Australia left with difficult questions after a humbling at home
The side could face a turning point with some experienced names having not delivered
Cameron Green had his head down as the Australian squad lined up to shake hands with their Indian usurpers. Green is 198cm tall, bowls with a high arm, an upright seam and has the capacity to swing it. In raw material terms he is capable of bowling spells as impactful as Stuart Broad, with the advantage of being a centimetre or two taller.
Green went wicketless in the Border-Gavaskar series because that raw material is not yet being utilised to its fullest, due to a combination of past injuries and sensible conservatism, as he is also worth his place as a top six batsman. It would be churlish in the extreme to call Green to account for Australia's failure to beat India in his debut series. But there is something of a parallel between Green's bowling and that of the Australian team overall.
In raw material terms, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon are among the most gifted combinations ever to take the field in baggy green caps. Yet against India they have twice failed to bowl out an understrength India team in consecutive Test matches, turning a probable 3-1 series win into a chastening 2-1 defeat. In all, they have bowled 228 overs in consecutive fourth innings and claimed just 12 wickets in that time, at a cost of 663 runs.
After a draw at the SCG was frustrating, and caused the red mist to descend on the captain Tim Paine, defeat at the Gabba ended an undefeated streak in Brisbane that had lasted 32 years, while also slipping the Australians to third in the World Test Championship. This is the kind of result that forces change.
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Where Green has the entirely reasonable excuses of his youth and inexperience, with the hope that he will soon be much better for this series, Australia overall are far from a collection of striplings who will get better. Instead they are a mature team not making the most of their collective ability, and questions will need to be asked about why.
Lyon is 33, Starc and Hazlewood 30, and Cummins at 27 is being openly discussed as a future captain of his country. Elsewhere the team is populated by a 34-year-old David Warner, a 28-year-old Marcus Harris, a 31-year-old Steven Smith, a 33-year-old Matthew Wade and a 36-year-old captain in Paine. Only Marnus Labuschagne, 26, is of a presence even remotely similar in age to Green.
This is all to say that Australia should no longer be a team finding their way, either after Newlands 2018 or in Test cricket in general. What will be troubling for Paine, the coach Justin Langer and his fellow selectors Trevor Hohns and George Bailey is that India have made them look like a less seasoned Test team at times this summer, an extraordinary scenario given the number of injuries the tourists have faced. It is a credit to Ajinkya Rahane, India's captain of quiet words and bold deeds, but a significant mark against Paine, the wartime leader who has tried to hang on.
The latest examples of Indians rising above their station while Australians sunk beneath theirs were telling to the tale of the Gabba and its epic conclusion to the series. Mohammed Siraj hit the sore spots of the Gabba pitch more consistently than any member of the home side's attack, to the point that more jingoistic Australian observers might have questioned why the pitch appeared to fall asleep whenever Starc, Hazlewood and Green bowled on it. Cummins was, especially at the death, an honourable exception.
"Whatever the call to be made, including Paine's retention, it is patently clear that some elements of the national team and their support network need a refresh"
Elsewhere Washington Sundar, seemingly in the India squad as a graduated net bowler before R Ashwin was ruled out, asked more questions than the 100-Test man Lyon on what was reputedly his favourite pitch to bowl on. Having entered the series needing just 10 wickets for 400 in his career, Lyon has collected a measly nine, despite having a pair of fifth-day pitches to twirl away upon in Sydney and Brisbane.
For too long on the final day, basically whenever anyone other than Cummins or Hazlewood were bowling, Australia did not pose much of a threat relative to the match scenario or the conditions. Tactically the hosts were uninspired, seeming to be as conscious of a draw to preserve their second position on the World Test Championship table as they were of placing India's batsmen in zones where minds would start to play the sorts of tricks that commonly bring fourth-innings wickets. Not inclined to gamble, they lost their chips anyway.
Through all but the final 19 or so overs, Cheteshwar Pujara endured with reserves of gumption that sustained him even when he threw his glove away in obvious pain after being jammed on the bat handle. Repeatedly battered about the helmet, the body and the gloves, he was the supporting partner in stands with Shubman Gill, Rahane and Rishabh Pant that set India up for a crowded and ultimately magical final hour. Pant's fearlessness was a beacon that shone harsh light on Australia as well as glory upon his team.
Singed by public opprobrium after some of their mouthier antics at the SCG, Paine and his men needed to respond with a greater level of creativity than they could muster. In this there were echoes of much of the summer, where Australia have often looked as though they are content in the knowledge that the formula they know best in Australia need not be deviated from, even as they faced an India side that, through a combination of Covid lockdowns and unusually high turnover of players, presented the hosts with a dizzying array of fresh questions.
No more was Australia's commitment to the tried and true underlined than by how Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc and Lyon played the entire series, needing the imposition of a major injury to force a change. What that meant was in this match, where all needed to be at their best, there was a collective flatness manifest more pointedly with some than others, but coming home very much to roost when, second new ball in hand, Cummins and Hazlewood were cuffed with close to impunity by Pant and Washington.
Sean Abbott, Michael Neser and Mitchell Swepson have sat on the sidelines throughout, without an opportunity to help write the remarkable script of this series. Perhaps there was hesitation in calling up anyone who was not James Pattinson, ruled out of the series before Sydney due to a freak farming accident, or Jhye Richardson, who at 24 is the best hope of a pace bowling refresh for the "big three" of Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc.
The lack of flexibility was in contrast to England in 2019, when a fresher bowling attack, more cannily rotated, was up to the task of securing the Ashes with a Test match to spare, and all too similar to those at the SCG a week before. They were galling for Langer, grimmacing in the stands, and will surely be the catalyst for some hard conversations, either side of the tour to South Africa that looms next month.
A little over 25 years have passed since Allan Border's storied tenure as Australia's Test captain came to an end, amid garlands from all and sundry for how he had pulled Australian cricket out of the depths of despair. What is less understood about the handover in 1994 was that it arrived after quiet conversations between Border and the selectors about the future, and amid concerns that a talented side had plateaued somewhat without better tactical direction and a more assertive approach in general.
Back then, of course, the panel had Mark Taylor as captain-in-waiting, the ideal pair of hands for what was to come next, including the skipper's return to a more commanding role relative to the coach of the day, Bob Simpson. This time around, there is no standout in the same way, unless Cummins is to be another break with convention as a fast-bowling captain.
Whatever the call to be made, including Paine's retention, it is patently clear that some elements of the national team and their support network need a refresh. Because in terms of raw material, particularly with the ball but also with the bat, this Australia side are not doing themselves justice.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig