Blurring lines between fairytale and reality
Lightning may never strike twice nor does a fairytale happen every day. This is not only true in life but sport as well. You could turn around and say that 'sport, especially Test cricket is the closest metaphor to life' and while fairy tales may or may not take place every day, it certainly gives you a second chance.
It is fair to say that the year gone by was a rare period where we not only witnessed fairytale results as an Indian Test cricket fan (barring the WTC final, of course) but also the teams' ability to fight back after being pushed to a corner in more ways than one.
Following the shambles of 9/36 in Adelaide, even the most loyal Indian fans had started to fear the worst. And to be fair, one really can't blame them. Over the years, we have seen too many instances of Indian teams folding up embarrassingly after a poor start overseas.
Here, the situation was even more dire. Apart from the disaster in broad daylight in Adelaide, India had to contend with the absence of their talismanic skipper Virat Kohli (paternity leave) and a couple of strike bowlers in Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami.
However, as it later turned out, Indian players wore 36 as a 'badge of honour' and proceeded to turn the tables on the Aussies at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with a clinical win in the Boxing Day Test.
The series was locked 1-1 with two to play.
"What a comeback by Team India. But, surely, wheels will come apart at some point given the number of players getting injured?" I'm sure many Indian fans would have feared the same even after the resounding win at the MCG.
Well, I certainly did.
And those fears threatened to come true on the third afternoon of the Sydney Test after Australia claimed a significant first-innings lead. What made things even worse were injuries to Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja while batting.
Australia eventually set India a 4th innings target in excess of 400 and after skipper Ajinkya Rahane got out cheaply on the fifth morning, it looked like the hosts would cruise to a comfortable win.
Well, 9 times out of ten, they would have done that but again, these are unprecedented times where the boundaries of what can happen have been pushed to its absolute limit.
And that is exactly what happened. Out of nowhere, Rishabh Pant launched a stunning counterattack on the Australian bowlers and within a space of a session, India went from being confirmed losers to potential winners.
Pant was eventually dismissed for 97 and when Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari suffered injuries while batting, it again looked like normal services would resume and Australia would eventually clinch a win.
But this Indian team just wasn't prepared to give up.
You know, as fans, we imagine the most unlikely scenarios in our head whenever our favourite team finds themselves in trouble. We know deep down in our heart that it ain't gonna happen but we still let our emotions get the better of us.
They say, "It's the hope that kills" but last year, it was a rare case of even our wildest imaginations transcending limits and turning into reality.
Who would have imagined that a hamstrung Hanuma Vihari and Ashwin, who was grappling with severe back spasm, would blunt out more than 50 overs on a 5th day track against one of the greatest bowling attacks in the history of the game?
Well, it happened!
Who would have thought that a bowling attack with a total of 13 wickets in their bank would outbowl their legendary Aussie counterparts, that too at the 'Gabbatoir?
Well, that happened too.
Who would have thought that the lower-duo of Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar would stitch a 100+ stand against Cummins, Hazlewood and co to help India match Australia's first innings total?
Or that India sans Virat Kohli would chase down 328 on a fifth day track to not only win the series but also pull the trigger on Australia's fortress?
It was truly a stuff of collective dreams. Wasn't it? Well, to be honest, not many of us would have even imagined that in our wildest dreams. I didn't.
But, then, this is why this Indian team is so special. And the past 12 months has shown that no matter how badly they are pushed to a corner, no matter how many players they are missing, they will always storm back with redemption.
Eight months later, they were once again pushed in a corner in three out of the four Tests in England, and on two out of three occasions they proceeded to storm back and claim a deserved win.
At Lord's, firstly the opening duo of Rohit Sharma and centurion KL Rahul blunted out a quality English attack in helpful conditions to set a platform for their side and then Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah ruthlessly pushed England out of the game with the bat as they stitched a 100+ stand out of nowhere on the final day.
India had ensured that they couldn't lose the Test but could they win it? They had just 60 overs to achieve it. Previous Indian teams due to lack of depth in their pace bowling or defensive tactics, would have fallen a few wickets short.
Not this team, and certainly not under Virat, who asked his players to unleash hell on the English batsmen before the start of the innings.
And, unleash hell, they did to the hilt, bowling England out in just over 50 overs to seal the deal.
India lost the next Test at Leeds convincingly and after they were reduced to 7/127 on the opening day of the Oval Test, it certainly looked that surely the wheels had started to come off.
9 times out of ten in such a scenario, India would have folded for less than 150 and then England would have batted them out of the game like they used to do in the past.
But, this wasn't England of 2011 or even 2014, neither was this Indian team, who would lie down and let the opponent walk all over them.
Instead, they found a saviour in the form of Shardul, who smashed a counter-attacking half-century to take the total to 191. But even then, India still conceded a lead of 99, which in the context of the game was pretty significant.
Again, it felt that India would subside to an underwhelming total to give England an easy win.
Guess what happened? India pulled off one of their best batting efforts of the year thanks to a brilliant ton by Rohit and some handy contributions from other batsmen to bat England out of the game.
With the pitch flattening out and England openers putting up a rare q
with a 100-run stand, it felt as if the game would meander towards a draw.
Enter Jasprit Bumrah. The champion pacer unleashed hell on the English middle-order and within a space of one spell after Lunch, ensured that the game was heading one way and that was towards India.
India eventually sealed a fairytale win to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
At that every instant, it almost felt that all the scars of the past where India failed to grab the crucial moments to squander overseas Tests had been healed to a large extent.
It almost felt as if all the fairytale scenarios that we had imagined in our heads over the years had taken the shape of reality.
In many ways, India's win in Centurion felt like an afterthought, something that was too predictable to expect.
It was a perfect reflection of how far this team has come in the last 12 months that an overseas win without a setback or a fairytale turn, felt like just another day in the office.
It was a year where the line between fairytales got blurred with reality in its truest sense, didn't it?