Progress but ultimately not enough

Despite a 2-1 series defeat, Steven Smith and his men can return home to Australia with their heads held high after a topsy-turvy four Test matches in India

 

Steven Smith
Despite three centuries in four Tests, Steven Smith was unable to lead Australia to a series victory. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

What a series! It was tight, tense and at times fractious, but in the end the hosts India prevailed with, what eventually turned out to be, a comfortable eight-wicket victory in Dharamsala.

That Australia even made it to Dharamsala with the series still in the balance at 1-1 speaks volumes of the improvements they have made to playing cricket in the subcontinent. Eventually, though, old habits sneaked in during the final Test – most noticeably a third-day batting collapse that all but handed the series to India.

Captain Steven Smith will look back on the series with an equal amount of pride and regret. His team went into the four Test series as huge underdogs – having lost their previous nine Tests on Asian soil – so to compete strongly until the penultimate day of the series will have pleased him immensely. On the other hand, his side will be disappointed that they eventually lost the series after going one-nil up in Pune. Moreover, they will regret not having seized control of the key opportunities that came their way in the prevailing three matches.

For India, it meant a successful end to a fine season of home cricket. After losing in Pune – their first defeat at home in 20 Tests – they showed tremendous character and skill to fight their way back into the series after such a packed international schedule that included 13 Tests in six months.

Even so, Australia have made major progress in the way they have approached the challenges of facing quality opposition in alien conditions. Taking away the two second innings collapses that ultimately cost them the series (112 in Bengaluru and 137 in Dharamsala) the batting has held reasonably firm. The most noticeable aspect was the willingness to grind out an innings and bat time rather than just playing the attack at all costs “Australian way of cricket” that has come unstuck on previous visits to India.

 

India Australia Cricket
Nathan Lyon made huge improvements to his bowling on the subcontinent. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

Smith has of course led the way, scoring three centuries on his way to 499 runs at 71.28. Such is Smith’s genius that he’s now averaging 61.05 after 54 Test matches. When you consider that he’s yet to turn 28-years-old, you’d have to imagine he’ll at least double the 5000+ Tests runs and 20 centuries he already has in the locker.

Other batters have enhanced their reputations too. Matt Renshaw scored important first-innings fifties in both the first two Tests before gradually fading as the series wore on. In doing so he became the first Australian to score 500+ Test runs before the age of 21. Often looking cool and composed at the crease, it’s easy to forget that he was playing his maiden series anywhere outside of Australia. The whole experience, on and off the field, is certain to hold him in good stead going into a high-pressured Ashes campaign later in the year.

The enigma that is Glenn Maxwell was finally unlocked as a Test batsman too. Brought into the side to replace the injured, and repeatedly misfiring Mitchell Marsh, Maxwell played two mature knocks (104 in Ranchi and 45 in Dharamsala) to stake a claim for a regular batting spot at number six. Despite a breakout series with the bat, Maxwell’s bowling remained underused and perhaps under trusted by Smith, (he bowled just 6 overs in three innings) and with Darren Lehmann largely preferring a fast-bowling allrounder at number six it remains to be seen if he’ll keep his place for future home assignments.

If the likes of Smith, Renshaw and Maxwell can walk away from India pleased with their batting efforts, the same can’t be said for David Warner. The combative left-hander struggled to stamp his authority on the series. Despite making starts in many his innings, he made just one fifty plus score in eight innings. Warner’s struggles against the spin of R Ashwin continued a longer theme for him away from the home comforts of Australia.

Without an away Test hundred in nearly three years, his away average now stands at just 36.61 compared to his overall average of 47.42. In India that average drops even further to 24.25. Although there’s no thoughts of the vice-captain losing his place in the side, a lack of overseas success is bound to tarnish his reputation as a great batsman.

 

Pat Cummins
After a 1946 day absence, Pat Cummins made an impressive return to Test cricket. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

 

The middle order duo of Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb had their moments with the bat, but both will feel that they left runs out on the field. Putting aside their match saving 124-run partnership – that spanned 62 final-day overs – in Ranchi, the pair struggled to put together the numbers required to earn their side success on the subcontinent.

Besides his unbeaten 72 in Ranchi, Handscomb’s seven other scores ranged between 8 and 24. Marsh on the other hand, is a notoriously bad starter at the crease and despite looking comfortable against the spin bowlers when set (he made 66 in Bengaluru and 53 in Ranchi) he also recorded five single figure scores in his eight innings. With Usman Khawaja set to come back into the side, it’s quite conceivable that Marsh, at 33, could well have played his final match for Australia.

Wicketkeeper Matthew Wade belatedly found form in Dharamsala with unbeaten innings of 57 and 25, but it was a case of perhaps to-little-to-late for Australia as they needed more runs from their number seven. His form with the gloves was tidy enough throughout with the only real blemish being a dropped catch off the batting of Wriddhiman Saha – who went onto record a crucial century in Ranchi.

Another gain from the series was the general form and consistency of spinners Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe. Lyon entered the series with plenty of question marks (and a hefty bowling average of 42.57) during his previous bowling in Asian conditions, however, he managed to snare 19 wickets at 25.26 across the series. Unfortunately for Lyon, both his 8-50 in Bengaluru and 5-92 in Dharamsala came in losing causes. O’Keefe, meanwhile, had a greater impact on Australia’s first Test victory on Indian soil in 13 years.

He benefitted from an, at times unplayable, Pune wicket to capture 6-35 in both innings and earn himself a place in Australian cricketing history. Although his effectiveness faded as the series worn on – he claimed just seven wickets thereafter – he still managed to dry up an end as the quicks bowled in short spells. He eventually matched Lyon’s haul of 19 wickets at a slightly better average of 23.26.

When Mitchell Starc pulled up lame upon the conclusion of the second Test, the return of Pat Cummins was one of the defining stories of the series. It had been a staggering 1946 days between Cummins’ Test debut in 2011 and his second Test in Ranchi. Regardless of the impact he had in his two Tests in India, the fact that he backed up again in Dharamsala after bowling 39 overs in Ranchi was heartening for all to see.

And he certainly made an impression. In many ways, he was the perfect replacement for Starc. Bowling in short sharp spells, his pace reaped more from the slow pitches than anyone else from either side and he regularly clocked over 145kph. Although it’s important to remember that it’s still the beginning of his comeback to the longer format, the prospect of him one day bowling in tandem with Starc, Josh Hazlewood and James Pattinson is a tantalising one.

Going forward, Australia must learn from both the positives and negatives from their latest Asian trip – for there was progress, even though it was ultimately not enough.

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