India pull down Fortress Gabba – A cricket romantic’s diary from a memorable Tuesday

India’s Republic Day, Australia Day ( least for now)… and a week since India’s GABBA heist ….time for my musings from that glorious Tuesday!
I wake up this morning, get my phone and search for “Brisbane weather today”. It’s been a cool and rainy start to the year in north-east Singapore where I live, but I am obviously more interested, like at least a couple of hundred million Indians worldwide, in what the weather Gods had in store for north-eastern Australia. “Partly cloudy, with 50% chance of thunderstorms,” came the answer. I didn’t know if it was a good one. Will it or won’t it? Should it or shouldn’t it? I sense the early signs of an internal storm brewing in my head as I make myself a cup of coffee to go with mini spiced dosas for breakfast and brace for the glorious uncertainties of the day ahead…

The birth of a rivalry
It is March 13, 2001. I am in Manila, where they love credit cards, Coke, San Miguel, basketball, boxing .. and most things American for that matter. My Filipino colleagues don’t get cricket, like 80% of the world — and so even though there is a reasonable-sized Indian origin population in the Philippines, there is no cricket on television.

I am married for two months but fairly occupied keeping up with the scores of the 3rd day’s play of the second test between India and Australia at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta on the Internet., to be precise. The Indian team is trying to resurrect itself after the match-fixing scandal of 2000 under a relatively new but aggressive and abrasive captain. India are up against it, having been asked to follow-on and stare at another crushing defeat in the 3-match series after being decimated in Mumbai earlier. Steve Waugh and the mighty Aussies who are on a 16-match winning streak are about to fulfil their aim of “conquering the Final Frontier” — a series win in India- in the City of Joy.

That evening, well-known journalist and sports writer Prem Panicker writes in his daily report on “India are still 20 short, with the last recognised pair at the crease between the Aussies and the Indian tail. It is possible for India to wipe out that deficit, then put another 250 on the board, and really push the Aussies against the wall, in the fourth innings. It is also possible for me to walk on water, and then convert a jugful of that same water into sparkling champagne. But that is not the point, really. The point is that there is a nation out there, waiting for this team to show spirit for a fight. Regardless of the outcome, I suspect the fans will settle for a good fighting display here.” Anything to cling on to in a seemingly hopeless situation.

And suddenly, the next day- March 14, 2001– things change inexplicably. Two men find the resolve, strength and skills to stand up and fight. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid bat the entire day and run the Aussies ragged. The momentum shifts and India pull off one of the biggest comebacks in the history of the game. Vivid images of that gallant fightback get etched in my head through the words I read in distant Manila.

Steve Waugh fails in his mission to conquer the Final Frontier. But a new, intense and often ugly rivalry is born. Not that there haven’t been epic battles between these two countries- Melbourne 1981 and Chennai 1986 are two that happened during my childhood, but Calcutta 2001 is the pivotal moment that shaped anticipation and expectations of future encounters.
Nearly 20 years on, Steve’s junior twin, Mark Waugh, doesn’t give the Indians any chance to survive, let alone win the final match at the Gabba. His prediction for a 4-0 series sweep for the Aussies has already been proved wrong, but he just doesn’t see India leave Brisbane without losing.

“The typical, incorrigible arrogance of an Aussie cricketer”, I tell myself with some anger and contempt.

The journey to the date with destiny
Great sport stories defy expectations (even as they fulfill intense desire, at least for some) and they get to the climax taking one through a pulsating ride of extreme emotions. As each chapter unfolds, you wonder if there is another twist to the tale, a final sting in the tail, a knockout punch from the blindside. The irresistible allure of sport is this all-consuming battle between hope of a grand surprise and the fear of a heartbreak. Before the battle succeeds in separating the victor from the vanquished, it presents us — the passionate, passive participants living those intense moments vicariously- glimpses of the past, raising hopes or fueling doubt depending on one’s unique vantage point.

Just a week ago, India had made the “Great Escape” at the pretty Sydney Cricket Ground. As the shadows lengthened and two guys battled intense physical pain, the enormous mental strain of fighting for survival, and that ultimate master, Time, I worried if there would be a repeat of the last 10 minutes of Sydney 2008. With the finish line of a hard-fought draw within touching distance, India had faltered losing three wickets in an over. An unexpected villainous character named Michael Clarke had emerged from nowhere to snuff out the Indian resistance and give that rather dark script its final twist. Surely, history won’t repeat itself again?

Now, the two pain-slayers perform their final act of the series to perfection and accept both- the threatening invitation to the Gabba and the resigned handshake of the Aussie captain- with the pride and fulfillment of anyone who has pulled off the seemingly impossible.

The shadow of the 2008 series cast a spell on my thoughts again. “Come to the fast and bouncy WACA in Perth next to be blown away,” was the general Aussie sentiment after the tragic sudden-death in Sydney. The Aussies touted their tearaway quick Shaun Tait, reputed to hurl leather at over 150km/hr. They envisioned their fiery pace attack to scare the Indians into submission. They miscalculated, terribly. Indian swing beat Aussie pace; Shaun Tait walked away from Test cricket after the game.

Surely, history can repeat itself, again, at the Gabba in 2021?

The escape to victory
So, here we are – the final day of a captivating series that has ebbed and flowed, thanks in some measure to the flaws and follies of the two protagonists, their imperfections delivering perfect theatre. The day starts playing to script and Australia seize the initiative early in the morning.

I am back to my desk to get some work done. Like a part-time stock trader trying to make a quick buck during his full-time day job, my eyes keep turning to the browser tab that has the live score. I get the picture — and it’s not one I like. Cheteshwar Pujara is blocking everything that the Aussies hurl at him but he is not scoring runs. Defence is his way of attack. He is killing time and the possibility of a win. Or so I thought, until I catch the highlights of the game later in the day and saw the blows he took on his body. “Over my body,” he seems to be telling the Aussies without any words, just the icy gaze. A couple of lines read ages ago come to mind.

“Never admit the pain, Bury it deep; Silence is still a crown, Courage a grace.”
– Mary Gilmore

At the other end, a 21-year old whose talent has already marked him out for great glory, is stamping his authority on the outcome of the match. Just before the end of the first session of the day, there are signs of a momentum shift with a spike in the flow of runs. Maybe, attack is a better form of defence…..The reality being played out as we realize later: a “bear, blunt and beat” strategy founded on the belief that if you survive long enough, you’ve got a chance to thrive. After all, when that game-changing moment arrives, you invariably find Lady Luck smiling benevolently at you.

It’s beyond me to recreate the last couple of hours — the impossible had been made possible. The pundits believed that India couldn’t bounce back after the humiliating defeat in Adelaide. Not only did they bounce back, they bounced forward. They expected India to play to survive, but didn’t account for their willingness to risk failure to win.

Mark Howard could hardly have yelled it out any better on commentary, as the ball trickled past the boundary line for one last time in the series to seal India’s win. “India win the match, they win the series and they win the hearts and minds of cricket fans all around the world.”

Of course, there were many heroes who played their part. But what made them heroes was a combination and varying degrees of grit, resilience, resolve, courage, belief, sacrifice, selflessness— old-fashioned values, they are called. Timeless, I say, as they never fail to win our hearts and minds — in any walk of life.

[Image Courtesy: Patrick Hamilton, Getty Images]

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