Sports

Australia must follow Steve Smith’s example to stand a chance in India

Australia must follow Steve Smith’s example to stand a chance in India

Australia’s Test tour promises little in the way of genuinely competitive cricket, as a rock-solid home batting line-up meets a fledgling one

Firstly, an announcement for viewers at home: playing the role of Glenn McGrath in this week’s episode of India vs Australia is Harbhajan Singh. “If Australia play well, India will win 3-0,” the former Indian spinner said on Friday. “That is if Australia play well. Otherwise, 4-0.”

Harbhajan, you might remember, was a villain of some repute in previous seasons of this engrossing but mostly predictable cable-TV drama, due for its return on Thursday in Pune. And as per the case of McGrath before him, who could really counter such a bold and dismissive prediction as this one?

Not since the heyday of those two players – when Australia actually won an away series – could you even label the Border-Gavaskar Trophy contests between these two sides in India an actual rivalry. When even Ricky Ponting is crossing his fingers and hoping for nothing more impressive than a respectable Australian loss, the world really has been tipped on its head.

Australia’s squad this time is nobody’s idea of the Hayden-Gilchrist-McGrath axis which brought Harbhajan and India undone in 2004, but it’s also not the hodgepodge mess of the 2013 trip. Aside from greenhorn spinner Mitchell Swepson, a clear attempt has been made at configuring a group of players theoretically suited to a very specific task. Horses for courses, four-and-a-half spinners for dustbowls.

There is some pedigree: David Warner, Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh have racked up plenty of miles in Indian conditions; across his stop-start Test career, Shaun Marsh proved his mettle best in spin-friendly Sri Lanka; Peter Handscomb is renowned as one of Australia’s best players of spin; first-choice spin options Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe are both mature bowlers; and the quality of the pace attack is unquestioned, if moot on the types of pitches expected. So far so respectable, if not compelling.

The only great selection controversy is the likelihood of Shaun Marsh replacing the incumbent No3, Usman Khawaja, which was the case in the Mumbai tour match last week. In many respects this would be a hasty abandonment of a princely Test batsman who scored 74, 97, 13 and an undefeated 79 in his last four Test innings, though Khawaja’s cause is not aided by previously uninspiring returns in Asian conditions.

Having spent half a decade picking batsmen who average in the mid-30s in Sheffield Shield cricket, Australia’s selectors find themselves in the dubious territory of dropping one whose Test mark has crept up to 47.94. And how perverse that following a 12-month period in which every jobbing all-rounder and his dog has been picked in one Australian side or another, a specialist talent as sophisticated and fully realised as Khawaja could find himself at the fringes of all three formats.

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That storm was brewing a month back, when interim chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns named Australia’s squad. “We see Usman as one of our best five or six batsmen, so he’s included because of that and we would expect Usman to do everything he possibly can to improve his play,” Hohns said at the time, expertly affording himself a get-out clause in the likely event the final XI for the first Test contained five batsmen and an all-rounder.

It used to be that what happened in Sri Lanka stayed in Sri Lanka, or at least counted for zilch elsewhere, but so desperate are Australia for viable batsmen on the pitches of the subcontinent that the older Marsh’s Test centuries in Pallakele (2011) and Colombo (2016) have gradually acquired the lustre of classics.

A more conservative but less likely approach, mooted by coach Darren Lehman on Tuesday, would be to bring Marsh in for rookie opener Matthew Renshaw. During the Australian summer the Queenslander hardly looked at ease facing spin, even in familiar conditions against a worn-out Yasir Shah. But Renshaw has at least earned first dibs – not a hallmark of current Australian selection policy.

The ballast in Australia’s batting order will come from a combination of domineering, all-weather skipper Steve Smith and the calm, assured Handscomb. Both play spin adeptly and adaptively. Yet the question remains whether anybody else can withstand the onslaught of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and will be the difference between Ponting’s wish for respectability and Harbhajan’s dire warning of oblivion.

A case in point is Renshaw’s all-action opening partner. Warner’s home and away batting personalities are not split, but this itself is probably why the results are. In Australia his Test average is 59.21. Overseas, where he less able to front-run and dominate, it’s 36.77. That falls to 24.37 in his four Tests in India and rises to just 25.57 when you add Tests in Sri Lanka. At his best, Warner gets Australia’s innings out of the blocks from pole position, but the risk of a first-lap prang remains considerable.

The tourists have had one preparatory tour match in Mumbai, which was played in atypical green-top conditions, so only occasionally hinted at relevance. Having predicted such modest assistance from the locals, Australia had already embarked upon a training camp in Dubai beforehand.

Of the pointers the tour match could provide, not all were positive. Spinner Steve O’Keefe’s pre-tour suggestion that restricting boundaries would be the surest path to wickets for he and Lyon was shown in a stark light; the pair combined for seven wickets but at economy rates of 4.20 and 5.61 respectively. The chief destroyer, unheralded Shreyas Iyer, made 150 of his brisk 202 from boundaries. So good luck with Virat Kohli.

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Of Lyon and O’Keefe’s backups, Swepson provides the variety of leg-spin, right-handedness and sheer novelty factor, while Ashton Agar boasts some A-team experience on the subcontinent. He’s more likely to end up the most handsome drinks waiter in cricket.

More convincing alternatives did present themselves this summer, to be truthful. Jon Holland and his 38 Sheffield Shield wickets at 19.73 watch on from the sofa at home, though if Adam Zampa’s first-class bowling average of 48.95 placed him “reasonably close”, as per Hohns’ squad announcement, it pays not to ponder selection criteria. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to take wickets to win Test matches,” Hohns said in January. Taking them in the beginning and middle parts of the day might be a far bigger problem.

Among the batsmen who had a hit in Mumbai, Shaun Marsh did his cause no harm with a century and captain Smith followed suit, because making hundreds for him is as natural as breathing air for the rest of us. Mitchell Marsh’s 74 states a compelling case for the all-rounder slot while Maxwell’s second innings failure at No3 possibly damaged his, though if the selectors can get their head around dropping Khawaja, picking Maxwell at some point probably doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

The likelihood is that pace-bowling capabilities will see the younger Marsh occupy the No6 role until such time as he fails dismally, though Australia might rethink their auto-selection of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood as the tour progresses, perhaps playing three spinners in one Test or more, or calling upon reliable Jackson Bird.

The greatest awkwardness looms behind the stumps, where Australia have no Plan B, save for part-timer Handscomb. Matthew Wade might have parlayed his status as the sixth-best gloveman in state ranks (uniquely, this drops to seventh-best when he’s in the Test side) to first-choice for his country, but by the end of this tour he might wish he had timed this second run at the job a little later.

Where Australia’s squad fails to inspire total confidence, India can afford to leave triple-centurions out of a rock-solid batting line-up. Having named an unchanged squad of 16 players – Rohit Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Amit Mishra are all still injured – the BCCI forewent the opportunity of an explanatory press conference. You assume it would have taken a Fergusonian slant: “Lads, it’s Australia.”

Their captain Kohli has reached such mesmeric heights as a batsman he might actually be levitating his way to the crease. The Indian captain’s Test average of 51.75 lifts to 60.76 against Australia, and likewise his home-Test mark of 61.21 against all comers. Since the start of 2016 he’s plundered 1457 Test runs at 80.94, artfully dashing off four double-centuries in the last seven months alone.

If Australia regularly curb Kohli’s brilliance, they will have unravelled a mystery which has tormented the best bowlers in cricket. In 13 starts Kohli is also yet to lose a home Test as captain, and his brilliance is the only reason all-rounder Ashwin – having recently bettered Dennis Lillee by three Tests as the quickest bowler to reach 250 Test wickets – isn’t India’s matinee idol.

Ashwin’s bowling dominance is such that no other Indian bowler has managed even half as many wickets since his Test debut. Often there are not many leftovers. Concerning too for Australia is that his fondness for bowling to left-handers rivals Gargamel’s blood-thirst for Smurfs, though Ashwin is generally more successful in his plots. Australia will boast at least four lefties in their top seven. Good luck with that, too.

Also, if Ashwin doesn’t get you, Jadeja must. With a home Test analysis of 96 wickets at 20.22, the once-maligned left-armer will be an ever-present danger. He took wickets for fun during Australia’s disastrous 2013 campaign; 24 of them at 17.45 as Ashwin grabbed 29 at 20.10 at the other end. Between them they they tied Australia down for 434.4 overs – well over half of India’s total overs bowled. That ratio is unlikely to budge, and neither is the enormity of Australia’s task to counter their influence.

On the topic of missing out, what Australia wouldn’t give to be leaving out a batsman whose last Test score (and maiden international ton) was an undefeated triple-century. That is the curious fate of India’s backup Karun Nair, who kept Ajinkya Rahane’s seat so warm it required a fire extinguisher. Throw in unassuming superstar Che Pujara and Murali Vijay, who is 20 runs better against Australia than his Test average of 40.67, and Australia’s bowlers might weep.

A lot of this chatter is moot. One of the key factors counting against Australia in every Indian tour failure following the miracle of 2004 is their total inability to arrest downward momentum. In fairness, this is a weakness of many modern cricket sides, not just Smith’s, but both the weight of history and various threats immediately at hand don’t bode well for drastic improvements.

Online Source: The Guardian

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