IND vs AUS: There is something un-Australia about Pat Cummins’ Australian team that finds itself 0-2 down in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy with two more Tests to go. Be it landing in India without fully fit players, benching an inform player, sending home a spinner they had initially trusted, batsmen surrendering meekly without a fight, being spooked by how the pitch is going to behave, playing just one pacer – when fast-bowling has been their strongest suit. The list may get longer in Indore and Ahmedabad, the venues for the third and fourth Test matches. These are the sort of characteristics one never got to see from past Australian teams.
Leave alone the 2001 and 2004 touring Australian teams which had more than a handful of match-winners, even in 2008 and 2010, they were hard to dislodge. In those tours, they arrived here with a pace unit that is inferior to the current one, but Ricky Ponting ensured India had to earn each run they scored and each wicket they picked up.
But this time, Cummins’ team has looked so out of place. We may have to wait for one of them to chronicle their masochistic tour in a book to know how they were consumed by the outside noise about how the pitches will behave. Whether it was at Nagpur or at Delhi, their batting in the second innings was a lesson for touring teams as to how not to bat in these conditions against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
A wrong weapon triggered by a misreading of the pitch is the postmortem of S Sriram, who was Australia’s assistant coach for a couple of years.
“In the second innings, they looked like they wanted to take the game away quickly and they thought the wicket was deteriorating fast and we should make as many runs as possible as quickly. That is where they didn’t read the game well. They could have taken a bit more time and should have played out one spell from Ashwin and Jadeja. Had they done that the game would have been different,” Sriram told The Indian Express.
Then came the wrong weapon – using the sweep shot. They didn’t even go for the regular sweeps but almost frantic slog-sweeps on a pitch where the ball had begun to keep low.
What was also noticeable was the lack of application from batsmen. In Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith, Australia have two batsmen who are known for their penchant to occupy the crease for long and construct the innings. So far on this tour, the two haven’t trusted themselves to bat through the tough periods.
In these conditions where Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar Patel hardly give any loose deliveries to score off, Sriram believes each batter should have his own game plan.
“Trusting the defence is important. Then you should have the combination of being able to use your feet and hitting against the spin, play off the back-foot and if you can sweep, then nothing like it. If you can’t sweep, you must use the crease to go forward and back and laterally also. Getting as close to the ball as possible is important.
“If an off-spinner is bowling from around the stumps, you have to open up your stance a bit and when you do that, you would be able to open up the off-side whenever there is an opportunity. Then you should be able to play a back-foot punch through the covers. These are the shots you can play in these conditions. From the look of it, it doesn’t seem like they have had these kinds of chats. They look undercooked in terms of their preparation and game plan. From the outside it looks like there was not enough conversation and no definitive plan to play. Lot of them looked like they were shooting in the dark. There was more hope than conviction,” Sriram said.
Play out the spells
With Ashwin and Jadeja bowling in tandem in helpful conditions, Australia have also found it difficult to keep the innings moving. While it is true that the likes of Matthew Hayden, Kevin Pietersen, Hashim Amla all have scored runs by using the sweep and lofted shots, against Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar – who tend to attack the stumps more, some of these shots always comes with an element of risk.
“When you are facing Ashwin and Jadeja, you should be prepared to play them out as well. It is a matter of one hour. Test cricket is all about seeing off good spells and scoring off not so good spells. You can’t play the same tempo throughout the game or throughout the day. Here, you have Ashwin and Jadeja who are bowling really good spells so it is about shutting shop for one hour and giving them the respect and then take it from there. (Peter) Handscomb and (Usman) Khawaja showed how it is done. Not that they don’t know how to score, but you have to wait for the opportune moment to score runs,” Sriram explains.
Australia are not the only team to have struggled against India’s spinners in India. England have suffered similar fate, but to their credit they ended up winning a Test in Chennai. New Zealand drew a Test here in 2021. But in recent times, among the visiting teams South Africa in 2019 was the only team to successfully finish a three-match Test series without giving any of the Indian spinners a five-wicket haul. Although they lost the series 3-0, their batters didn’t resort to blindly sweeping against spinners. While they ended up giving their wickets mostly to the pacers, South African batters used their feet to the spinners.
Former Mumbai batsman Amol Muzumdar, who worked with the South Africa team in that series as a consultant, reveals what is the ideal method to play the spinners. “To start with, you should be able to judge the length of the ball as quickly as possible. There lies the complete secret of it. You need to judge the length from the hand — immediately. From there on the entire process starts — whether to go front foot or back foot, to play a attacking shot or a defensive shot, whether to sweep or not — everything happens from the moment you start reading from the hand. It is all about how you are comfortable in your mind to tackle spin. The best possible way is to present the full face of the bat.” Against the Indian spinners, who don’t err on line or length, Muzumdar’s advice to South Africa batters was not to rely on the sweep shots. While visiting batters in the past have had success with sweep shots, including Joe Root recently, Muzumdar believes Indian spinners are prepared for that.
“Both Ashwin and Jadeja bowl a stump-to-stump line. Harbhajan in 2001 bowled a more attacking line, where he was offering width outside the off-stump. From there you can sweep. But you can’t sweep deliveries pitching in the line of stumps. You have to use your feet, and the crease vertically and horizontally. That was the plan for South Africa. You have to place yourself in a different position. And we had a clear plan that we are going to go over the top against spinners. Unless you go over the top it is very difficult. When you play in Asian conditions, you cannot have a template to play spinners. Every ball has different challenges,” Muzumdar added. And it is not as if Australia are not aware of it. In 2017 when they came here and won a Test on a rank turner in Pune, they were judicious in their shot selection. And the batting unit is largely the same with Labuschagne, Head and Alex Carey being the newcomers this time. And ahead of that series, Australia had a strong preparation camp in Dubai and even played a practice fixture in Mumbai.
“There were a lot of discussions when they came here in 2017. Lot of batsmen used to discuss their gameplan and even share insecurities… They will say I’m scared of playing this shot, what should I do?’ and that sort of discussion helped. They were sceptical about hitting against the spin, ‘Should I do it, will I end up losing my wicket’ were the most commonly asked questions. And once we kept reiterating that it is fine, their confidence improved and they ended up putting up a fight,” Sriram recalled. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy might have been lost, but Australia have a lot at stake in the remaining two Tests. Their pride and identity, for starters.