COVER-UP: Did Australian captain Steve Smith's outstanding form mask a poor effort by his batsmen.
COVER-UP: Did Australian captain Steve Smith's outstanding form mask a poor effort by his batsmen. Aijaz Rahi

Did Smith's form cover up Australia's failings?

DESPITE their best efforts, Steve Smith's men have gone down 2-1 to India in a bitter Border-Gavaskar series.

It was a series packed full of excitement and high quality cricket, but also marred by controversy at every corner.

It was also a series that filled Australians with renewed confidence in Asia and reinvigorated the country's appetite for Test cricket after a tough summer.

Following one of the most enthralling Test campaigns in a long time, we take a look at the burning questions.

HOW MUCH DID SMITH COVER THE CRACKS?

Whitewashed 3-0 in Sri Lanka and having suffered nine straight Test defeats in Asia, Australia was tipped by most pundits to lose 4-0 in India. The fact the series was not decided until its penultimate day is a huge accomplishment for Steve Smith, Darren Lehmann and the Australians.

The spin bowlers in particular deserve a lot of credit. Having struggled in Sri Lanka, Nathan Lyon finished his Indian tour with 19 wickets at 25.26, while Steve O'Keefe (19 at 23.26) showed us all what could have been if he hadn't pulled up limp on day three in Pallekele last July.

But has the batting order really turned the corner in Asia or did captain Smith just cover the cracks?

Smith racked up a staggering 499 runs at 71.28 this series and still wound up on the losing side, largely because most of Australia's batting order actually struggled, with four of the top six - Matt Renshaw (29.00), Peter Handscomb (28.28), David Warner (24.12) and Shaun Marsh (18.87) - averaging below 30.

It should be said that Renshaw actually had a strong tour until the final Test, where he made scores of 1 and 8 to damage his average. Handscomb and Marsh also did outstandingly well in Ranchi to force a draw in the third Test and keep the series alive, while Glenn Maxwell (39.75) and Matthew Wade (32.66) were also reliable performers with the bat.

Still, this batting order is far from proven in Asian conditions and if not for Smith and the spinners the score line could have been far less flattering. The good news for the country is most of these batsmen will still be around next time Australia tours India and they should be better for this experience.

JUST HOW GOOD IS THIS INDIAN SIDE?

The Indians performed far below their best this series, and it showed both on the field and in the score line. Having not lost a Test for 19 matches, the hosts only just scraped home with a 2-1 win. Their captain averaged 9.20 and their batsmen only managed two centuries all series.

It's hard to say just why the Indians looked so scratchy. A lot of the credit has to go to how well the Australians executed their plans this tour and at least some of it could be down to the fatigue of a 13-Test home season setting in.

Still, despite failing to produce the champagne cricket that they had been producing across the nine home Tests that preceded Australia's arrival, the Indians managed to win back the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. As a result, Kohli's side is now in possession of all nine series titles against the other Test nations. That's a feat only two other countries - Australia twice (2004-05, 2006-07), South Africa (2012-13) - have achieved.

Of course, there are a couple of major caveats to India's achievement. Firstly, they have not played Pakistan - arguably the side best suited to beating them in their own conditions - since 2007 and secondly, aside from the West Indies, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, all of their series wins in this run have come in home conditions.

Australia has lost to a very a good Indian outfit and one that deserves to hold onto the Test mace. Whether or not it is a truly great side remains to be seen.

FOUR QUICKS FROM HELL FOR THE ASHES?

"I'll tell you one thing, this is my sixth (Gabba) Test and every year you guys seem to write that," Lyon said in 2016 of the notion he'd be dropped for a quick at the Gabba. "So I'll leave you guys to write that, that there's going to be four quicks and stuff. I'm confident of playing, I'll put it that way."

He had a point. Every year since Shane Warne retired, the possibility of playing four quicks at the 'Gabbatoir' has crossed the minds of journalists and fans alike, despite the fact Lyon has an excellent record in Brisbane (26 wickets at 27.46) where his bounce is a major weapon

But it's a question that will come up again as the summer's Ashes approaches. Not because Lyon's of form - he was excellent in India - but because of the strength of Australia's pace stocks right now.

On top of lock-ins Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood, the recently fit again Pat Cummins, Victorian speed demon James Pattinson and South Australian swing king Chadd Sayers are all banging the door down for selection. Cummins bowled with frightening pace in India, and was better than his series figures of eight wicket at 30.25 runs apiece suggested, while Pattinson (22 wickets at 16.95) and Sayers (62 at 18.35) have been lethal in the Shield.

It's impossible to fit all five into the same XI, but selectors might be able to squeeze in four. There are two ways of doing this.

The first would be to leave Lyon out and hand the spin bowling duties to Glenn Maxwell. The Victorian did well enough with the bat in India (159 at 39.75) to stake a serous claim for No.6 slot at the Gabba, however the fact he was only turned to for six overs of spin this series suggests captain Smith doesn't think much of him as a bowling option.

The second option would be to play five specialist bowlers, with Lyon playing alongside four quicks, five batsmen and the keeper. It'd be a bold ploy and would leave India with a long tail, but considering the first-class batting averages of three of the quicks in question - Starc (24.09), Cummins (24.11), Pattinson (21.68) - it'd be a capable tail too.

IS SHAUN MARSH'S TEST CAREER OVER?

There was plenty of logic behind Shaun Marsh's selection in India. On top of boasting an average of 66.28 across his past four Tests heading into the series, he had also already proved himself capable of playing in spinning conditions, with two centuries to his name in Sri Lanka. He was the selectors' poster boy for the phrase "horses for courses."

Unfortunately for Australia, the logic backfired. While Marsh produced one of the most important knocks of the series, grinding out 53 runs to stop what looked like a certain Indian victory in Ranchi, the fact he is only averaged 18.50 and only passed 20 in two of his innings.

Whether or not he recovers from the back injury he suffered in the final Test, Marsh will be under serious pressure to hold onto his spot in Australia, especially as someone has to make way for Usman Khawaja, who was making runs for fun before being snubbed in India.

Marsh is now 33 years and by the time the Ashes begin this summer, he will be 34. If he is the man to make way for Khawaja, has he still got it in him to win a spot back in the XI?

News Corp Australia


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