Rohit Sharma is chirping. Jasprit Bumrah is smiling. Shardul Thakur is walking out after Washington Sundar has dragged the ball on his stumps in the second innings at Gabba. The camera dutifully pans on the Indian captain. History in his sights, Ajinkya Rahane is rooted. The lens zooms in. Not a muscle moves. He won’t puncture the simmering tension with a godforsaken smile. Not now, not until the job is done.
Rahane doesn’t do heavy chest thumps or resounding fist pumps. He is more slow-burn than marauding rage. He belongs to a generation that has been conditioned to take puerile petulance for purposeful aggression. Yet, he is not one of them. Not too long back, he was dropped from the Test team despite being the vice-captain. He has, all but permanently, lost his place in the limited-overs team. Now, inches from history, sitting on the cusp of his career-defining moment, he pores over the proceedings.
In a world of belligerent posturing and frenetic emojis, words seem to have lost their import forever. Great. Resilience. Hero. Tough. Character-defining traits tossed too often, too random, too loud. But, once in a while comes a sun-soaked afternoon that shakes you from your stupor of irreverence, holds you by the scruff of your neck, and wills you to believe – in miracles and grit, in scraping and suffering, in the sinuous sensuality of struggle, in sport itself. Stirring. Supreme. Surreal. Words strung by way of alliteration but serve to describe an epic.
On Tuesday, Rahane’s battered buddies cocked a snook at logic and conventions. Debutant Washington Sundar hits a no-look six en route his match-turning partnership with journeyman Shardul Thakur. Then, in the second innings, with the nation’s adrenaline hitting the roof, he casually hops on one leg and sends a short ball deep in the stands with a West Indian flair. In between, he picks four wickets too. Youth. Caprice. Fearless. Take your pick.
Cheteshwar Pujara is hurting. The ball has reared up. His hands rise with it, but the ball is quick and devious. Before his brain could process a corrective action, the comet is upon him, sniffing his flesh and bones. It finds his fingers, and Pujara loses his bat. He grimaces, jumps, walks away. He bites his teeth and closes his eyes. He sips some liquid and ploughs on. He is hit 11 times in this innings alone, on fingers and biceps, on groin and chest, on shoulder and head. This is not heroic anymore; this is suicidal, if not stupid. But, Pujara is not done yet. Not today. On the 196th ball of his innings, he brings up his 28th Test fifty, the slowest of his career, and perhaps the most valuable. He bats time and tide. He blocks balls and thoughts. On his wonky knees and oft-questioned intent, he hits and runs. On his limited strokes and limitless resolve, he resists. This is rope-a-dope redux. This is Brian Close in 2021. Persistence. Resistance. Masochism. These are not words; this is him.
Shubman Gill is stoned. He has taken apart Mitchell Starc and survived Pat Cummins. He has negated Nathan Lyon and stonewalled Josh Hazlewood. He has made the on-the-rise backfoot punch his own. He cuts and pulls, drops and runs, drives and ducks. He is earmarked for greatness for a while now. On a sunny afternoon in a Mumbai hotel, his hair gelled and his eyebrows plucked, he sits by the window for an interview, nodding gently and smiling sheepishly. “Hindi or English,” he is asked. “English me hi kar lenge (I’ll mange in English),” he replies softly. He knows his English is passable, his Hindi fluid, his Punjabi flawless, but he insists on speaking in a language that he knows will resonate in the times he lives in. Assurance, confidence, pretender – choice is yours.
Here in Brisbane, there is nothing make-believe though. His senior partner has perished early, while another is taking body blows for fun. This is different, he would have muttered to himself; different from Fazilka and Mohali and that Mumbai hotel; different from any stage he had been on in his 21 years. Now, having edged Lyon for 91, he is crouched on the pitch, stoned and unsatiated. He has craved this setting, this moment, this theatre. Gift. Promise. Gem. Generational Talent. Use whatever word you want, Gill is here to stay, and he has read that statement in the language he knows best.
Rishabh Pant is smiling. The long-on has come in. Nathan Lyon has tossed one up in eager anticipation. It’s no longer a game of chess. It’s not cat-and-mouse. There are no secrets. Pant’s ambitions, and instincts, are unabashedly naked. He knows. Lyon knows. We know. He skips, swings, misses, smiles, carries on. There’s a child-like raffishness about him, but he ain’t a kid. He has endured a wretched IPL, he has been shunted out of India’s first-choice XI, he has dropped catches and sparked a wicket-keeping debate. But here, standing mid-pitch in Brisbane, his cricketing cosmos has shrunk to this ephemeral moment. He laps, sweeps, pulls, falls. Eventually, on the last ball of the 97th over, he sends a Hazlewood full toss to the fence and a nation into hysteria. He goes from being restless to resourceful. Reckless. Bizarre. Endearing. Enigmatic. Can one word ever describe this wonder?
Mohammed Siraj is sobbing at the national anthem. Enough has been written about his defiance. Enough has been said from the Sydney stands. But this, from Siraj, is an enduring image. Let’s not delude ourselves into believing that Siraj must be unaware of the cost of being a Muslim in Modern India. A Muslim comedian goes to prison for cracking a joke he didn’t actually crack. A Muslim doctor is being hounded by a state government; a Muslim student is in jail for protesting against a deeply sectarian law; minorities have been lynched across India for just belonging to a particular community.
It is a sign of times that the religious identity of the leader of the Indian attack begs a mention each time he slips into the India shirt. And yet, Siraj runs in, ball after ball, spell after spell, until he is asked to stop. He stops with 13 wickets on an extraordinary debut tour played in extraordinary circumstances. Leader. Indian. Muslim. You can’t, and shouldn’t, dissociate one from another, for Siraj’s sake.
Shardul Thakur is handed the Indian flag by Rahane. He carries it with childlike enthusiasm before passing it to others. Eventually, it finds its way to Natarajan who leads the lap of honour. The band of rag-tag no-hopers has breached the fortress. They are not the underdogs; they are the Trojan horse. They have laid an attritional siege and raided the trenches in a psychotic last half hour. And yet, when these laboured, injured men walk around waving their national flag on this sun-bathed day, war analogies just don’t feel right. Sport unites and divides; it is, as George Orwell famously put, war minus the shooting. But, sport is this too. In a world besotted with a rabid notion of nationalism, this is an oddly pure sight. All handful of spectators arise and applaud. After all the jeers, name-calling, and taunts, this is what sport has left them with. Magic. Momentous. Maniac.
“I am a representation of New India,” says skipper Virat Kohli on 16 December. Blissful ignorance is a cherished gift. It helps you forget that New India has few virtues of Old India. It helps you ignore the many dissenting voices being dutifully curbed in New India, the many priceless paradoxes of Old India being summarily discarded, the many Indias within India being run over by a scathing majoritarian tide. Three days later, New India succumbs to 36 all-out. Then, the old-fashioned grit takes over. No army, warrior, or national duty. No word on history or posterity. No bluster or bravado. Just grit and plenty of mongrel, plain and simple. It showed that winning in new-age world is possible with old-fashioned grace; that it is eminently possible to thwart Nathan Lyon on a fifth-day track for consecutive Tests and still have the heart to gift him a signed jersey as a mark of respect; that sometimes, no amount of words can do justice to the singular feeling you are left with after an exhausting grind of human will.
Pride. That’s the word.
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