It was a series off which the dust will never settle. There will be a retelling of its tale over and over again. It was a series for which terms like grit, determination and resilience were used more than the number of wickets taken by Australian pacers.
It is natural for the first reactions to be emotional ones. Time for diagnosis comes later. Now that the cricket world is moving on to prepare themselves for other joys (or heartbreaks) to follow, it is the time to set the emotions aside and assess what the series uncovered. Not about the character of Indian cricketers but, about the way we are used to thinking about the game. At the end of the day, players do not achieve victory in any sport only by being resilient. There are certain things that they did right in comparison to their opposition. In that respect, this was the series that busted a few myths about the traditional philosophy of cricket’s purest format.
Myth 1: Australia have the best all-round pace attack
We are currently living in the age of fast bowling. Nine of the top-10 bowlers in ICC’s Men’s Rankings are pacers. Australians occupy two of the top four positions. Mitchell Starc is not far behind, ranked 11.
The aura of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Starc makes it difficult for anyone to look beyond them when we talk about the best pace attack in the world. Cummins is relentless, Hazlewood probing and Starc fearful. But there is a chink in their armour.
Australia were riding high when they dismissed India for their lowest-ever Test score in Adelaide. Then something changed in India’s batting line-up for the next Test. All eleven batsmen in Adelaide were right-handers. In Melbourne, there were two left-handers at numbers six and seven. The result: After being 4/116, India added 190 runs while one of those two were around.
Then in Sydney, it was Ravi Jadeja who played a cameo to keep Australia’s lead to under a 100. We all know what Rishabh Pant did in the second innings of both Tests. In the final Test at the Gabba, Washington Sundar looked at ease while playing Australia’s pacers.
The hallowed pace attack of Australia has a left-hander problem. Among the currently active pacers, both Cummins and Hazlewood find themselves among those who have the biggest difference in bowling averages against right and left-handers.
To limit the comparison within the generation, Cummins has the best bowling average (19.3) and the third-best bowling strike-rate (43.6) against right-handers. This is in comparison to his peers with a minimum of 50 Test wickets. Against the left-handers, he is not even among the top-20 on either parameter.
This takes us to the third Ashes Test in Headingley. It was the two left-handers, one of them a number eleven who denied Australia a likely win. At the end of that series, the top-two run-getters for England were left-handers: Ben Stokes and Rory Burns.
Myth 2: Test cricket is for specialists
Most cricket pundits will advocate that in Test cricket, the playing XI should have the best six batsmen, best four bowlers and the best wicket-keeper. In an ideal world, this is a sound logic. But, in reality, the Australian team of the late 90s and the early 2000s provided further encouragement to the advocates of this theory.
In this day and age of playing Test cricket with ‘intent’ and with bowlers under severe workload, having a safety valve is a better approach. In each of the last three Tests, it was the runs from lower-order batsmen that helped India to be in the contest. After the specialists were back in the hut, Pant and Jadeja stayed on with Rahane in Melbourne. It was Ashwin at number eight who kept Australia at bay in Sydney. All the sense of joy over India’s glory was not to be if not for the stand between Sundar and Shardul Thakur in the first innings in Brisbane.
Runs from Sam Curran at number eight at against India in 2018 and by Chris Woakes against Pakistan in 2020 ended up being series-defining. Since most of their frontline pacers can bat, they are a formidable side at home.
Myth 3: Experience helps in pressure situations
The talk of having experienced heads in pressure situations is almost a cliché now. But when we scratch our heads and rethink, we will discover that experience has nothing to do with it. MS Dhoni did not eventually become a batsman capable to handle pressure better than others. Being fearless in crunch moments is what earned him that reputation in his early days.
The pressure of a situation can get to the best of players irrespective of their experience. India’s loss in the 2019 World Cup semi-final and the second innings in Adelaide is a testament of that. Often it is the players who have nothing to lose who play with a lot more freedom and can counter-attack. Like Jadeja did in that semi-final.
We discovered similar examples at the Test match level during India’s victory in Brisbane. India were 6 down for 186 and staring at a deficit of 183. The odds were almost one-sided in favour of Australia to get a huge first-innings lead and push India out of the Test.
One of the two men in middle for India was a debutant with no first-class game to his name in the last three years. The other was someone who scored a 4* at this level in the only Test he played three years back. The only thing in common between them was earning an improbable opportunity after a series of events and the knowledge that they are not playing for their place in the side.
Sundar nullified the Nathan Lyon threat immediately by playing him with utmost ease and authority. Thakur dominated with some breathtaking drives. They eventually stitched a 123-run stand that seized the momentum from Australia and brought India back into the contest. Sundar came back in the second innings to assist Pant and guide India to a victory. His pull to fine-leg against Cummins was the moment that killed any iota of hope that Australia carried.
Experience teaches people to not commit similar mistakes. Being able to make the right decisions under pressure is a skill that players with a fearless mindset are better at. As we enter into the age of more result-oriented Tests, it is time to dust-off the myths and accept the realities of this generation.