Australia must build on their near-miss in India

Steven Smith's side can take a lot from this tour despite the series defeat Associated Press

A fledgling team wins a shattering early victory over the world's No. 1 side, then fights them all the way to the deciding Test of the series, where they fall mentally and physically to earth, frustratingly short of a seismic result. The script of Australia's narrowly failed Indian campaign has been played out at other times in Test history, with a signal lesson: longer-term success is far from guaranteed.

Perhaps the greatest parallel for Steven Smith's team sits with the England side that ventured to the Caribbean in 1989-90 for a meeting with Viv Richards' seemingly unbeatable West Indies. Preparing judiciously and selecting a team for the expected conditions under the stolid leadership of Graham Gooch, England beat the hosts at their own pace-oriented game on a rapid pitch in Jamaica to start the series, and fell only narrowly to a 2-1 defeat by the end.

As Wisden noted: "The essential weakness of any statistical record is that it can reflect neither circumstance nor injustice. A potted summary of England's Test series in the Caribbean, early in 1990, indicates merely that they lost 2-1, with one match drawn and the other abandoned. In years to come, that stark scoreline may be read to mean that England did slightly better than anticipated. The truth of the matter is that at worst they merited a shared series, and at best an unimaginable upset of the world champions of Test Cricket."

For a team that, like Smith's, had suffered enormous humiliation just a matter of months before - the 4-0 Ashes hiding of 1989 - this seemed a new dawn under Gooch, with a gaggle of young players eager to work hard after the fashion of their captain. Yet the success that followed was fleeting at best; a firm home summer against New Zealand and India followed by another pasting in Australia the following winter. England would not defeat the West Indies for another decade, and left the Ashes in Australian hands until 2005.

One reason for England's struggles was that the single-minded approach taken to the West Indies tour was not effectively followed up in terms of structure or philosophy. England team selection and talent identification remained shambolic for years afterwards, despite plenty of efforts to change things by Gooch and his successor Michael Atherton. By the time England did start to get things right, Gooch had long since passed into retirement.

The other pathway for a team that gets close to victory over the world's best is that followed by Australia three years after the 1990 series. Allan Border's men got within two runs of pinching the Frank Worrell Trophy from Richie Richardson's team in Australia in 1992-93, before falling short by that familiar 2-1 margin. Instead of falling back like England, they followed up, and under a new captain in Mark Taylor were able to win in the Caribbean in 1995 to set-up their own decade of dominance. That series, also 2-1, began with a strong opening win, a subsequent West Indian challenge, then a commanding Australian performance in the decider.

Like Gooch, and Smith, Taylor had the rough outline of how to win, and a fair idea of the areas in which his team had to improve. Positive batting that refused to be cowed by West Indian intimidation; sharp and aggressive fielding; and a combination of disciplined pace bowling and wrist spin. Australia lost in January 1993 largely because they were unable to assert themselves from a position of dominance, a symptom of self-belief that still had some growing to do.

Unlike Gooch's England, Smith and the coach Darren Lehmann have a sound and well-resourced Australian cricket system to support the team, and the thorough Dubai preparation for this India tour is likely to be replicated on future Asian visits. Like Taylor, Smith will have a potent bowling attack at his disposal for years to come, personified by the ample pace and variety of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson, with worthy support from Nathan Lyon and Steve O'Keefe where applicable.

The challenge ahead for Smith is two-fold. Broadly, he must find a way to ensure his team make the most of the sorts of opportunities presented in India. This is a mental hurdle above all else: no-one gave the Australians a chance of toppling India in this series and, in the moments where they genuinely could have done, it appeared that they did not quite believe it either.

A more confident and seasoned team would not have blinked on days two and three in Bengaluru, nor day three in Dharamsala. The stand between Mark and Steve Waugh in Jamaica in 1995, right when that series could have swung either way, is the sort of display Smith's men could not quite conjure against India. Finding that sort of mental fortitude at the end of a long series, when bodies and minds are tired, was a task beyond a young team, but something to aim for in future contests.

More pointedly, Smith and Lehmann need to sit down with several of their team and work out the best approach they can take to contribute to victories at home or away. Chief among these is the vice-captain David Warner, whose failure to offer the sort of runs Smith managed should be cause for plenty of introspection.

After Ranchi, Warner remarked that his overseas troubles were merely a statistical quirk, but an unbroken wait of nearly three years for a hundred away from home speaks pretty loudly to the contrary. Smith stated before the series that both captain and deputy needed to make big runs for Australia to be a chance. It was one of several prescient observations.

There is one example of which Warner can take note: Nathan Lyon. After last year's ignoble Sri Lanka tour, Lyon was far from assured of even being selected for India, let alone playing all four Tests. At the same time he was fighting to maintain his place with gradually improving displays over the home summer, Lyon worked assiduously on plans and techniques for India, all of which he would showcase in holding his own against his opposite number R Ashwin over the four Tests. When Lehmann said of Lyon's Dharamsala spell that it was "the best I have ever seen him bowl for Australia", the praise was both rich and deserved.

So for Warner and Australia the way ahead is clear. Whether or not the 2017 India tour is seen as the start of a drive to sustained success, a la Border/Taylor, or simply an anomalous near-miss, per Gooch, will depend largely on how closely they choose to follow it.