning point of the game because soon after Nathan Lyon’s quick four wickets triggered India’s collapse. Though in the second innings, Mohammed Shami grabbed six wickets to sweep out Australia for as low as 243 runs to set India a target of 286 runs to win the Test and win the second consecutive game to virtually seal the series.

It wasn’t that easy and Aussies were soon back upfront after the combined impressive performance by their four bowlers leave Indian batsmen in tantrums and the loopholes were visible again as the team was all out for 140 runs, losing the game by 146 runs.

By the end of Perth Test, heroes of the first game were in the question box once again and there was criticism for skipper Kohli’s aggressive behavior and his verbal volleys with his Australian counterpart Tim Paine on the field. The verbal banter between the two forced on-field umpire Chris Gaffaney to warn both the players.

“Come on, play the game. You guys are the captains. Tim, you’re the captain,” the umpire was heard saying on the fourth morning of the second Test. This dwell didn’t go well with former greats like Sunil Gavaskar & Michael Hussey, criticising the modern day legend for this approach.

After the eye-opening defeat in Perth, India faced another massive setback when in form opener Prithvi Shaw was ruled out of the remaining two games. And the management included rookie Mayank Agarwal along with fit-again Hardik Pandya to join the 19 member squad for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. For the third game, it was pretty evident that the struggling opening pair of Murali Vijay and KL Rahul will be axed from the playing XI and the team management roped in Hanuma Vihari to open alongside debutant Mayank Agarwal.

While it turned out to be a dream debut for Mayank Agarwal, who scored 76 runs in his maiden Test innings, Hanuma Vihari never looked comfortable in the new batting position and was out early on. After Vihari’s early dismissal man of the moment, Cheteshwar Pujara joined the party and build up a strong partnership with Mayank early on and later he was ably complemented by Virat Kohli to put India on the front.

The Test specialist spends more time than usual on the crease and brings his second hundred of the series, this time consuming 319 balls for scoring 106 runs (his slowest hundred in Test cricket in terms of ball consumed).

Skipper Virat (82) was unfortunate and missed out a well deserving hundred at MCG after he was booed by the fans. But Rohit Sharma’s quick fifty and his valuable partnership with Rishabh Pant help India to set up a massive total of 443 runs.

The highlighting factor of Indian innings was the batsmen resistance to stay at the crease which wasn’t seen by the visiting batsmen in the past two overseas tours. The visitors batted for 170 overs giving a tough time on the field to the hosts’ bowlers. And that tiredness on the field was reflected when the hosts came to bat, the not so fancy lineup like it used to be with greats like Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey was unable to cope with the pressure and was out in the dugout slight more than two sessions leaving a huge margin of 292 runs to cover.

This was the first time in the series when India was in complete control of the situation but Kohli instead of asking for follow on decided to bat again and add some quick runs. Though the idea wasn’t implemented as accordingly, it was supposed due to Patt Cummins riot. Still, it leaves India on the doorstep of another triumph. And it was just the formality by the attack on the final day to script historic win.

With the triumph in Melbourne, India retained Border-Gavaskar trophy but the skipper was not done yet and was ready to go all guns blazing in the final game to win maiden series and not settle with a series stalemate. In the final match at Sydney, India included Kuldeep Yadav in the playing eleven and at SCG it was young china man’s turn to play his part in India’s historic tour.

After Cheteshwar third hundred of the series and Rishabh Pant’s unbeaten 159, India post mammoth 622 runs on board. Yadav made the most out of spin-friendly wicket and bagged five-wicket to restrict Australia for 300 runs in first innings and forced them to play follow on for the first time in 31 years.

With more than five sessions of play left, it was virtually clear that Australia won’t be able to finish series on level terms, meaning finally an end of 71 years of wait for India to win series in Australia. While the entire focus for the hosts was to save the Test match, India was eyeing second straight win. But it wasn’t meant to happen that way as the weather played its part and no play was possible on day four and five after Australia was six without loss in the second innings.

Landmark victories

New Zealand bamboozled (1968)

In its 12th attempt to conquer series outside India, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi led side marked its name in history books with spin duo of Bishan Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna complimenting Ajit Wadekar’s brilliant run with the bat to help India register a lot of firsts in their Test history. After earning its first-ever win away from home in Dunedin, India was brought back into level terms in the next game. But the spin wizard’s charismatic performance in the next two fixtures paid dividends and India won the series 3-1.

Wadekar’s warriors sobers WI (1971)

Under new skipper Ajit Wadekar’s captaincy playing with the famous Bombay ‘khadoos’ attitude.  A fresh-faced Mumbai batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, was called up for the first time and it turned out to be the move that changed the entire scenario. The pint-sized batsman tamed the Windies bowlers like a veteran. Another Mumbai great, Dilip Sardesai, also scored big runs and contributed to India’s first Test win in the West Indies. Garry Sobers was prolific but could not stop a determined Indian side from walking away with the series.

Chandra spins England out (1971)

BS Chandrasekhar was back in the side and had a point to prove. In the final Test at The Oval, after the first two games end in a draw, there was little to suggest that India would walk away with the contest. But Chandrasekhar weaved his magic to leave the hosts spellbound in the second innings bagging six wickets to give his team a fighting chance. Chasing a target of 173 was by no means an easy task and India was stuttering at 37/2 after losing openers Gavaskar and Mankad. But, experienced Wadekar, Sardesai and young Gundappa Viswanath ensured that India got their first of many memorable wins in England.

Conquering Pakistan (2004)

India was traveling to Pakistan for the first time since the great Sachin Tendulkar's debut and after winning the ODI series, the side started with a bang in Multan. Virender Sehwag became the first triple-centurion from India, to set up a massive innings win. But a wounded Pakistan hit back in the second Test and won convincingly by nine wickets in Lahore. However, in the decider at Rawalpindi, Rahul Dravid’s marathon 270 handed India a big lead. And with Pakistan batsmen flopped show one again India registered an innings win along the series.

Highlights

Kohli Smith Banter

In the second Test at Perth, the fans got to witness a verbal clash between warring captains Virat Kohli and Tim Paine. As Australia were gaining control, the Aussie skipper reminded Tim Paine of how the Indian captain lost his cool when he was given out. The remark by Paine triggered Kohli as the Indian skipper lost his calm. However, the on-field umpire intervened right on time and diffused the situation immediately.

Babysitter Pant

The Boxing Day Test saw a couple of healthy banters between the Aussie skipper and Rishabh Pant. When Pant came to bat in the second innings, Paine tried to mock the Indian wicketkeeper for being dropped from the ODI squad. He asked the Indian to extend his Australia visit and play for Hobart Hurricanes in BBL adding he could babysit his children. Paine remarks which were heard on stump mic is: “Big MS (Dhoni) is back in the one-day squad too, we might get him (Pant) down to the Hurricanes… we need a batter.” He continued, “Fancy that, Pantsy? Extend your little Aussie holiday. Beautiful town Hobart too, I’ll get you a nice apartment on the waterfront. (I’ll) have him over for dinner. Can you babysit? I’ll take the wife to the movies one night and you’ll look after the kids.”

Bumrah’s magic ball

India's star bowler Jasprit Bumrah, in his first year in Test cricket, took a career-best 6-33 in the third Test at Melbourne. He earned praises particularly for a brilliant slower ball that dismissed Australian batsman Shaun Marsh on the third day. Explaining that particular ball,  Bumrah said that when he was bowling on day three, wicket had become really slow and the ball became really soft. He said on the last ball before the lunch, Rohit Sharma asked him to try a slower one, what he usually does in the one-day formats.  Bumrah said he was trying to bowl a fuller slower ball and the plan really worked.

Controversial catch

Virat Kohli scored his 25th century on the third morning of the second Test but fell on the stroke of lunch under controversial circumstances. Kohli's record-breaking knock of 123 came to an end when he edged Pat Cummins to a forward-diving Peter Handscomb at second slip. The dismissal led to controversy after field umpire Kumar Dharmasena straightaway gave Kohli out after Handscomb said it was a clean catch. The Indian skipper was baffled by the decision took the DRS and was pretty confident to get the decision overturned. However, third umpire Nigel Llong went with the soft dismissal and declared Kohli out.  Kohli was unhappy with the decision as he walked off the ground shaking his head.

Rahul’s poor form

After a nightmarish series in England and poor outing against West Indies in the home, Australia was no better for the right-hander Rahul.  With only 57 runs in five innings under his belt, Mayank playing a stellar hand and Prithvi Shaw waiting in the wings, it is bad news for the 26-year-old top order batsman. Rahul, who scored a century in Sydney when the last time India toured Australia, looked clueless this time and despite constant chances, he failed to perform as according to his caliber. His poor defense raised questions about his abilities to play in the five-day format.