The “grand home season of Indian cricket” is finally over and another India-Australia series is in the books, with the hosts completing the formalities on the fourth morning at Dharamsala, winning the series 2-1. As India rolled in to face the team from Down Under, on the back of routing New Zealand, England and Bangladesh cumulatively 8-0 (and a draw), the victories by wide margins, it was suggested by experts and non-experts alike that the final home stand would just be another pushover. But as it turned out, it was the most contested Test series of the season, with some even comparing it to the 2001 series between the same teams, the 2005 Ashes and the 2013-14 Australian tour to South Africa.
India were faced primarily with two issues in this series that needed to be combatted if they were to continue their winning run: Aussie bowlers and Steve Smith. The Australian bowlers – Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon, and whoever was going to support them – was decidedly better than any bowling opposition India had faced in their remarkable home run. And Smith had scored four hundreds in four Tests against them in 2014-15, and had only got better since, piling centuries against every opponent barring South Africa.
So it was very unsurprising that the pitch that welcomed the visitors at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune was a rank turner. It limited the effectiveness of the Australian pacers and it provided a way for the Indian spinners to limit Smith. But Australia had done their homework, spending time in Dubai preparing on pitches that turned, and hired counsel to help them bowl and bat better in spinning conditions that they anticipated in India. At Pune, it was the Australians that displayed better technique against the turning ball, and their spinners comfortably out-bowled the Indian spinners as well. Smith registered his fifth century in five Tests vs India, albeit aided by shoddy Indian fielding. The end result was that India were humiliated by a margin of 333 runs and their unbeaten streak of 19 Tests came to a screeching halt.
After another dismal batting display on the first day at Bengaluru by India, Australia almost had their hands on the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The Indian bowlers produced a spectacular display of pace and spin that any follower of Indian cricket would be hard-pressed to recall from another Indian bowling outfit in the last couple of decades. They choked the runs, took full advantage of the up-and-down bounce available on the Chinnaswamy track, kept the Aussies honest, and quiet. When Ravindra Jadeja polished off the innings next day, limiting the lead to just 87 runs, India were given a second chance to work their way into the series. Through KL Rahul at first, and then the unbroken partnership of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane that batted calmly through the third session of Day three, India clawed and fought their way into the lead. The Indian bowlers once again came to the fore defending 187 runs, bundling Australia out in just two sessions of play for 112. The series had well and truly come alive.
That was before the proxy war that was fought by the media of the respective nations because Pete Handscomb dumbly encouraged Smith to look to the dressing room for help with a DRS decision. Despite an obvious “brain fade”, as Smith admitted and apologised for, the issue hung over the series like a bad smell, and both sets of media went to town on it painting the opposite side as the devil peddling in conspiracies and unfounded claims, blowing the whole issue out of proportion. Even as both national boards initially dug their heels in, cooler heads prevailed later and a truce was established.
At Ranchi, belying all the pre-match conspiratorial nonsense that came from certain sections of the media, a flat pitch allowed the batsmen to fill up their boots to their hearts’ content; even Glenn Maxwell who replaced the injured Mitchell Marsh scored his maiden Test century, and of course, Smith piled on too. Pujara batted on for what felt like weeks, coolly collecting his second double hundred against Australia, and Wriddhiman Saha showed the wider world his batting chops, and put India in a position to push for an unlikely victory. Despite hiccups early on day five, Shaun Marsh and Handscomb guided Australia to safety to set up the finale in the snowcapped locales of Dharamsala.
The fast and bouncy pitch by the foothills of the Himalayas meant the Test series was played on four different surfaces that challenged various aspects of the two teams. It also meant that the winner of the series would be worthy of it, and importantly, would have earned it, with no possibility of snide remarks and asterisks about dodgy doctored pitches. Australia won the third toss of the series and blew the advantage of batting first, and with it, their chances of winning the series. After being 130/1 at lunch on Day 1, they were bowled out for 300, thanks mostly to India's debutant Kuldeep Yadav, whose left-arm wrist spin triggered a middle order collapse that even Smith – who of course scored yet another century – could not compensate for. Handy contributions from the Indian top order, and a match – and series – defining partnership between Saha and Jadeja handed India a small lead.
Then came the most ferocious display of fast bowling seen on Indian soil by Indian pacers in a long time that would shake the Australian belief to its core. Umesh Yadav made the HPCA feel like the WACA, making the Aussie openers hop and dance to his tune. R Ashwin and Jadeja took the baton from the pacers and put finishing touches on the Aussie collapse, setting a small fourth innings score that KL Rahul and Rahane chased down with panache. 2-1 India.
Smith scaled many rungs on the “ladder of best batsman of the era”, and Jadeja, declared the Man of the Series, truly arrived as a world-class spinner and a useful lower order batsman, taking the mantle of World's No 1 bowler from his spin partner Ashwin over the course of the series. Pujara reminded everyone in India that he is still the best player of spin in India, and Rahul, though did not make memorable big scores, consistently made contributions at the top. Ashwin was not his usual self, probably due to fatigue and some fitness issues, yet reaped 21 wickets. The biggest surprise, and the most promising development for India, was Umesh taking 17 wickets striking every 46 deliveries. Nathan Lyon and Steven O'Keefe claimed 19 wickets each, although the latter faded away after the high of his 12-for in Pune, while the former established himself, yet again, as the lead Australian spinner for some time to come. The return of Pat Cummins was a huge boost for Australia, and cricket lovers everywhere, as he replaced the injured Mitchell Starc, who lit up the scene when he was around. Matt Renshaw booked his spot alongside Warner as the opener for the foreseeable future, finishing as the second highest run-getter for his team, after his skipper.
Bowlers win Test matches. However, for India, in a lot of their matches this home season, their batsmen put up tall scores that allowed their excellent spinners to weave their magic around the visiting batting lineups. But in this hard-fought, drag-out punch up against Australia, India's bowlers secured the series without the luxury of scoreboard pressure, and that will hold them in good stead as the challenges await in New Zealand and South Africa, and later in England, next season. Even the sour note of India leaving the Aussies hanging on their invitation for a post-series drink in their dressing room, cannot spoil that.