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Yet another day of missed opportunities for Australia

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Last updated on 17 Feb 2023 | 03:56 PM
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Yet another day of missed opportunities for Australia

It was one of the better days for Australia in this Test series but the tourists would still feel they could have done more

When Australia were bowled out for 177 in the first innings of the Nagpur Test, the talk of the town was that they should have gotten themselves to 250 to stay alive in the contest. On Day 1 of the second Test in Delhi, winning the toss and batting first again, Australia put 263 runs on board. As argued earlier, Australia are in the game by stumps on Day 1 in Delhi. However, that feeling of missing out on an opportunity stays. 

Australia were 50 for no loss, with David Warner and Usman Khawaja battling through the first hour. Warner got a peach from Mohammad Shami, failing to fulfill a start that could have paved the way to better his dismal record in India. Never mind. It happens. Australia swiftly moved to 91/1 over the next seven overs. Khawaja well past his fifty with Marnus Labuschagne also getting his eye in. Steve Smith yet to come. Forget 250, even 350 was on cards. The number lacks the feel of it but given the uneven bounce on the pitch on Day 1 itself, 350 could have been one of those big first innings scores. 

And Australia slid, again. 

In the blink of an eye, the fortunes changed. They went from 91/1 to 91/3. Both Labuschagne and Smith were out within three deliveries. Next over, the scoreline showed 91/4 for a fleeting period when Khawaja was adjudged lbw by the on-field umpire. Had the decision stood, Aussies would have switched the devil’s number from 87 to 91. But fortunately for the visitors, DRS came to the rescue. 

In any case, the hopes of a 350-plus total were squished. It was the duo of Labuschagne and Smith that carried Australia from 2/2 to 84.2 in Nagpur. On Friday (February 17), both were out one after the other. In Nagpur, after being 2/2, they were 91/4. Today, they were almost 91/4 after being 50 for no loss.

The point is, Australia had the toss going their way for the second time in the series. They had a good start and yet, they found themselves in the same hole as they did in Nagpur. Travis Head was brought in the team for his attacking instincts but edged a Shami delivery to the slip cordon after making 12 off 30 balls. 108/4.

Australia had three 50-plus partnerships but none of them could go into the 60s. In the end, they huffed and puffed to cross the 250-run mark, getting there with only one wicket in hand.

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The one positive difference between Nagpur and Delhi was two batters finding their feet to notch up half-centuries. Both Khawaja and Peter Handscomb batted with grit and prowess. Both batters neutralized the spinners for the majority of their innings. Khawaja scored 56 of his 81 runs against spin while Handscomb accumulated 58 against spinners in his unbeaten knock of 72. 

Khawaja, taking a leaf out of Alex Carey’s book, played plenty of sweep strokes. Approximately, every sixth ball he played of spin, he played a version of a sweep stroke, accumulating 25 runs from 13 sweeps, reverse sweeps and paddle sweeps. In comparison, Handscomb played only one such stroke, a slog sweep, which went for four. 

Both batters had some career-related context heading into that game. Both are known to be better players of spin bowling in the Australian circuit but haven’t justified their full potential. Khawaja averages 76.3 and 165.2 in UAE and Pakistan respectively but when it comes to Sri Lanka and India, his average lingers under 30. The difference is that Pakistan and UAE assist slow turn, allowing the batter to adjust to the change in the trajectory of the ball. The liberty is absent in India and Sri Lanka, making it two of the toughest countries for overseas batters to counter spinners. After the first Test, where Khawaja made 1 & 5, there were memes that the Indian embassy was thinking of Khawaja’s benefit by not granting him the visa in time. The left-hander has dismissed all those jokes. 

Handscomb has only shown glimpses in his game, which has only underlined his potential against spin without anything significant. On the 2017 tour to India, the right-hander was out to spin on six out of eight occasions. Ravindra Jadeja was his biggest enemy, fetching him twice while conceding only 54 runs off 237 balls he bowled to him. On Friday, Handscomb had his least false shot percentage vs Jadeja (10.1) while scoring at a strike-rate of 54.2. He played straight, defended with utmost assurance and never looked in trouble. His false shot percentage of 12.6% was the lowest for any batter who played over 30 balls in the day’s play. 

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The world was briefly good for the Australian team. Khawaja and Handscomb added 59 off 122 balls. The fact that someone other than Smith was standing up was further pleasing. But then, in a conflation of misfortune and bad shot selection, the highest run-scorer of the day fell to the most avoidable dismissal in the innings. Khawaja went for a pre-meditated sweep stroke against Jadeja. The ball was outside the leg-stump. The left-hander had plenty of time to change his shot to a conventional/paddle sweep but continued with his pre-planned stroke, only to find KL Rahul take a one-handed catch from his fielding position at the covers. 

With that dismissal, Khawaja also missed out on a golden opportunity to amass a memorable Test ton in India. 

Pat Cummins’ 33 off 59 balls kept Australia in hunt but by the time they reached the 250-run mark, Handscomb, their most unerring batter of the day, had run out of partners. 

On another day, both Khawaja and Handscomb would march on to score a hundred each but it just turned out to be another day of missed opportunities for the tourists. 

All is not lost yet. When they won in Pune in 2017, they had only 261 on the board batting first. Now they need their left-arm spinner Matthew Kuhnemann to repeat a Steve O’Keefe. It is easier said than done given India’s long batting line-up and an in-form tail. But as they did on Day 1, they need to create opportunities and make sure they don’t miss out on cashing in on them. 

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