Forty-seven years ago the Apollo 13 moon mission was termed "a successful failure" in that it failed to reach its ultimate goal, but still proved a triumph over enormous adversity after a major explosion mid-flight. In Dharamsala, Australia's captain Steven Smith was left with a similar sentiment, after a series that gained his men so much, even if not delivering the final victory.

It was certainly a long way from Hobart humiliation to honourable defeat in Dharamsala. Even so, Smith still had to balance the obvious pride he took in his side's Indian effort with the unavoidable pain of defeat, worst of all in circumstances where the tourists led the series and then held strong positions in all matches.

In time, Smith and the rest of the touring squad will be able to appreciate how great their strides were, but for now he was clear in stating that much improvement remained to be done for Australia to become the consistent Test match force he wants to see. Chiefly, Smith wants to see the ruthlessness to take full advantage of the strong positions the team's smart preparation and skill were able to generate.

"Right now, [I feel] a bit of disappointment. We have fought very hard throughout this series and to fall over at the final hurdle hurts," Smith said after the Dharamsala Test. "We have played a good style of cricket and competed in every Test match. And for that I am really proud of the boys.

"This team has grown so quickly. We are still a very young side. It wasn't too long ago we were at Hobart and it was the end of the world. So I am proud of the way we have been able to turn things around and really compete in these conditions. Coming over here, we were written off. [People said] we were going to lose 4-0. But we competed [and it has] has been great to be part of a fantastic series played in a good style. Credit has to go to India for winning 2-1.

"We can take a lot out of the way we played, the plans we had. We just needed to do it a little bit longer at times and be a bit more consistent. We've certainly had our opportunities to win games against a quality opposition like India. They get back in the game and make you pay. From that vantage [sic] it's disappointing we haven't been able to make the most of being in front. Having said that, I am proud of the way we have competed."

Among the areas Smith saw progress was in how he and his team had been able, at times, to adapt to the Asian tempo. They played a holding action for long periods, whether with the bat or in the field, but were able to switch to the offensive whenever opportunity beckoned. Some instances of the series - like day two in Bengaluru or day three in Dharamsala - showed this was not a skill that could be immediately gained without missteps, but it was a far better attempt than on Smith's previous Asian tour, to Sri Lanka last year.

"They've played a pretty aggressive style of games at times and defensive at others and that's something I have learned as well," Smith said of India. "You have to go with the flow at times in India. If you build pressure and get a wicket, things can happen quickly. I learned a lot from playing in Sri Lanka and here about the different tempos of the game and how to handle different situations. Similarly, they hold and hold and wait for an opening and then they go for the kill."

In assessing his players, Smith saved special praise for Nathan Lyon, a bowler who had come under concerted pressure following that Sri Lanka trip. Many hours of thought and practice over the home summer, followed by long spells in Dubai, allowed Lyon to emerge as a bowler of high quality in all conditions. As Matthew Wade said so audibly on stump microphone during the fourth Test, he is a "one-trick pony" no longer.

"Lyon, [for] the way that he has been able to adapt and bowl the way we want him to bowl," Smith said when nominating his Man of the Series. "He has got two five-wicket hauls, both in the first innings of the game. He was able to change things up. When guys were sweeping him, he was willing to throw the fast one in to stop them and make them defend.

"It's good that these guys are thinking about the game and finding ways to succeed in these conditions, it's been a great learning curve for all the boys in the room. They are hurting now. It's always tough when you lose a series at the final hurdle but the guys are going to take so much out of this series."

As for the return of Pat Cummins, Smith's eagerness to unleash him once again in more favourable conditions was abundantly clear. "I was really impressed with Patty Cummins. The pace he was able to generate, both here and in Ranchi on a relatively slow wicket was absolutely amazing - he puts in [effort] every single ball," Smith said.

"The way he was able to bounce guys out in Ranchi was quite phenomenal to be honest. He's obviously going to be a big player for us going forward. He's had a pretty rough run with injuries and a pretty long layoff between Tests - five years or thereabouts. It's been great for him to get his body right and get back playing Test cricket. He's a really exciting prospect and I look forward to seeing him bowl in the future."

Apollo 13's commander, Jim Lovell, never again flew in space, and never set foot on the moon. Smith at least has the consolation of knowing he is comfortably young enough to go back to India next time, when the lessons of the past six weeks will give a more seasoned team the chance to finish what they started here.