All sports fans are sustained by fantasies. They are our white ravens, the sights we imagine we will never see, because they are ruled out by improbabilities, but they still sustain us. For they bring us back to the ‘action’ again and again, hoping against hope and empirical plausibility, letting their associated dreams and wonderings live and flower within us, because it is they, and not anything else, that grants meaning to an essentially meaningless activity. In my soon-to-released ‘cricket fan memoir,’ I wrote the following about the ‘great, epic, unbelievable’ 2001 Indian win in Chennai over Steve Waugh’s Australians:
I had never imagined such a turn of affairs: Victory was possible after suffering the humiliation of following on, after facing almost certain defeat against the world’s strongest team, an unbeatable one reckoned among the greatest in cricket’s history. Several beers later that night, I stumbled home and fell into bed, unable to comprehend the scale of the cricketing event that had just transpired. I was shaken. Nothing like this had seemed remotely possible in the years I had watched and followed cricket. I thought of the 1983 World Cup, so long ago—another life, another place, another improbability. This Test was in those same precincts of implausibility. I had never spun out a cricketing fantasy so exotic, so schoolboyish. Never had I dreamed of a comeback so over the top, so back from the edge, so against the wall. Even as a youngster, hopelessly mired in daydreams, I had never, ever, dreamed up something like this.
I’ve been watching cricket for over forty years now. Many are my cricketing fantasies, created and sustained over decades of cricket spectatorship and its interactions with the events in my inner and outer lives. Beating Australia, arguably the greatest cricketing nation of all in Test cricket’s history, in Australia in a Test series, has always been one of them; it was the greatest of all because it represented such an implausible achievement. Over the years that fantasy had morphed and grown new forms and shapes and contours, reflecting my changing self. It wasn’t just enough to beat old foes. They had to be beaten in a particular way and manner. Beating England, Australia, the West Indies, Pakistan at home, in India, was not good enough; they had to be beaten ‘away.’ Beating them in facile fashion, by innings defeats or 10 wickets or boatloads of runs, was not good enough either; cricketing adversity had to be overcome along the way. That adversity could be of match situations, ground conditions, injuries, hostile opponents; whatever it was, it had to be overcome before victory could be claimed and celebrated.
A win after following-on checked those boxes for sure. But the 2001 win at Kolkata had come at home. And India had after all, had an Indian umpire officiating on the final day at Kolkata. (There is no doubt in my mind that on that fateful day, had India been pressing for a win with an English or Australian or South African umpire, they would not have won; not because those umpires would have been biased, but because they simply would not have known how to adjudge those crucial LBWs – off offspinners and legspinners – on the final day.)
I have had, for a painfully long time, a very particular fantastic scenario played out in my head about how I wanted India to win in Australia. Ideally, a feisty Indian batsman would be chasing an improbable target on the final day, in the company of tailenders, all the while relentlessly sledged by the Australians along the way. His response to these manifold adversities would be to talk back – with both bat and mouth- and continue to take his team onwards and upwards. It should be clear that in my mind, this fantasy was going to be fulfilled by Virat Kohli, who in 2014 had taken Indian to the brink of one of the greatest Indian Test wins of all time at Adelaide in 2014. But both India and Kohli collapsed that day, and India collected its usual ‘brave loser’ award. India did win in Australia in 2018/19, thus marching across ‘the final frontier’; but the win, in retrospect, wasn’t an adequate satisfaction of the daydreaming impulses that underwrote my fantasies. The Australian team was weakened; the Indians lost at Perth, supposedly the fastest wicket in Australia when they tried to out-pace the Australians; and of course, Virat Kohli lost the battle of the big mouths to Tim Paine, the Australian captain.
But India’s win at Brisbane over Australia on the 19th of January 2021 did it all. India won in the last few overs of the last session of the last day of the last Test of a series which had begun with them losing the first Test after collapsing to their lowest score in Test cricket. They lost their captain, their first XI; they put up with, and mastered, the usual Australian three-pronged barrage of witless player sledging, press sniping, and fan abuse. They came back in the second Test to win; they drew the third Test after batting out the final day (and threatening to win along the way); they won the fourth Test on the last day by three wickets with a young opening batsman and wicketkeeper leading the way. Along the way, they sledged right back, reported fan abuse from the stands, and kept their mouths shut when it came to addressing mysteriously sourced reports about their being ‘sooks’ and ‘whingers.’ My fantasy didn’t all come to fruition in one Test or one day; instead, cumulatively, over the course of a series, this particular fantasy was prepared and simmered, finally all coming to a head on that glorious afternoon in Brisbane as a young, feisty, chatty wicketkeeper from Delhi (my old hometown) – with a tailender at the other end- slammed an aggressive, bigmouthed Australian pace bowler (an archetype of sorts) for four to win the Test and series. (That the march had been led by a young, exquisite strokeplaying star from the Punjab was the icing on the cake.)
In my mind, it is all quite clear now: this was the greatest Test series of all time. No other team in cricket’s history has overcome so many adversities away from home to win in a former domain of subjugation. The usual Anglo-Australian cabal of writers, ex-players, and fans can continue to wallow in glorious tales of Ashes long past; those glories have long been displaced from my formerly colonized mind. A new cricketing order – mental, aesthetic, and performative – is in place.
The white ravens we will seek from now on will be of an entirely different plumage. I look forward to their sightings.