The recently concluded Border Gavaskar cricket Test series has put plenty of smiles on Indian faces; it has been a real boost to the Indian psyche after long attrition with the Covid pandemic.

But was this really just a cricket series? It was such a surreal experience, this victory against seemingly insurmountable odds. Something out of Ripley, Hitchcock or Houdini! It was a war that produced a most unlikely winner. But there was more.

The image of Cheteshwar Pujara stopping the game for a few moments on the tense last day at Brisbane to pick up a butterfly which had wandered onto the pitch and depositing it to safety away from the battlefield.  It was a gentle touch in the game, but it was a battlefield indeed, exactly as the Australians had promised. The ‘Gabbattoir’ as they nicknamed this fastpitch at Brisbane was the theatre where the gentle, Pujara was physically battered.

He took a dozen blows from the five and a half ounce hard cricket ball hurled at 140 kmph. His brave effort took India first to safety and finally to a victory in the battle; Androceles had vanquished the lion in the coliseum! The Mouse had Roared! India beat huge odds and Australians. It took the cricket world by surprise. After all the Gabba was a fortress for the Australians; they hadn’t lost there since 1988 against any opponent.

The prelude to this match was equally unreal. Ten players injured; team captain Virat Kohli had left for home to have his baby. Vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, who was actually left holding the baby took the situation in his stride and won the series as if there was nothing to it.

This was the unlikeliest outcome in cricket since Aamir Khan’s film Lagaan.

If someone had scripted this Test series for a movie, the writer would have been ridiculed for daydreaming. Fact, in this case, has turned out to be stranger than fiction.

Unique as this Test series might be, it is an echo from another one, also in Australia. In the 1960-61 season, Frank Worrell led a West Indies team to play a five-Test series against Richie Benaud’s Aussies.

The West-Indian team celebrates as Australia’s Ian Meckiff is run out with only two balls to go, during the First Test at Brisbane, Australia, 19th December 1960. The match ended in the first-ever tie. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

The Windies were not expected to give any serious trouble to the well-honed Australian side. At that time, the men from the Caribbean were known more as brilliant individual players than as a team, while the Australians had a strong, settled side. To top that, Worrell was making history by becoming the first full-time West Indies “coloured” captain, although George Headley, the “Black Bradman” had captained in one solitary home Test.

The series opener at Brisbane was truly a heart-stopper. It ended in the first-ever Tied Test in history and certainly has been one of cricket’s most exciting test matches ever. After first innings scores of 505 (Australia) and 453 (WI), the Australians were left 233 to win after WI’s second innings score of 284.

From 88 for 6 in the run chase on the last day, Alan Davidson and Richie Benaud took the score to 227 for 6; it seemed like victory was just a formality at this point. Many spectators and, unbelievably even one of the radio commentators left for home thinking the game was over. Some quite unreal run-outs from spectacular fielding brought about the fall of the last wicket in the last over of the game with the scores all even. The Test ended in a Tie.

During that last over, just over 4000 spectators remained at the stadium. However, traffic and even flights came to a halt as all Australia listened to the finale, as indeed did radio listeners worldwide.

The Windies had picked a lopsided team. Wesley Hall and a rookie Chester Watson were picked as the only fast bowlers for the tour. For the Brisbane test Hall and Worrell (medium at best) was the fast bowling attack.

India’s effort at Sydney was also not for real. Two injured and quite immobile batsmen, Hanuma Vihari and R.Ashwin stood at the wicket for over 3 hours against the Australians to draw the match. Ravindra Jadeja, with a fractured finger, was padded up and ready to bat if a wicket had fallen. Playing under extreme pain was also witnessed at the Gabba in the 1960 Tied Test. Key West Indies bowler, Wesley Hall had severe blisters in both his feet from wearing ill-fitting new boots. He had trouble walking but played through his pain on the last day, bowling at full tilt.

Cut to 1960 in Adelaide this time. The WI’s 393 played Australia‘s 366 in the first innings. The Windies had a strong second inning, declaring at 432 for 6 leaving Australia over 450 to win. This was never on the cards and the Aussies were in survival mode. At tea, on day 5 they were 8 down.

Their last man, Lindsay Kline was described as the ‘ultimate number 11’ batsman. Benaud had asked him to practice his batting that morning in the nets. Kline was bowled 16 times by part-time net bowlers!

The ninth wicket fell a few minutes after the tea break and Kline walked in to join regular batsman Ken MacKay with the seemingly hopeless task of batting out 110 minutes to save the match. The series was level 1-1.

This time nobody left the ground! They were well rewarded as Kline and MacKay somehow survived the one hour 50 minutes and saved the Test.

As with Pujara, MacKay took several blows on his body making 62 not out while his most unlikely ally, Lindsay Kline was 15 not out. MacKay’s “bruise map” was described as a “polka dot print”. Pujara in Brisbane must have had a similar bruise map.

However, Garfield Sobers, standing at silly mid-off in the dying exciting moments at Adelaide swears to this day that he took a catch off Kline, given not out by the umpire!
The umpiring also raised another controversy in the final test. Australia, chasing 258 to win were 253/8. Wally Grout played a ball and ran 3. However, after his shot, a bail was found dislodged. The Windies appealed but the umpires consulted and said, “not out” and in fact allowed the 3 runs.

Those were the times before neutral umpires officiated. Only local umpires were used. There was no third umpire, match referee or indeed the use of any technology. There was always room to suggest local bias. The series ended 2-1 for Australia after the controversy of the fallen bail, giving the home side their narrow 2 wicket victory.

When the tour ended, the West Indies team was given an open car parade through the streets of Melbourne and were honoured as the heroes they were.

A word about the captains, Frank Worrell and Ajinkya Rahane. After the Brisbane Test, an Australian cricket correspondent with a long memory remarked that not since Frank Worrell on the 1960-61 tour has a visiting captain left as deep an impact as Ajinkya Rahane in 2021. Both these gentlemen have left a rich legacy from the marvellous cricket they played in the true spirit of the game. Cricket was indeed the winner.

Three interesting matters have emerged from these two series. Firstly, the significance of neutral umpires and use of available technology has made the game fairer. The five day Test Match format is the champagne version of the game; the ICC should now abandon any reduction from the 5 day Test format – they have been considering 4 day Test matches. Twice, at Sydney and Brisbane, the match has gone right to the last few minutes of its fifth-day denouement. Shortening the game would be like asking Alfred Hitchcock to cut down his films by 20 minutes! Why take the fun out of it?