Stubborn Australia offers World Test Championship hopes

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In 2017, Australia’s test team came home after four tests with a 2-1 defeat by India. In 2023, the score was the same. In the first series, the tourists made the best of a turning pitch to win a shootout, fumbled with a game they had in their care, batted on the last day to set a tie and lost by a sizable margin . This time they started with a big loss, had an error in the second match, won the shootout in the third and beat the tie to end it.

The results do not deserve cheering, but after India have lost three games and won 36 in more than a decade, the fact that Australia’s tours have produced two of those wins is worth a certain satisfaction. The sequencing of results meant that 2017 was a tale of leading and catching, while 2023 gave up the chance of a five-day run but fought back from that low with unlikely tenacity. It’s a matter of opinion which scenario would give losing players a better feel for the situation.

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Critically, both series contained one of these. In Bengaluru in 2017, Australia needed 188 on a difficult course but were turned around by Ravichandran Ashwin in a six-for-11 breakdown. Instead of taking an insurmountable lead, they had the series squared. It was Delhi this time, even after India’s lower league thrived in their first innings as Australia led by a Bunsen burner by 86. A crash of eight to 28 gave India a trackable target. Changing the result of the second test might have changed the following ones, but letting this one slip is the most important thing for the players.

“We had that game in Delhi,” said Marnus Labuschagne angrily as he stood at the border after the final draw. “We were the better team for two days and cooked it up. In an hour of panic we probably showed our inexperience with these conditions.

“That’s the one that really hurts. We get Axar [Patel] out there with that high ball that [Usman Khawaja] not picked up and suddenly we have a 70 run lead. You add that to our 120, even at worst it becomes 200, and 200 on that wicket changes the whole dynamic of the game. That was really disappointing of us.”

Marnus Labuschagne scored an unbeaten 63 for Australia in their last draw against India. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

The draw in Ahmedabad ended on a weary note for everyone, with Australia starting their third inning 91 runs down and ending up 84 runs clear on a pitch that even after five days of traffic had little to offer the bowlers. Labuschagne hit 63 not outs and Steve Smith 10 not outs while killing the last few hours. Some cleverness on Smith’s part ended things: he had to reach 75 overs on the day to be allowed to abandon the match, and declared the innings closed at 72.1, meaning the partial over was abandoned and two more to change the innings have been eliminated. It got both teams out of detention 10 minutes early.

For Labuschagne, his team needed to do more with the racquet early in the game to have any hope of a result. “That’s what I walk away with on these kinds of wickets, 600 is almost your minimum. When you hit 600 in those first innings, the whole dynamic of the game changes, it puts you in the front row where even at 480 you’re still in the driver’s seat.

What separates 2023 from 2017, however, is an intriguing epilogue. Since that previous series, the World Test Championship was introduced, with New Zealand winning the inaugural final. The finalists this time 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 to five games from their next meeting in 2024 and Australia could squint and consider the WTC final here almost fifth. Win it and they could claim 2-2 along with some new silverware. If India takes the title, they’ll have beaten Australia in Australia, India and iEngland, a three-country streak going back to January 2015.

Either way, the outcome will add context to the just-completed Border Gavaskar series. A 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 trip to India in four years: Smith, Khawaja, Mitchell Starc, maybe Nathan Lyon.

Steps forward, steps back. Getting satisfaction from losing a competition is one thing. It takes many more steps to turn it into a profit.

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