Test matches (4): India 4, Australia 0
Clean sweeps involving Australia were once a thing of regularity. Glenn McGrath could predict a whitewash at the start of each Ashes series in the belief that one day he would be proved right. As late as 2011-12, the Australians crushed India 4-0 in a home series that was as one-sided as a Mobius strip. But the boot on the other foot? Even in a country where Australia had won only one series since 1969-70? For more than two decades, their fans had greeted that prospect as they would the colonisation of the moon: possible in theory, but not something for this generation to worry about.
All that changed over five weeks in India, where MS Dhoni's men were methodical and merciless in racking up a 4-0 triumph. The retirements of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey in the months before the series had left a yawning hole in Australia's middle order - and Michael Clarke in charge of one of their least-fancied squads ever to have visited the subcontinent. True, it was an evolving group of players. But adaptation is the key to evolution and, at almost every level - not least on the slow, dry, turning pitches - Australia failed to adapt.
Inevitably, perhaps, on-field failures were accompanied by off-field dysfunction, the like of which Australia had rarely seen. Four players, including vice-captain Shane Watson, were suspended for the Third Test in Mohali after neglecting to complete a task set for them by coach Mickey Arthur. The severity of the punishment was the subject of incandescent debate, especially as Watson flew back to Australia on the same day for the birth of his first child, calling the penalty "extremely harsh" and saying he would use his time at home to consider his future.
India, meanwhile, chastised by their loss to England before Christmas, went from triumph to triumph, and for the first time won four Tests in a series. It was a cathartic result given their 4-0 defeat in Australia 14 months earlier - even if two such stark scorelines suggested neither team could be considered the equal of South Africa or England until they could perform in unfamiliar conditions. As if to underline the point, spinners Ravichandran Ashwin - revitalised after his struggles against the English - and Ravindra Jadeja took 53 of the 78 wickets that fell to India's bowlers.
While Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara calmly gathered big scores, the batting of Dhoni and Shikhar Dhawan, by contrast, wreaked havoc. Dhoni's double-century in the First Test felt like a blow - or a series of blows - from which Australia never recovered. And the emergence of Dhawan, who at Mohali converted the fastest recorded hundred by a Test debutant into a memorable 187, turned the one potential downer for India - the axing of the established opening pair of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag - into another reason for excitement. Gambhir, after three years without a Test hundred, was dropped before the series, and Sehwag - who resorted to batting in glasses - failed at Chennai and Hyderabad, where India's batsmen otherwise handled Australia's modest spin attack with ease. Their patient batting was exemplified by Vijay and Pujara, comfortably the two leading run-scorers in the series. The serene Vijay was the only man to make two centuries, even if he was overshadowed on both occasions - by Pujara's double-hundred at Hyderabad, where the pair added 370 for the second wicket, and by Dhawan at Mohali.
Australia's batsmen failed to find any sort of balance between defence and attack. With the exceptions of Clarke and, briefly, Steve Smith, their footwork against India's spinners came as naturally as cursing in Hindi. They managed 29 scores above 20, but only one hundred - from Clarke, on the first day of the series - to India's six; and their largest partnership was 151. Seldom has the batting unit performed so poorly: Watson, David Warner, Phillip Hughes and Matthew Wade all averaged under 25. Fear of the turning ball was personified by Hughes, who until his sixth innings appeared to have no scoring plan against the slow bowlers at all: his only options seemed to be defence or dismissal. After nudging a few runs on day one in Chennai, he endured a drought of 58 scoreless deliveries against spin across three Tests; meanwhile, Ashwin and Jadeja dismissed him four times.
The bite and bounce achieved by Ashwin made him a constant threat, and his tally of 29 wickets was the best by an Indian in any Test series since Harbhajan Singh took 32 in three matches during the epic 2000-01 encounter between these teams. Jadeja's steady left-arm spin collected 24 victims, including the priceless wicket of a startled Clarke in five innings out of six. By comparison Nathan Lyon, Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell were toothless. Lyon entered and exited the series as Australia's first-choice spinner, but lacked the Indians' subtle variations in length and flight. Despite that, the selectors erred by dropping him in Hyderabad for Doherty - a one-day specialist who, not surprisingly, proved tidy but unpenetrative. The confusion was exemplified by Maxwell: drafted in for the Second Test, dropped for the Third, recalled for the Fourth. The fast bowlers, especially James Pattinson and Peter Siddle, were tireless and solid, but did not generally have enough runs to defend.
Watson, without a Test century since October 2010, was especially disappointing. One of just four men in the squad with Test experience in India, he had opted to play as a batsman only, in an effort to avoid exacerbating the calf and hamstring problems which had blighted his two most recent home summers. Yet he survived only 239 deliveries in six innings for 99 runs; Lyon, usually at No. 11, faced 244. But in the absence of Hussey and Ponting, Australia lacked leadership as much as batsmanship. That became acutely obvious when Clarke, Arthur and team manager Gavin Dovey announced three days before the Third Test that Watson, Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson and Usman Khawaja would not be considered for selection. After their Hyderabad humiliation, the players had been asked by Arthur for three ideas to improve their own performance and the team's. The four ignored the task, which was taken as a sign they were not hurting enough. The management stressed that standards had slipped throughout the tour among the whole squad: players had turned up late to meetings, failed tests relating to body fat, and worn the wrong uniforms. They decided an example had to be made.
The decision was extreme but sound. Who, many wondered at the time, would risk taking liberties with Arthur and Clarke after such a stand? Arthur, by his own admission, had "put his neck on the line" - a phrase which took on an unexpected turn when he was sacked in late June, two weeks before the first Ashes Test. Yet it was troubling that discipline had been allowed to slide - and telling that Watson, second in command, was one of the offenders. Pat Howard, Australia's team performance manager, said he thought Watson acted in the best interests of the team "sometimes"; the caveat felt damning. And the final irony came when Clarke missed the Fourth Test at Delhi because of his injured back, at which point the captaincy passed to, yes, Watson - now back from Sydney following the birth of his son. While Clarke went home, which did little to encourage notions of a unified group, Watson's introduction to Test leadership was a three-day defeat; a few weeks later, he quit the vice-captaincy to focus on his batting.
Australia had won all four tosses - and batted first each time - but it was not much help. They were whitewashed for only the fourth time in a series of three or more Tests, following 1982-83 (when they lost 3-0 in Pakistan), 1969-70 (when Bill Lawry led an exhausted squad to South Africa and went down 4-0), and 1886 (when they lost 3-0 in England).
India, meanwhile, could put their defeat by England behind them, and settle into a long absence from Test cricket, with none scheduled for another eight months. That hiatus meant questions could be put aside about the immediate future of Sachin Tendulkar, who began the series with a sparkling 81 at Chennai before falling away. Dhoni could be feted after becoming India's most successful Test captain, having passed Sourav Ganguly's record of 21 victories, at Hyderabad. And India's fans could soak up the joy of their first 4-0 whitewash. Their mirror-image defeat in Australia felt like another world.
Match reports for
Indian Board President's XI v Australians at Chennai, Feb 12-13, 2013
Tour Match: India A v Australians at Chennai, Feb 16-18, 2013