In 2017, Australia’s Test team came home from India after four Tests with a 2-1 defeat. In 2023, the scoreline was the same. In the first series, the tourists made the better of a turning pitch to win a shootout, fumbled a game they had in their keeping, batted the last day to see out a draw and had a loss by a substantial margin. This time around they started with a big loss, had their fumble in the second match, won the shootout in the third, and batting out the draw to finish it off.
The results don’t merit rejoicing, but with India having lost three matches and won 36 in more than a decade, the fact that Australia’s tours have produced two of these wins is worth some satisfaction. The sequence of results meant that 2017 was a story of taking a lead and being reeled back in, while 2023 surrendered the chance of a series win in five days, but fought back from that low with unlikely tenacity. It’s a matter of opinion which scenario would leave losing players feeling better about the situation.
Critically, both series featured one that got away. In Bengaluru, in 2017, Australia needed 188 on a tricky pitch, but were spun out by Ravichandran Ashwin in a collapse of six for 11. Instead of taking in insurmountable lead they let the series be squared. This time around it was Delhi, even after letting India’s lower-order prosper in their first innings, when Australia led by 86 on a bunsen burner. A crash of eight for 28 gave India a chaseable target. Changing the second Test’s result might have changed those that followed, but letting that one slip matters most to the players.
“We had that Delhi game,” said Marnus Labuschagne with exasperation, standing at the boundary after securing the final draw. “We were the better team for two days and we cooked it up. In an hour of a bit of panic, we probably showed our inexperience in these conditions.
“That’s the one that really hurts. We get Axar [Patel] out there with that high ball that [Usman Khawaja] didn’t pick up and suddenly we have a 70-run lead. You add that to our 120, even at worst that turns into 200, and 200 on that wicket changes the whole dynamic of the game. That one was real disappointing from us.”
The Ahmedabad draw ended in tiresome fashion for everyone, Australia starting their third innings 91 runs behind and ending up 84 ahead on a pitch that offered almost nothing to bowlers, even after five days of traffic. Labuschagne reached 63 not out and Steve Smith 10 not out while dead-batting the final couple of hours. Some cleverness from Smith ended things: needing to reach 75 overs on the day to be allowed to call off the match, he declared the innings closed after 72.1, meaning the partial over was abandoned and two others were struck off for the change of innings. It got both teams out of detention 10 minutes early.
For Labuschagne, his team needed to do more with the bat at the start of the match to have any hope of a result. “That’s what I walk away with on these kind of wickets, 600 is almost your minimum. If you get 600 in that first innings it changes the whole dynamic of the game, it puts you in the box seat, where even getting 480 still put them in the driver’s seat.”
What sets 2023 apart from 2017, though, is a fascinating postscript. Since that previous series the World Test Championship has been instituted, with New Zealand winning the inaugural final. This time the finalists are Australia and India. In less than three months the same teams will meet at the Oval in London.
Series between the two countries will be raised from four matches to five as of their next meeting in 2024 and Australia could squint and almost look at the WTC final as the fifth here. Win it and they could claim 2-2 along with a new piece of silverware. If India take the title they will have beaten Australia in Australia, India and iEngland, a three-country sequence dating back to January 2015.
Either way, the result will add context to the Border-Gavaskar series that has just concluded. One reward for Australia is banking experience for future players – Labuschagne, Travis Head, Todd Murphy, Matt Kuhnemann, Cameron Green. They will also lose experienced players who won’t be on the next India trip in four years: Smith, Khawaja, Mitchell Starc, perhaps Nathan Lyon.
Steps forward, steps back. Taking satisfaction from a competitive defeat is one thing. It needs many more steps to turn that into a win.