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Against the odds at Gabba: Inexperienced Indian attack checks Aussie designs

After the handshakes and high-fives that followed his maiden five-for in Test cricket, Mohammed Siraj broke away from his ecstatic teammates and took a moment unto himself. He stood alone, stared into the skies pensively and seemed to offer a silent prayer. In the greatest moment of his career, perhaps life, he missed his father the most, who endlessly supported his son’s dreams despite meagre means, but passed away just a few weeks before Siraj made his Test debut in Melbourne.

Later at the press conference, hiding tears behind his broad, warm smile, Siraj dedicated his five-wicket haul to his father. “My dad had wished that his son would play and the entire world would watch him. This is because of his blessings that I have got a five-wicket haul in Tests. I am speechless and can’t express my feelings in words,” he said. He regained his calm and even struck some humour towards the end of the interaction. Like when asked about light-hearted incidents outside the ground, he replied: “Bubble mein kya pyaara moments hoga, sir? (what memorable moment can one have in a bubble?)

Siraj breathes and wears an Old Hyderabad simplicity — but let not the batsmen be fooled by his mild-mannered nature. He is shy but smart, reticent but not reluctant, soft-spoken but tough at heart. He did not reel under the alleged racial taunting he was subjected to in Sydney, did nothing silly by way of responding to them, and did not show his hurt on the field. In that sense, he embodied the ingrained toughness of this Indian side.

Toughened by adversity

If Australia thought they could feast on an Indian bowling brigade that got progressively weakened as the series progressed, they were rudely mistaken. Injuries kept piling on, and they lost their figureheads one after the other. But India did not wallow in their misfortune. With every blow, they only got tougher. They lost Mohammed Shami; they discovered Siraj. They lost Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur put his hand up. They lost Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, but found Washington Sundar and T Natarajan. Not like-for-like replacements by any stretch of the imagination, still replete with flaws and callowness, but they did their job, manfully and stoically.

Before this match, the five-pronged Indian bowling firm had a collective experience of four Test matches and shared between them just 13 Test victims. Australia’s corresponding numbers read 1,013 in 246 Tests. The gulf in experience was yawning, but that hardly mattered to the perceivably hotchpotch group. There was no shortage of self-belief, courage, skill or endurance. For the second time in this match, the picked 10 wickets, the seconds set impeding Australia’s charge at the start of Day 4. The hosts did bat briskly, and gathered 294 runs, setting India a formidable target of 328, but not before India’s bowlers put on a spirited performance, one that illustrated as much heart as expertise. One that should be counted among one of their finest performances in Australia.

Checking Australian progress

At one stage, Australia seemed on their way to an insurmountable total. From David Warner’s bat flew out belligerent strokes that offered a throwback to the halcyon days when their openers assaulted new-ball bowlers without a speck of mercy. Marcus Harris too crunched a few boundaries, as Australia blitzed to 89 in only 24.5 overs, the best run rate of the entire series. Then, from nowhere, Thakur produced an uncomfortable bouncer. He doesn’t quite have the pace to instil the fear of life in batsmen, but could compensate it with accuracy and precision of length. The ball landed in line with Harris’ body and climbed onto him. He was caught in two minds — to upper-cut or duck. It’s the indecision lack of outright pace could provoke. Finally, when he decided to bail out of the shot, it was too late, Harris pushed his gloves defensively at the ball in a semi-crouching position.

The dismissal proved Thakur’s heightened self-awareness. He might not have the pace to discomfit batsmen, but certainly has the craft to trouble them. So has Washington. He is no Ashwin with a bagful of tricks, but that didn’t prevent him from devouring Warner. He flighted this ball more than he usually does. Warner thought the ball would turn away from him, and committed himself onto the backfoot. But it kicked on straight to hit the back leg, right in front of off-stump. The wickets arrested the Aussie momentum.

It was Siraj’s chance to intervene next. He broke the most dangerous of Australian partnerships this summer, between Steve Smith and his protege Marnus Labuschagne, both sustaining the impetus the openers had furnished. Siraj devoured Labuschagne and Matthew Wade in the space of three deliveries to have Australia reeling at 123/4. In the next 24 overs, India kept things quiet, conceding only 73 runs. And just when Smith seemed to accelerate, shift from third gear to fifth, Siraj, relentless in energy and intensity, interrupted again. Having dropped Smith twice, once off his own bowling, he whipped a short-of-length ball, that jumped onto his gloves and ended in the hands of Ajinkya Rahane at gully. Of all his 13 wickets in the series, this was his favourite, Siraj said.

Change of approach

Smith’s exit forced Australia to reassess their plans. Their hopes of pushing onto a 350 or thereabouts total faded, and now they had to preserve wickets to prevent defeat. They decelerated, in the process eating up overs, and only later in the day did they press for quick runs. They had to contain their own urgency, in the wake of tight Indian bowling. It was the difference between India’s batsmen having to negotiate more than the 1.5 over they eventually did before the rain came battering down. Everyone played their part, including the wicketless T Natarajan. So much so that the reduced influence of the injured Navdeep Saini, who bowled just five over, went largely unnoticed.

Thus, irrespective of the match’s outcome — taking 20 wickets alone would not suffice to draw or win a Test match abroad — the feat they managed in Brisbane should be counted as one of the finest bowling performances by India in Australia. It’s unsure whether all of them would ever feature in the same Test, if they play another Test at all, but none of them would forget Gabba 2021. Neither would Indian cricket. And no one embodied the collective fight better than Siraj.

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