Great sport

In the age of Covid, of quarantines and hubs, travel and border restrictions, it seems unlikely that we might experience one of the best test series of all time – but here we are, having witnessed one of the most exciting and close-fought series of all time between Australia and India.

It ended yesterday with India claiming an unlikely, great win in the final test with just a few overs left in the game. With that win, they claimed the series 2-1. Some are calling it the greatest test series of all time. Certainly, it had great drama throughout and, but for the first test (a thumping win by Australia), close results. In my mind, I have the 2005 Ashes series just ahead of it, but only by dint of the quality of cricket played.

As an ardent Australian, the loss tastes bitter no matter how great the entertainment was. We don’t like to lose, and this loss was totally unexpected, both before the series and then through it.

For Australia, this is a very disappointing loss and some soul searching is in order. I feel as if they never reached the heights of form they hit last summer. Even in the first test, which they won bowling India out for a record low score, the (sensational) result distracted from what – until that moment – had been a mediocre performance. In retrospect, I wonder if that victory gave the team a false perspective also?

With that said, this has been an extraordinarily resilient performance from India. Thrashed in the first test and their test captain and best player returning to India, the expectation is that it would be a whitewash. Instead, they stepped up in Melbourne to beat a lacklustre Australian team. Not only that, they suffered injuries throughout the series to key players – particularly bowlers – and still maintained a great level of competitiveness. In the end, you could argue that Australia was beaten by a second-string Indian side.

It comes as a shock and feels as if someone of the historical roles has been reversed. Growing up, India was capable of great performances and being competitive, but there was always the belief that when the heat was on they’d fold. As they did with many teams, Australia seemed to hold a mental edge. I think we lost it this series.

There’s no doubt that India has become a much tougher unit in recent times. They’re much more aggressive and have an attitude. It’s made for great cricket. In this test series, it feels like India have been the steadier team, and tougher in the clinches – though statistically, the margins are slim. As an Australian having watched Australian cricket for many years, I feel as if we lost our way, and that India played the more coherent team cricket.

I think a lot of that is due to their stand-in captain, Ajinkye Rahane, and their coach, the legend Ravi Shastri (probably my favourite Indian player of all time). Both are strong, calm characters. I wonder if this result would have happened had Virat Kohli – one of the great batsmen – hadn’t relinquished the captaincy going home.

Kohli is responsible for a lot of the Indian team’s attitude. He’s belligerent and combustible, always itching for a fight. Rahane is different – self-effacing, measured, quietly inspiring, and a better tactician. I wonder if Kohli can be a distraction sometimes leading from out front, whereas it appears that Rahane is in their ears encouraging them, urging them on.

They have played as a committed team through the series. Each player has stepped up to do their bit. They’ve been resilient and determined, and there’s no doubt that this is one of the bravest victories in test history.

As for Australia, outside of individuals – and it was all individuals – I don’t think we really got going. We were in positions to win in both Sydney and Brisbane, and in most years would have won both in a canter. That’s not to detract from India, but on both occasions, the Australian attack relied on too few, and other issues became evident.

I think I knew there was a problem when Tim Paine got in trouble in the Sydney test for calling Ashwin a dickhead. Paine has been a guiding light and great leader since the disgrace in South Africa. He’s an intelligent, well-spoken, decent and generally calm character. He’s indulged in banter from behind the stumps, but most of it inoffensive and some of it quite amusing.

I think the controversy that erupted after his comments was a huge overreaction, but it was telling that he resorted to such blunt language. It occurred in the middle of a rearguard action by the Indians to save the test, which they did. There’s no surprise that Paine might have been frustrated, but the absence of his customary wit was suggestive of a man under pressure – and, I would conjecture, a team under pressure.

Quite aside from the Indian resistance, there was good cause for frustration. Cummins was the outstanding bowler of the summer, and Hazlewood excellent, but by the third test, Starc had become a liability and Lyon practically useless. Paine had a misfiring bowling attack as a captain, but that was compounded by some questionable tactics and bowling plans. It felt as if the team had developed a wobble.

After the disappointment of the third test, I thought we needed to freshen up physically and psychologically. Starc was cooked, and Wade had been poor. I thought Jhye Richardson and Glenn Maxwell should have been brought in, but the only change was relating the injured Pucovski with Harris. Is it any great surprise that the fourth test followed a similar script to the third – except that India won.

I think Australia played flat for much of the series, and quite possibly that will pass as patches of indifferent form often do. It was only individual performances – by Cummins particularly, Labuschagne, and Hazlewood and Smith to a lesser degree, that kept us in the hunt.

But – I think some things are worthy of examination. The positives were Cummins, who is quite possibly the best cricketer in the world. Labuschagne was good, and both Green and Pucovski look like long term players. There are holes in the batting line-up though, and disappointments otherwise.

Starc and Lyon were poor. Starc is a match-winner, but temperamental. It felt as if he was out of sorts for most of the series and probably should have been rested. I’ve always thought Lyon overrated, but some of his flaws were on show in this series. He’s very stuck in his ways. He hardly ever bowls an attacking line but can be very dangerous when he does. He has a defensive mentality in his bowling and field placements, and he doesn’t threaten enough. Had either Starc or Lyon been on form then the result might have been 3-1 the other way.

Might have beens don’t count. It’s what you do and what happens that matters and the Indians were magnificent. They responded to every challenge and overcame it. Their leadership and coaching (in contrast to Australia) were top-shelf. Kudos to them. We’ll get you next time.

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