This morning, in the Straits Times, Rohit Brijnath on India’s first series win in Australia.
As words go in sport, “earn” has an imposing weight. It is short, muscular and unfussy. It is a word which suggests no one is entitled to victory, that in competition there are no favours, that no bonus points are given just because you tried.
No, to earn is to acquire through merit.
There is no timeframe to “earn”, no guarantee, no deal that labour for a required number of years will bring victory. No, you keep working, keep believing, keep buying Scotch tape to bind broken dreams, keep going.
Ask Liverpool. Zero league titles in 28 years. Ask the Atlanta Hawks. Zero NBA titles for 60 seasons.
So you wait.
Fans started waiting for India to win a Test cricket series in Australia from 1947. Joe Louis was heavyweight champion. Fans got old waiting for victory, they got married and then waited with their kids as new teams wrote old stories of loss. They waited till loss became a jinx and then turned into a curse.
Years passed, decades ended, a century turned. Indians argued about Australian bounce, fear, horizontal bat shots and waited. They cursed, pleaded, tuned into Channel Nine and waited. They even moved to Australia as migrants – 291,916 between 2000 and 2016 – and filled stadiums and waited. Religion, it sometimes seems, knows less about faith than sports fans do.
Then yesterday India won their first series, 2-1, in Australia. In the game’s toughest format they subdued the sport’s toughest land. Team – and fan – had earned it.
People will say this is India’s greatest Test team and it smells like overstatement but this day was for applause not argument. A team defeated in England had cemented its cracks, kept its belief, won small skirmishes, married patience to urgency, bowled ferociously, ignored silly headlines (The Scaredy Bats, an Australian tabloid called them) and waited out tough bowling spells.
Captain Virat Kohli yesterday spoke of a nine-over spell bowled by Pat Cummins to him and Cheteshwar Pujara in Adelaide which yielded only eight runs. They were shaken but still there. Perhaps India won because they never went away.
India won the series stylishly, comprehensively and wore their intent almost always under a civil coat. This was worth the wait. The only line again crossed by Kohli – who was stupidly booed, can be overwrought and still has edges to sandpaper – was the batting crease, outside which he stands with classic contempt.
Elsewhere rival wicketkeepers discussed babysitting, Australian captain Tim Paine took a phone call on a reporter’s phone during a press conference and Kuldeep Yadav was thrilled Shane Warne was watching him take five wickets. It was cricket, fair but hard.
Kohli has built a team in his image: lean, urgent, bearded, defiant, fit, ambitious, sure, unselfish. Every time his team needed a hand, many went up. He gives his side an intensity and maybe they soften him a little. After all India’s two best players were a fast bowler, Jasprit Bumrah, whose deliveries snort even as he smiles and a devout batsman, Pujara, wrapped in contemplation.
Bumrah was something Australians had not seen and India had waited for: a genuine, 140kmh-plus, eyelash-trimming Indian fast bowler. Pujara was something we knew but considered extinct: in a Kill Bill-like IPL world he was a non-violent Test sculptor. He finished with more runs (521) than Australia’s two best put together and this was not incidental. Almost everywhere India was twice as good.
This was not the Australian team we once knew, who used to walk as if they owned the land and could score runs with a fence post. This was a hesitant side of brittle batting but even if we accept Australian cricket is rehabilitating, this does not dilute India’s win. You can only beat the rival in front of you. Roger Federer once beat Marcos Baghdatis in an Australian Open final. There are no asterisks to be attached here, only acclaim.
And yet only the unfeeling would not flinch at Australia’s cricketing slide. Everyone wants to see the bully tamed and yet cricket has always been lifted by their rugged, resolute style. Their rapid revival is necessary for if the kingdom of strong Test-cricket teams shrinks, being monarch won’t count for much.
But the game has a powerful missionary and in a time of short attention spans has come Kohli the evangelist of the long game. “I think it is important to spread that message of Test cricket”, he said and it was gently ironic. Purists might dislike him and yet he is leader of their most powerful cause.
Kohli, who was part of India’s 2011 World Cup-winning team, in India itself, saw this victory as a greater one for himself. Nothing more of its importance needs to be said. It might seem unjust that a drizzle interrupted India’s bid for another Test win yesterday, but there was no raining on this parade. When history is made, the moment glitters even in the gloom.