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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Adelaide hurt fuels resolve, India make history at MCG

India, who were blown away for their lowest score in Test history a week ago in Adelaide, rebounded spectacularly with an eight-wicket win over Australia, led by a character-defining hundred by stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai | Updated: December 30, 2020 7:49:06 am
Australian players congratulate India's Ajinkya Rahane and Shubman Gill after India won the match on day four of the second test match between Australia and India at The MCG, Melbourne, Australia, December 29, 2020. (Reuters)

Mohammed Siraj, the 26-year-old who lost his father last month, was moved to tears in the dressing room as the Indian players toasted his splendid performance in his debut Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the setting for “one of the great comebacks in the history of the game”, in the words of coach Ravi Shastri.

India, who were blown away for their lowest score in Test history a week ago in Adelaide, rebounded spectacularly with an eight-wicket win over Australia, led by a character-defining hundred by stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane. It was a triumph achieved in the absence of Virat Kohli, Mohammed Shami, and Rohit Sharma, and despite losing fast bowler Umesh Yadav in the middle of the game.

The celebration was muted — some laughter and quiet beers — until the Siraj moment came up. “We were celebrating his performance on debut, and the world knows what he has been through when he struggled to hold his tears. Rahane and a couple of others hugged him, and sat him down. It was an emotional and lovely moment for the whole team, really,” a source in the team said.

Siraj’s father, an autorickshaw driver, was a big supporter of his cricket, and saw the cricketing rise of his son as the family’s fortunes changed due to his Indian Premier League (IPL) stint.

India’s stunning turnaround had begun even as the team’s worst ignominy was winding down in the first Test. No soul-stirring speeches were made in the dressing room after the defeat. There were no angry rants. No post mortem was undertaken. “The coaching group decided that it would be pointless. All of us knew what happened. Everyone was hurting. Nothing needed to be said,” the source said. Instead, Shastri told the players to go to their rooms, try to clear their heads, stay calm, and come for a meeting the next morning.

The head coach said that it was acceptable to lose the series 0-4, but going down without a fight wasn’t. The Australian bowlers were class operators, and India’s batsmen needed to do something different to counter them. Every player needed to devise his own plan, Shastri told the team.

Bharat Arun, the bowling coach, told the bowlers they had done a great job, and urged them to be consistent again. He asked them to force the Australian batsmen to score on one side of the wicket and to make them work hard for their runs.

Regular skipper Kohli had a chat, and so did Rahane later, it is learnt. When they hit the nets next, the batsmen started to work with the throwdowns. Angles were created and lengths bowled by Australians at Adelaide were hit.

“That’s normal, but what we did this time was to see if we can make those specific little changes. Some batsmen tried standing outside the crease, some moved towards the off, some tried to lean forward, move their hands in front. It didn’t work out for everyone of course, but it did for a few,” the source said.

In the game, Rahane would occasionally stand outside the crease or even move his stance towards off and middle to Josh Hazlewood. Mayank Agarwal too, tried standing outside the crease in the second innings. Shubman Gill, who didn’t play the first Test and who instinctively retreats inside the crease, made an effort to get forward a bit more. Most tried to meet the ball in front of the pad. Hanuma Vihari, another batsman who likes to play off his back foot, started to lean forward more.

It was decided that Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant should be in the team. “Shastri likes left-handers anyway for the angles they force their bowlers to change. Even in the match, it was after Pant and Jadeja came to bat that things began to change. Rahane also turned more positive after Pant came in. Jadeja wasn’t fully fit in the first Test, else he would have played there too. The team believes in the five-bowler theory,” the source said.

It was a theory that was brought by Rahane in the middle of Australia’s Test series in India in 2017. When Kohli was forced to miss the last Test due to a shoulder injury, it was Rahane’s choice as stand-in captain to go with the five-bowler strategy for the Dharamsala Test after India had played with four bowlers until then in the series. Rahane chose Kuldeep Yadav as the fifth bowler, who came up with a match-winning performance. “I said, this is your game, you have to be comfortable with playing four or five bowlers. He (Rahane) instantly said five bowlers,” Kohli had said then.

There were no dramatic speeches in the lead-up to the second Test in Melbourne. And at the end of a great comeback triumph, the team celebrated with happy tears and chilled beers.

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