“If you take two or three of the best players out of anyone’s lineup, you’re going to struggle a little bit at times and you’re going to have inconsistent performances and that’s what we’re seeing,” said Australia wicketkeeper captain Tim Paine after the third Test in Melbourne. Winning that Test ensured India were going to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. A week later, India were on the cusp of a 3-1 series win and only rain prevented that result. In the end, India won their first-ever Test series in Australia.
Explaining the impact of losing Steve Smith and David Warner, Paine had said, “If you took (Cheteshwar) Pujara and Virat (Kohli) out of India’s side, I think you’d have the same conversation. If you’ve got world class players that aren’t in the team … Are they going to add to our team? I think they will. Whilst at the moment it’s challenging and everyone’s frustrated, it is what it is and everyone’s working as hard as they possibly can, and we’re getting guys getting experience in high pressure situations and learning on the job.”
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The shadow of the players’ absence remained through the series as Cameron Bancroft and Warner spoke about the ball tampering incident. In an interview aired while the third Test was on, Bancroft spoke with former Aussie great Adam Gilchrist about the unsavoury episode in South Africa. Smith had also spoken before a nets session about watching the team playing the Test series.
“It’s been hard watching and knowing that I can’t go out and help them. But I was really proud of the way the boys played last week in Perth. I thought they were magnificent and I think Tim Paine’s leadership has been exceptional since taking over as captain. He’s obviously been faced with difficult circumstances to begin with but he’s done a terrific job,” Smith said.
Both interviews shifted the focus to those who weren’t involved and an incident long past. Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting had questioned the impact the interviews could have on the Australian team.
“I’m not sure how happy the players would be about it or Cricket Australia, because it’s a pretty special moment in Australian cricket on a day like today. So, we’ll see what the reaction is,” Ricky Ponting said.
Thanks to these interviews and results, much of the conversation throughout the Test series revolved around the absence of Warner and Smith, and how the Australia batsmen struggled to cope with India’s fast bowlers. The numbers from the series also reflected this. Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav took 50 wickets between them in the series. This is now the second highest tally for Indian pace bowlers ever on an Australian tour.
The Australian team managed just eight half centuries in the series, the highest score by a batsman was 79 by Marcus Harris. Travis Head and Harris featured in the top-5 run scorers in the series, with 237 runs and 258 runs respectively. But both were well behind India’s highest scorer from the series, Cheteshwar Pujara, who accumulated 521 runs at an average of 74.42. It could be argued that an Indian team would have had a more uphill task without Kohli and Pujara, but even a batsman like Rishabh Pant scored more runs than Harris showing the depth this Indian team had.
Sunil Gavaskar was among those who has firmly rejected any doubts about India’s victory.
“It is not India’s fault that this Australian team was without David Warner and Steve Smith. Australia could have handed them shorter bans but obviously it was thought that one-year bans would be good for Australian cricket, that they needed to be made an example for anyone who brings the game into disrepute,” Gavaskar said during a post-match show after India had won the series.
“India played the opposition they were presented with and it’s a great achievement for them,” said the former captain.
And that may just be a valid point. A decade from now, the absence of Smith and Warner from the series will merely be the fine print. When you read the outcome from India’s tour of Australia 2018/19, it would read India beat Australia 2-1. And it was rightfully earned.