At their peak, Australia were the masters of mental disintegration. They’d go out of their way to get into the minds of the opposition, especially whilst playing at home, using every means at their disposal to gain a mental edge even before the first ball in a Test series was bowled.
Pat Cummins’ Australia of 2023 seem to have mastered the art of mentally disintegrating themselves, if the fare on offer in the first two Tests of their four-match series in India for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy is any evidence.
They arrived in Bengaluru at the beginning of the month armed with the external tools that they believed would help them counter the high-class spin threat of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on what they were convinced would be dust bowls. Unfortunately, they also arrived with loads of mental baggage that has been as much their undoing as the guile and craft of the two crack Indian tweakers.
Successive third-day finishes might indicate that Australia’s fears of dry pitches on which the ball would turn square from the off and where the bounce would be impossibly unpredictable have come true. But nothing could be further from the truth.
While the strips in both Nagpur and New Delhi did assist the slower bowlers, they were anything but diabolical. Australia’s unedifying displays thus far have been of their own making, and nothing illustrated that better than their spectacular implosion at the Arun Jaitley Stadium when they went from hunter to hunted in the proverbial bat of an eyelid.
Before the second Test, Pat Cummins had spoken about how it was all right to fail so long as his team failed in ‘the right way’. One’s not sure what failing in the right way entails exactly, but it certainly should not include losing nine wickets for 52 runs in 19.1 overs, or six batsmen being dismissed attempting the various varieties of sweep on a surface where that particular horizontal-bat stroke was perhaps the least advisable option.
Victims of Self-Doubt
If they are honest to themselves, Australia will admit that their predicament owes itself in equal part to the gremlins in their minds they have allowed to fester uncontrollably and to the relentless pressure imposed on them by two of the world’s premier spinners who know these conditions like the back of their hand.
The fact that Axar Patel, who came into this series with 47 wickets from eight Tests, has only got to bowl 26 overs in four completed innings testifies to the stranglehold of Ashwin and Jadeja, who between them have 31 scalps and three five-wicket hauls.
Neither of them needs further assistance from hesitant, uncertain, crease-tied batsmen unwilling to trust their techniques, but they were not complaining when Australia chose to offer them gifts that would have done Santa at Christmas-time proud.
Twice in the second Test, Australia had India where they wanted by adopting bold and proactive methods – in the first session of the first day and in the last session of the second. By using their feet and playing the ball rather than the bowler, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head rattled the Indian spinners a fair bit. Indeed, by stumps on day two which Australia took at 61 for one in just 12 overs in the second innings, they seemed to have grabbed the upper hand, given how forlorn and helpless Ashwin and Jadeja looked. But once Head was dismissed in the first over of the third day, they didn’t just lose Head the batsman. Their resolve dissipated and the dreaded sweep became their go-to option, with predictably disastrous results.
It's important, even imperative, to have individual plans to make runs -- because cricket is all about putting a total on the board, not just occupying the crease – and to trust those plans so long as they are born out of conviction rather than optimism.
There must be a method to madness, but if there was any method to Australia’s approach in the second innings of both Tests, that remained remarkably well concealed.
In Nagpur, their second-innings of 91 lasted just 131 minutes and 32.3 overs; in Delhi, 113 all out came in 135 minutes and 31.1 overs. These are numbers that don’t do justice to Australia’s standing as the top-ranked Test nation in the world, nor is it in keeping with their rich legacy and their deserved reputation for feisty competitiveness that they seemed to have left behind Down Under.
Imposing Home Record
India have a formidable record at home and pose challenges unique even in this part of the world, and there is a reason why they have lost only two Tests in the last ten years.
Despite their own batsmen having lost a little bit of touch with the art of playing top-class spin on wearing surfaces, they are better at it than any other team in the world. That they are now able to summon three crack spinners who are also excellent batsmen strengthens and lengthens the batting. Jadeja, Ashwin and Axar have all made important runs at crucial times in this series, one of the reasons why India have a foot in the final of the World Test Championship where they are again likely to face the Australians at The Oval in June.
Australia didn’t make the most of winning the toss in both Tests, only mustering 177 and 263 respectively, and now have nearly ten days to work out the way forward ahead of the third Test, in Indore from March 1. No matter how much time they spend in the nets, they aren’t going to become exceptional players of spin in such a short time, if ever. But they definitely aren’t as bad as their last two outings.
That’s what they must believe too, because if they carry a hangdog attitude and don’t find the balance between proactiveness and prudence, this could be a long and unendingly unforgiving tour. India are past masters at tightening the screws once they have done the front-running and so the visitors can expect no let-up. It’s up to them to channel their inner beast if there is to be no repeat of the 4-0 drubbing on these very shores back in 2013.