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More demons in Australia’s mind than on the pitch

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Last updated on 19 Feb 2023 | 02:11 PM
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More demons in Australia’s mind than on the pitch

Australia frenetic display of aggression was a classical case of madness without method

Let’s start this by dissecting Alex Carey’s dismissal. Ravindra Jadeja was bowling from around the stumps. Carey was still new to the crease, facing nine balls, having spent a little over 20 minutes in the middle. He went for one of his reverse sweeps. 

Carey was out to that stroke both times in the Nagpur Test. You may argue he should have shunned it but like bowlers have their stock deliveries, sweeps are Carey’s go-to shot against spinners. But this was arguably the worst reverse sweep he has ever played. 

A left-arm spinner is bowling from around the stumps. The left-hander planted his front foot well outside the off stump, exposing his leg and middle peg to a bowler who likes to maintain a stump-to-stump line. Sweeps are tough to control but Carey increased the risk-reward factor against him. If he missed he was out. If he connected well, he would have fetched four runs at maximum. On basic geometry, it was a terrible shot selection. 

Around eight overs ago, Steve Smith had planted his front foot so far across while playing a conventional sweep that he didn’t cover the turn on the ball and was out lbw. Only four overs before Carey’s dismissal, Pat Cummins was out playing an ugly hoick over mid-wicket, the last shot any batter should pick on a low and slow surface. He was castled through the gate. Between these dismissals, the visitors slipped from 85/2 to 110/8. 

Australia had many horrible dismissals on the Day 3 morning but these three highlighted the muddled thinking in their mind, engineered by the superficial demons on the pitch and the aura of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja

They carried on from their overnight approach to put pressure on the Indian spinners but no madness without a solid method has tasted success over a long stretch. 

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At first, when Travis Head stroked his way to 39 off 39 balls late in the evening session yesterday, his batting was based on acknowledging the line and length of the ball. He played primarily down the ground, instead of playing one sweep after the other. In fact, he didn’t play a single sweep despite facing 28 balls of spin yesterday (February 18). 

Also, the morning session has been the toughest for batters in this Test. On Day 1 and 2, the first session had the highest false-shot percentage (19.6%), the lowest batting average (21.6) and the lowest economy rate (2.94) among all three sessions. 

"I think it's the initial phase when you are just walking into bat, you find it a little difficult. But once you play about 30-40 balls, then it's a good pitch to bat on,” said Cheteshwar Pujara post match in conversation with the broadcasters. 

Barring Marnus Labuschagne, no other Australian batter got past that ‘30-40 balls’ period on Sunday. 

Australian skipper Cummins agreed they went overboard with their tactic. “You've got to find a way to try and put pressure back on the bowlers. Probably just at times maybe just overplayed it,” he said after the defeat. 

Australia played 115 balls of spin on Day 3 and tried a total of 16 sweep strokes. That is a sweep every eighth delivery. Five of the nine wickets today fell to the sweep. Matthew Hayden, the former Australian opener who hammered 549 runs on the tour of India in 2001 with a technique centralized around the sweep strokes to counter spinners, was livid in the commentary box.

“It’s a good option here but you need to know how. Can’t get too far beside the line. Need to come along the line of the ball. Definitely not every ball. It’s part of your arsenal but it also needs to be backed up by smarts,” Hayden said on air. 

A bit later, Harsha Bhogle exclaimed that the ‘s’ in the sweep is silent. 

Rohit Sharma, during a modest run chase of 115, showed how to counter spin with attacking instincts. He eased to 31 off 20 balls, simply by playing the ball straight and charging down to the pitch of the ball. He had a false shot percentage of 0 and a strike-rate of 155.

Australia’s method was in stark contrast to India’s approach. Despite being pinned down by Head last evening, the Indian spinners stuck to their strengths. Meanwhile, the Aussie batters went away from their method and perished like nine pins. It is a classical case of playing the bowler, not the ball, which only leads to a compromised thought process. 

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Batting in the third innings has been Australia’s Achilles heel in India. In Nagpur, they were bowled out for 91 nearly within a session. In Dharamsala, they let go of a relevant opportunity to win in India, when they were wrapped up for 137 in the third innings after only a 32-run deficit in the fourth Test. And then in Delhi itself in 2013. They trailed only by 10 runs in the first innings but managed only 164 while batting second, rendering another missed opportunity. 

2023 proved to be a painful throwback to 2013. Jadeja was the player-of-the-match then for 5/58 in the second innings. Those were his best bowling figures back then. Today, he snaffled 7/42, again his career best figures and again, he fetched the player-of-the-match award. 

“We will have to review what we could have done differently,” Cummins mentioned post match. Australia have 10 days to figure that out and find a way to complement their madness with an efficient method. 

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