At the time of writing, Australia have four confirmed opponents in their group for the Super 12 of the 2021 ICC World T20: South Africa, England, West Indies and Bangladesh.
Many miles it is from the MCG to The Oval, via Sydney, Brisbane and Lord’s, but the men who claimed these territories did it claiming one inch at a time. At critical junctures, they fought to gather inches of marginal advantage that accumulated into memorable victories miles away from familiar home terrain.
The story of The Oval was draped differently but came from passages seen in earlier chapters of the history books being written by these magnificent, never yielding men representing Indian cricket.
At The Oval, first it was Shardul Thakur who converted, one Richard-esque shot at a time, a sure loss into a possible loss or hopeful draw. Then Rohit Sharma converted, one stately elegant caress at a time, a possible loss into a possible draw.
Then Shardul converted, in a more relaxed Richard-esque, but still Richard-esque fashion, a possible draw into a hopeful win. And finally, Jasprit Bumrah converted, one searing yorker at a time, a hopeful win into a decisive win. A parry, a jab, a gut punch and an upper cut knock-out.
With England starting the fifth day at 70 for no loss, India gradually built pressure in the first act. Then came air pressure and reverse swing in the second. By the time the final act came, it was staged inside a pressure cooker for England that ended with the joyous whistles of India fans at the fall of James Anderson’s wicket.
With no favourable conditions on a dead pitch, the only inch available for the taking was the rough on one side of the wicket which Ravindra Jadeja duly exploited to both deny runs and to create the rough surface on one side of the seam.
At 100 for no loss in the fourth innings, with both England and India at 20 per cent odds of winning the game, Rory Burns played the line and Shardul got but an inch of reverse swing away from the line and toward the 2-1 score line. Under pressure to keep the score board moving, Haseeb Hameed calls for a run and Dawid Malan is a couple inches short of the crease. Pressure writes more scripts than skill does.
And what a story pressure tells of Shardul? 60 in Brisbane with a six over long on bring up his half-century. An outrageous 50 off 30 balls, in the first innings, with a hooked six to bring up his half-century. And with the game in the balance, another fifty in the second innings, with a six over long on. When pressure meets Shardul at the crease, the ball ends up beyond the long on fence – that much can be safely said.
While Thakur flays under pressure, Rohit cajoles. Right through a calm opening stand with KL Rahul and a 150-run partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit stroked the ball with such elegance that no one would have noticed if he were to change his name to Ro-caress (and his nickname to Caressman).
It was so easy to focus on his ease of play and lose sight of his discipline to play with hands so close to his body. He won the little moments that called for self-control in his innings that began with monkish denial, grew into cautious stroke play, and fully blossomed to some fantastic hitting including the six that brought him to his century.
The century stand with a transformed Pujara, who was looking to score and not just defend, must have uplifted the whole team.
Despite the now routine failure of the middle order, everyone else showed up to bat. Virat Kohli promised before he perished to a 40 score. Rishabh Pant found two new gears – first and neutral, and lingered there for a surprising long period as he made a valuable fifty and with Shardul moved India’s chances further along.
The tail played with inspiration and Bumrah looked accomplished for his 24 and must have read the pitch well enough to plot a course for its mastery when it would be his turn to bowl.
In the pre-lunch session on the final day, Bumrah fed the English batsmen line, length, and economy. Post-lunch, Twitter was abuzz asking what Bumrah had eaten. From all available evidence, he must have had nothing to eat, as he emerged like a hungry tiger ready to prey.
Everyone knew what he would bowl – Michael Atherton even laid it out from the commentary box: “Look for the in-swinger,” he advised. Yet, as with a Michael Jordan jump shot that you knew was coming, such was the greatness of skill that it showcased destruction with no need for deceit.
At 90 miles per hour, it happened so quick that before Ollie Pope and Jonny Bairstow could sync their bats with their prehension, they would have seen Bumrah’s smile in front and the sound of cluttering stumps from behind. In a span of six overs Bumrah had ripped the English middle order’s fight and created contagious panic in the English dressing room. There’s no known R number reading to quantify contagion in cricket, but a good metric to start would be 6-3-6-2 – Bumrah’s post-lunch spell.
Although the grandeur of Bumrah’s spell will, rightfully, be talked about for a long time, it was the cumulative efforts at critical junctures that brought home the victory. Throughout the Test, the team’s selections, batting form, tactics and luck could all be questioned.
Unquestionable, though, was its character and self-belief to fight through adversity and claim the inch when the mile looked impossible.
The story of the transformation of Indian cricket from paper tigers to tigers is the accumulated narrative of these crucial inches. Somehow when the moments came, they recognised the moment, summoned the best they could, fought tooth and nail, and won, more than they lost, the spoils of the moment and time tells the story of a prolonged excellence, that Kohli seeks, demands, and backs, that is now undeniably theirs.
In Sydney, it was a fight for survival by two men in a stand where both could barely stand. The Gabba win came from a seventh wicket partnership between Thakur and Sundar that kept Indian afloat before the heroic dismantling of the Aussie quicks by Pant and Sundar on the last day.
At Lord’s, Rohit and Rahul kept India in the game until our fast-bowling pack hunted down England on the last day. The Oval was the same story in a different setting.
Lao Tzu may have said, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step”. This India team travels 1000 miles one inch at a time.