A series that banged and crashed its way around India through a month of pulsating struggle drifted away in less than a session as India cruised to an eight-wicket victory on the fourth morning in Dharamsala, reclaiming the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in the process.
Australia’s meek collapse the previous afternoon ensured there would be no grandstand finish, the hosts left 106 for victory on a surface that was always going to stay true. Returning with 87 more to get, the hosts did the rest in 18 overs. KL Rahul was not out when the triumph came, giving him 403 series runs, alongside his acting captain Ajinkya Ranahe who finished with a dashing 38.
Josh Hazlewood could do little more to force an incision to replicate the rot India’s seamers had started the day before, false strokes earned from the outset. But as is so often is the case when the result looks a formality, with so few runs to play with, nothing went his way.
Curiously, Steve O’Keefe was given the first opportunity to open the attack at the other end, to negligible effect. When danger man Pat Cummins was given the ball it took him just seven deliveries to find Murali Vijay’s outside edge, pouched safely behind the wicket by Matthew Wade. When Glenn Maxwell, racing in to gather the ball and hit middle stump out of the ground in one smooth motion to leave Cheteshwar Puraja well short of his ground to end that same over, two wickets had fallen on 46.
If something was brewing – a final twist in a series full of them – Rahane was having none of it. The new man immediately took on Cummins with a glorious cover drive then a powerful hook shot next ball. Two overs later, it was consecutive sixes, slaying Cummins over midwicket then somehow taking another short ball over the rope at cover. From there it was a stroll and Rahul raised his half-century when clipping O’Keefe through midwicket for the winning runs.
Steve Smith’s men leave rightly proud of what has been achieved, but that’s cold comfort in the aftermath of an opportunity burned in this deciding rubber. The ample confidence they carried into the encounter was earned in the gutsy draw in Ranchi to keep the series alive. Upon their arrival, the pitch looked antipodean not subcontinental. Then Virat Kohli was ruled out. Then Smith won the toss. Their favouritism, however slight, was warranted.
Yet it was the pattern of the series, from Bangalore onwards, that Australia weren’t able to successfully bank their gains. The middle-order collapse on the opening afternoon came after Smith and David Warner pushed Australia to an imposing 144-1. The second innings debacle immediately followed a stoic comeback with the ball to end India’s first innings with a manageable deficit of 32. In both Bangalore and Ranchi there were chances to shut Kohli’s men out from imposing positions, but none were taken.
An overreliance on Smith is a logical point of criticism, Australia’s relatively inexperienced and collapse-prone batting line up unable to deliver on a consistent enough basis. Not least the vice-captain Warner, who tallied just 193 runs at an average of 24. The skipper will take personal satisfaction from the fact that he could have done little more. Hi 499 series runs, including three centuries on three considerably different surfaces and circumstances, reinforced his standing as the world’s best player.
“It was a magnificent series and one of the best I’ve been a part of,” Smith said after play. “We’ve learnt a lot out of this series as a young side and we will take plenty out of this and it should hold us in good stead. I’m really proud of the way the boys have competed.”
India’s come-from-behind win defied the fact that their own captain, Kohli, never fired a shot. But the supporting cast of Pujara and Rahul were able to time and again do the heavy lifting. With the ball, Ravindra Jadeja’s relentless spin netted 25 wickets at 19 apiece, ably supported by Ravichandran Ashwin, who was not at his most potent but still claimed 21 wickets along the way. They will also be encouraged by Umesh Yadav, a seamer with pace and swing who will serve as an excellent attack leader in Australian conditions next time around; essential if they are to buck the trend of these two nations and retain the trophy away from home when India visit next in November 2018.
The lopsided final result doesn’t do justice to the nature of this riveting series. Few will forget the relentless tension, which made it one of the most watchable in modern memory. For Australia, it’s clear they were not quite ready to win here, but the progress made since their previous visit to the subcontinent, and from the Hobart debacle in November, is not for nothing either. For that, they now command respect. Next stop: the Ashes.