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Year in review 2021: Pant’s Gabba heroics, Axar and Iyer’s memorable debuts and other top Indian cricketing moments

The year 2021 was a happening one in Indian cricket. Miraculous comebacks, memorable debuts, making a mark in Test cricket, you name it!

This year, the Indian men’s cricket team began with a 2-1 Test series win over Australia Down Under, while the women’s Test team led by Mithali Raj, too, inspired hard-fought draws in both England and Australia.

Images of Shreyas Ier, Axar Patel and Rishabh Pant. AFP / Sportzpics

And yes, Chennai Super Kings’ fourth IPL title took them closer to Mumbai Indians’ record haul of five trophies. Not to forget, memories of India’s stunning turnaround to clinch the Lord’s Test will be etched in the hearts of many.

Here, we look at 10 of the best Indian cricketing moments in the year gone by:

Pant’s Day 5 heroics at Gabba

Rishabh Pant’s drive down the ground off Josh Hazlewood in the business end of the final Test in Brisbane will forever live on as one of the greatest moments in the history of Indian cricket.

India bounced back in style from the Adelaide horror show with a spirited win at MCG, pulled off a heroic draw at Sydney and entered the Gabba believing they could achieve what many had considered impossible, even if they were fielding three debutants with several senior players injured.

Over the course of four days, the likes of Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Siraj stood up for the visitors and kept them in the game with their standout performances.

However, it was Pant’s ice-cool approach in the chase of the stiff 328-run target, for which the Indians were given just one day, that was the cherry on top. The wicketkeeper-batter forged three consecutive fifty-plus stands during his unbeaten innings of 89 — for which he was adjudged the Player of the Match — while taking on a world-class Aussie attack in a venue where the hosts had not lost in more than 30 years.

It was only fitting for the Delhi Capitals skipper to hit the winning runs as India pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the sport.

India’s stunning turnaround on Day 5 at Lord’s

England grabbed a slender 27-run first innings lead and had reduced the visitors to 181/6 at stumps on Day 4 in the second Test at Lord’s, with Rishabh Pant and Ishant Sharma batting. The visitors would’ve hoped for another Pant special; instead, the wicketkeeper-batter perished quickly in the morning session and was soon joined by Ishant Sharma in the pavilion.

Few would have expected Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah to take the game away from the hosts with an unbroken 89-run stand, a partnership that somewhat helped dispel notion of India’s long tail.

The two would walk out to the centre on the other side of the lunch interval and would bat for a bit before Kohli declared, ensuring England got little time in the dressing room between the two innings. At this point, the match could have gone two ways, with an English victory not among them.

Bumrah would then strike in just his third delivery after England began their chase of the 272-run target. England were clearly under pressure at this point, Rory Burns’ early dismissal further spicing things up, with the Indians on the field now transformed into a pack of dogs and their legion of supporters cheering on every delivery.

The Indian bowling unit was at its clinical best, barely allowing any of the batters to settle and eventually bundling them out for a paltry 120 to go 1-0 up in the series with a 151-run win.

India ending Australia’s 26-ODI winning streak

Australia had lost a rain-affected one-dayer at Coffs Harbour in the early stages of the 2017-18 Women’s Ashes, and would not lose another 50-over contest over the course of the next four years, winning 26 games in a row in this period. Their golden run, however, would finally end in the third ODI against India on 29 September.

Jhulan Goswami and Pooja Vastrakar grabbed three wickets each to restrict the Aussies to 264/9. India, in reply, got off to an explosive start thanks to half-centuries from Shafali Verma and Yastika Bhatia. The collapse-prone Indian batting order however, crumbled from 160/1 to 208/6, skipper Raj being the sixth batter to depart.

Thankfully for the Women in Blue, Deepti Sharma and Sneh Rana were able to keep their hopes alive with vital contributions. Though they both departed with India at the cusp of victory, veteran seamer Goswami was able to see her team through with a boundary, capping off a memorable victory for her side with three balls to spare.

The win certainly did boost India’s morale going forward as they would then put up a clinical display in the historic pink-ball Test later in their tour of Australia, a game that they looked set to win if not for long spells of rain washing away entire sessions.

CSK inching closer to MI with fourth IPL title

After Mumbai Indians’ back-to-back titles in 2019 and 2020, it was Chennai Super Kings’ (CSK) turn to lift the trophy this year as the ‘Yellow Army’ caught up with the Mumbaikars in the IPL trophy count by beating Kolkata Knight Riders in the final in Dubai on 15 October.

CSK got their season off to a shaky start with a seven-wicket loss to Delhi Capitals, but bounced back in style as they went on to win their five games. At the time of the league getting suspended due to a breach in the bio-bubble, CSK were well placed for a spot in the playoffs, which they sealed with four consecutive wins at the start of the UAE leg of the season.

It was fitting that a team that failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in 2020 would become the first to confirm their place in the playoffs next year, and then would sail into the final thanks to a vintage Dhoni finishing act. It was even more pleasing for the CSK fans to see their team perform as a unit and overpower KKR in the final to win their fourth title.

Shreyas Iyer’s heroic debut

Shreyas Iyer, an established white-ball player, got his Test career off to a dream start at Kanpur against New Zealand last month, and in the process made the job of the team leadership group and the selection panel even more difficult.

Iyer walked to the crease at a time when Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson were posing real problems to the Indian batters on their own turf and the hosts had suffered a minor collapse. He helped resurrect the innings with a 120-run fifth-wicket stand with Ravindra Jadeja. The Mumbaikar would then join an elite club of cricketers with a century on Test debut, bringing up the milestone on the second day as India posted 345 in the first innings.

Shreyas Iyer celebrating his half century during day one of the 1st Test match between India and New Zealand held at the Green Park International Stadium in Kanpur on the 25th November 2021. Saikat Das / Sportzpics for BCCI

Shreyas Iyer celebrating his half century during day one of the 1st Test match between India and New Zealand held at the Green Park International Stadium in Kanpur on the 25th November 2021. Saikat Das / Sportzpics for BCCI

That wasn’t all from Iyer at Kanpur, the venue where he had produced a match-winning knock for Mumbai as a 19-year-old seven years earlier, as he would follow the century up with a fighting 65 in the second innings.

His partnerships with Ravichadran Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha rescued the hosts from a shaky 51/5, with stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane ultimately declaring on 234/7 to set a 284-run target.

While the match ended in a thrilling draw, Iyer was recognised for his efforts with a Player of the Match award.

Axar Patel’s breakthrough series vs England

Seven years since making his international debut against Bangladesh in an ODI in Dhaka, Axar Patel finally received a news which every international cricketer would aspire of — a maiden Test call-up.

He had been selected for the first two Tests of the four-match home series against England in February, but did not make the cut in the series-opener.

He, however, was named in the playing XI for the second Test, and boy did he impress!

India were 0-1 down heading to the second Test in Chennai, and Axar had his task cut out, more so after left-arm orthodox bowler Shahbaz Nadeem’s disappointing performance in the first match.

India won the toss and opted to bat in the contest. While Rohit Sharma (161) did most of the damage with the bat, Ajinkya Rahane (67) and Rishabh Pant (58*) too contributed in their own way, leading India to 329.

While Axar, who took two wickets in England’s first innings, showcased just ordinary stuff in the first innings, it was his tight line and length balls that enabled him to register his maiden five-for in Tests on debut.

England had been dismissed for 134 in the first innings, and after India posted 286 in their second innings, the visitors were set a mountain to chase, with a target of 482.

Patel did most of the damage with the ball during England’s chase, with Sibley sustaining a plumb leg before in the eighth over, leaving England 17/1.

In the 17th over, Jack Leach was caught by Rohit at leg slip, and while there was a considerable gap between his second and third wickets, he would then go onto dismiss Ollie Pope, Joe Root and Olly Stone between the 44th and 52nd overs of the chase to complete a memorable five-for.

Axar would go onto become the second-highest wicket taker in the series (27), behind Ashwin (32), with three more five-fers.

Rohit Sharma’s maiden overseas Test ton

4 September, 2021, will remain one of the most memorable moments of Indian cricket, as Rohit Sharma finally ended his overseas curse to score his first Test century on foreign soil.

Prior to this, he had seven Test hundreds, all of which came on familiar home conditions back in India. But this was elusive, and it’s fair to say, it was worth the wait for ‘Hitman’.

The Test series was level at 1-1 heading into the fourth Test at The Oval, and England had put India into bat after winning the toss.

There was nothing extraordinary barring fifties from Virat Kohli (50) and Shardul Thakur (57) in the first innings. Rohit endured a disappointing outing of 11 in the first innings as India were dismissed for 191.

However, an impressive display from the Indian bowlers meant they restricted England to 290 (Lead of 99 runs), which meant India were behind by just less than a century of runs.

On Day 2 itself, India began their second innings with Rohit and KL Rahul opening once again. Rahul (46) looked promising, but was caught by Bairstow behind the wickets off Anderson’s ball.

No Rahul, no problem it was for India. Cheteshwar Pujara (61) came in at number three and he ably supported Rohit at the other end.

Rohit ran riot all over the place. He gave the opposition bowlers no room for improvement, and while he did slam 14 fours throughout his knock, he reached the landmark century with a six, one where he skipped down the pitch, got close to the ball, and lofted it high over long-on for a maximum.

With the ton, Rohit broke several records, including slamming nine international centuries in England, which is the most by any Indian, also surpassing current India head coach Rahul Dravid’s record.

Smriti Mandhana’s scintillating pink-ball ton

India were having hard time Down Under in Australia. Having lost the ODI series 1-2 (winning the final match), much was expected from the visitors in the one-off pink ball Test.

This Test came just over three months since that dramatic drawn Test against England in England, so hopes were pinned on the Indian women to put up another inspirational act.

File image of Smriti Mandhana. Image credit: Twitter/@BCCIWomen

File image of Smriti Mandhana. Image credit: Twitter/@BCCIWomen

Mandhana got an opportunity to make an impact right away.

Meg Lanning won the toss and Australia asked India to bat first.

Mandhana gave her everything right from the word go, much like how her score (127) would define. She lost her opening partner Shafali Verma (31) with India’s score reading 93/1, but Mandhana wouldn’t lose focus.

She had Punam Raut supporting her from the other end, but Mandhana continued to produce most of the runs from the other end, with some clinical boundaries right in the slot.

It was in the 52nd over when her moment finally came — a short ball from Elyse Perry followed by a cracking pull shot from Mandhana behind square on the leg side, to notch up a historic pink-ball century.

Vihari-Ashwin partnership at SCG

Without a doubt, India-Australia Test cricket rivalries are one of the fiercely contested ones in the sport. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the tension building towards it, during it and in the aftermath, make it all the more interesting.

Earlier this year, India scripted another memorable 2-1 series win over Australia Down Under to retain the trophy, but that could not have been possible without a notable partnership between Hanuma Vihari and R Ashwin.

The series were level 1-1 heading to the third Test, and it was all to play for.

Australia opted to bat after winning the toss and a century from Steve Smith (131) combined with knocks from Marnus Labuschagne (91) and Will Pucovski (62) led them to 338 in the first innings.

India, in reply, were dismissed for 244, falling behind by 94 runs after the first innings.

Once again, Smith (81) and Labuschagne (73) did most of the damage  as Australia posted 312/6 declared.

On Day 4 of the Test, India needed 407 runs to win and take the lead.

Rohit Sharma (52) and Cheteshwar Pujara (77) did their bit before Rishabh Pant (97) joined in, but India were in a spot of bother at 272/5 after Pujara’s dismissal on Day 5. India went to tea break at 280/5, and task was cut out for Vihari and Ashwin.

They kept the Aussie bowlers guessing with boundaries at regular intervals, but the main highlight of their 62-run stand was about how they dealt the situation with such calmness and composure in their stand that spanned as many as 258 balls.

Afterall, facing the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, is never to be underestimated.

Chahar-Bhuvneshwar heroics against Sri Lanka

One Indian side, led by Virat Kohli, were preparing for a Test series against England. Another Indian side, led by Shikhar Dhawan (and coached by Dravid), were in Sri Lanka for a short limited-overs series.

India had won the first ODI comfortably by seven wickets, and were yet to face a stern challenge with the bat.

Sri Lanka were quite promising in the second match, with some all-round display.

First, knocks from Charitha Asalanka (65) and Avishka Fernando (50) led them to 275/9.

Bhuvneshwar and Chahal had picked up three wickets each.

For India, what lacked in their chase was a stable partnership early on, but a fifty-run stand between Manish Pandey and Suryakumar Yadav for the fourth wicket gave them hope.

Wickets kept collapsing, however, and India were 193/7 in 35.1 overs, following Krunal’s wicket.

In comes Bhuvneshwar Kumar. Deepak Chahar (69*) did most of the damage with the bat but Bhuvneshwar (19*) was able to give him a supporting role as they forged an 84-run stand in as many balls for the eighth wicket, eventually giving India a thrilling three-wicket win to seal the series with one game to play.

It was expected to be a walk in the park for the Indians, but it was a miraculous effort from the duo that brought India almost back from the dead to break Sri Lankan hearts and leave them in tatters.

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