Vodafone Test Series v India
India's accidental attack unheralded but irrepressible
The tourists' hastily-assembled bowling group have all walked quite remarkable paths to meet at the Gabba for this fourth Test
15 January 2021, 07:17 PM AEST
The most recent touring team to win a Test match at Brisbane's Gabba fielded one of the most famed and feared bowling outfits the game has hosted.
Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson took to the field on that first morning in November 1988 collectively boasting 453 Test wickets at a cost of less than 23 runs each.
Even the West Indies part-timers in that game – finger spinners Viv Richards and Carl Hooper whose primary function was batting a bit – could lay claim to an aggregate 33 Test scalps although they were usually deployed to spell the weary quicks and resuscitate the flagging over rate.
It could scarcely paint a more starkly different picture to the attack India unleashed today in their quest to end Australia's stronghold at the Gabba over the intervening 31 Tests.
Riven by injury since the opening match of the Vodafone Series in Adelaide a month ago, India's patched-up line-up featured two debutants among five specialist bowlers with a combined Test tally of 11 wickets from their four previous appearances.
Cricket statistician Ric Finlay ventured that India's bowling line-up was the least accomplished (in terms of wickets to their names) Australia have faced in a Test since their first match on foreign soil against England at The Oval in 1880.
Yet while the Caribbean kings feature in most nostalgic conservations about the greatest-ever complements of bowlers to grace the Test arena, the back stories of what amounted to India's B-grade arsenal in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are equally memorable.
And in many ways, more meritorious.
Whereas the West Indies were spearheaded by Marshall who is regarded among the greatest fast bowlers cricket has known, India's main man was 26-year-old Mohammed Siraj, who has ridden more emotions in the course of two Tests than many encounter in a career.
Siraj began as a batter who also learned the fast bowling craft using a tennis ball in one of the myriad community competitions that thrive throughout India, and the bowling skills he exhibited with the new-ball today were initially self-taught.
His father, who drove an auto-rickshaw around the teeming streets of Hyderabad (population 10 million), worked gruelling shifts to finance his son's cricket ambitions and by 2015 the boy had graduated to bowling with a leather cricket ball in senior competitions.
When his dad, Mohammed Gaus, died from a lung condition last October, Siraj was already in Australia as part of India's squad for the Dettol ODI and T20I series that preceded the Tests.
Team officials offered him the option of returning home for the funeral, but that would have meant serving another fortnight of quarantine when he returned so Siraj chose to remain in Australia and pursue the dream he shared with his dad of representing their country in a Test match.
The injury to Shami saw him receive a Test cap at the MCG, a month after his father's death, and the fast bowler teared up during the anthem ceremony before the following Test in Sydney where he reported being the subject of racist abuse from members of the SCG crowd.
The journey undertaken by Siraj's opening partner, 29-year-old Thangarasu Natarajan, who made his Test debut today, is perhaps even more remarkable.
Born the eldest of five children in the village of Chinnappampatti, 350km from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, Natarajan grew up in such poverty that his family could not afford to buy him notebooks in which to complete his schoolwork.
His father worked as a loom machine operator while his mother sold snacks from a roadside stall to supplement the family's meagre income, and the left-arm bowler also honed his talent in tennis-ball cricket before a friend and mentor arranged for him to try his luck in fourth-division competition in Chennai.
It was there that he first learned to bowl with a leather ball, in 2010.
Natarajan progressed through the ranks until reaching the national Ranji Trophy ranks, where he was immediately cited for an illegal bowling action that meant he sat out a year of cricket while he underwent remedial work.
Upon returning to the game he won an IPL contract with Kings XI Punjab which allowed him to send money back home for the education of his younger brother and two sisters, and after a successful 2020 IPL with Sunrisers Hyderabad (under captain David Warner) he earned a national call-up.
Natarajan was included as a back-up bowler for India's Dettol Series squad as cover for fellow quick Navdeep Saini, who suffered a back spasm during that white-ball campaign in Australia last December which saw his understudy earn an ODI debut in Canberra.
As the number of fit players dwindled, Natarajan remained with the Test squad and was presented with India's Test cap number 300 at the Gabba this morning where he finished the day with the wickets of Matthew Wade and Marnus Labuschagne.
Given that his mother, Shantha, cried uncontrollably when watching television coverage of her son's maiden ODI for India in Canberra last year, his family's reaction to him becoming a Test player can be well imagined.
But Natarajan too has paid a price for realising his dream, with his wife Pavithra giving birth to the couple's first child during the IPL in early October when her husband was in the UAE, from where he travelled directly to Australia meaning he has not yet met his son, now more than three months old.
India's first-change seamer today was another 29-year-old, Shardul Thakur, whose journey to the Test arena began with regular pre-dawn commutes from his family's home from Palghar outside central Mumbai to the seething city where he would attend cricket coaching classes.
A small boy who was chubby by his own admission, Thakur dragged with him an oversized kit bag that required being held over his head on the crowded morning trains unless some kind fellow travellers helped shoulder his burden.
But he came to the notice of cricket scouts when he belted six sixes in a single over during a Harris Shield (school) competition game and he eschewed the movies and picnics his friends enjoyed through adolescence as he single-mindedly pursued his sporting ambition.
Dropped from India's under-19 squad for being overweight, with no lesser critic than Sachin Tendulkar advising him to rectify that issue, Thakur worked on his fitness and underwent similarly extensive tutelage on bowling through ex-Australia quick Glenn McGrath's MRF Pace Academy in Chennai.
His path to Test cricket also wound through the IPL where he played alongside Steve Smith at Rising Pune Supergiant, but his Test career seemed short-lived when he limped from the field with a groin injury after bowling just 10 deliveries in his maiden match against the West Indies at Hyderabad two years ago.
Today, with his first ball of his second-chance, he became a Test-wicket-taker by dismissing Australia opener Marcus Harris.
However, the groin injury curse that afflicted Thakur in his debut appearance struck the luckless Saini who made his first appearance in India's Test strip at the SCG last week but is now in doubt for the remainder of the current match after breaking down in his eighth over.
Adding insult to his injury, the delivery that led to his problem yielded a catch from Labuschagne that India's stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane turfed in the gully.
But 28-year-old Saini has known greater adversity than the back issue that plagued him during the Dettol Series and the groin problem he suffered today, and has always kept pushing forward.
Saini is the son of a government driver in the north India city of Karnal, while his centenarian grandfather claims to have been an independence activist who fought in Subhash Chandra Bose's Indian National Army during the country's freedom struggle that brought independence in 1947.
However, the family's circumstances wouldn't allow them to send Navdeep to cricket coaching academies and instead he turned to the tennis-ball tournaments where he could earn meagre payments of 200-300 rupees (around $A3-$5) to help finance his aspirations.
Eventually, he saved sufficient funds to try out for the Karnal Premier League which then led him to senior cricket in Delhi where the skills he learned with a tennis ball – landing pin-point yorkers to avoid being belted, given length balls 'sit up' obligingly – also helped him chart a path to the IPL.
In the absence of injured spin pair Ashwin (back) and Jadeja (dislocated thumb), and filling the dual roles of Richards and Hooper in the fabled West Indies teams, Washington Sundar will likely bowl more overs than planned due to Saini's injury.
The 21-year-old spin-bowling allrounder also played alongside Smith in the IPL, having trodden a more conventional route to international cricket via India's team at the 2016 under-19 World Cup where his vice-captain was current Test keeper Rishabh Pant.
But there is nothing conventional about Sundar's given name, which stems from his father's cricket prowess as a young man that remained unrealised despite the support he gleaned from a former neighbour and retired military man known simply as P.D. Washington.
As Sundar's father played on the Marina Ground at Triplicane, one of Chennai's most historic precincts, his flair drew the attention of his cricket-loving neighbour who saw the boy's impoverished circumstances and helped by paying for school fees, uniforms and providing transport to and from cricket.
When the benefactor and godfather died shortly before the birth of Sundar senior's first son, the father paid an enduring tribute by naming the boy Washington, who has since gone on to achieve that which his dad aspired to, crowned today by Test selection – even though he is not formally part of India's Test touring party, and was asked to stay on after the limited-overs matches to act as net bowler and development player.
And Washington repaid the faith with first Test wicket today – after sending down three consecutive maiden overs – the prized scalp of his former IPL teammate, Smith.
"I should thank the (team) management for asking me to stay throughout the Test series because I thought I would really improve on my skill levels, both on my batting and on my bowling," Sundar said after his first day as a Test player.
"The last 24 hours has been amazing for me.
"It's a dream come true, and I should dedicate it to my family who have worked really hard and sacrificed a lot of things for me to achieve this.
"I've loved their support and loved their thoughts."
A sentiment doubtless shared by the other members of India's unheralded but irrepressible bowling group.
Vodafone Test Series v India 2020-21
Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Sean Abbott, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade, David Warner
India Test squad: Ajinkya Rahane (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Jasprit Bumrah, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan
First Test: Australia won by eight wickets
Second Test: India won by eight wickets
Third Test: Match drawn
Fourth Test: January 15-19, Gabba, 11am AEDT