Lehmann pans Australia's 'shoddy' fielding
Australia coach Darren Lehmann has panned his side's fielding during the Boxing Day Test match as "shoddy at best," and believes the butterfingers that contributed greatly to India's escape with a drawn third Test were a result of slipping confidence rather than insufficient practice.
Fielding has been arguably the surest indicator of a slight tailing off in Australia's intensity since last summer's 5-0 sweep of England and 2-1 series success in South Africa, where in both cases the team led by Michael Clarke caught near enough to everything that flew into their vicinity.
Numerous chances went down at critical times during the heavy loss of two Tests to Pakistan in the UAE. Though the standard improved slightly in Adelaide and Brisbane, a series of drops was a greater factor in the first drawn Melbourne Test for 17 years than any matters of weather, pitch or defensive cricket on the part of either team.
"Shoddy at best," Lehmann responded when asked for his assessment. "We've done a lot of work and I can't complain about the work ethic from the lads, but the big one's that cost us were the first innings. We dropped Kohli and Rahane and they made 169 and 147. That cost us dearly in the back end of the game. Catches win matches.
"It's not volume or practice, they're very good at that. It's probably more confidence to be honest, I've been really pleased with the work ethic. We made a conscious effort in the UAE and then after that series that we had to work harder on it and they've been excellent with it. They're catching brilliantly in practice so it's probably more confidence."
The dropped catches in Melbourne took on various forms. Brad Haddin spilled a straightforward chance from Cheteshwar Pujara on the second evening. The following day issues in slips placement between Haddin and Shane Watson saw the wicketkeeper take a pair of spectacular diving catches at the start and end of play, but in the meantime he did not go for a chance from Kohli that appeared closer than the others - a startled Watson dived too late to get both hands to his left.
Peter Siddle turfed an eminently catchable chance from the blade of KL Rahul when briefly on as a substitute fielder, though the batsman's departure moments later softened the blow. And Chris Rogers had a Rahane cut shot burst through his fingers on the final afternoon when a clean catch might have given Australia enough time to seal the win. A strong chance to run out Kohli had also been missed.
These spurned opportunities were substantial, and a significant drop in standard from this time last summer, when England's batsmen were harried by the thought that even half-chances were being snaffled. While the stand-in captain Steven Smith has maintained an exceptional personal level, notably his diving effort at the Gabba to remove Rohit Sharma on the second morning, others have not.
It is instructive that the fielding post has been the least settled of all Australian coaching positions since Lehmann replaced Mickey Arthur on the eve of the Ashes in England 18 months ago. Steve Rixon held the role when Lehmann arrived, and then at Lehmann's request his drills were augmented by the encouragement and advice of American baseball coach and ground-fielding expert Mike Young at the start of the home summer.
But Rixon departed following the home Ashes success, and Young's consulting contract was not renewed following the South Africa tour. Lehmann's mention of confidence as part of fielding was significant in that context, for Young was known as much for his ability to make the players feel strong and confident in their ability as for the rigours of his training patterns.
The backslaps and exhortations of Young have been replaced by the more laid-back visage of Lehmann's former South Australia team-mate Greg Blewett, who was with the team in the UAE and has worked consistently with them since.
"Hopefully he keeps enjoying it," Lehmann said of Blewett. "He's done a really good job, Michael [Clarke] said it well on TV the other day, he's worked the boys as hard as we've ever seen anyone work them before. The volume's not the issue, it's the confidence of the players and having that ability to take those chances."
Whoever is in charge of Australia's fielding, they know that a repeat of the Melbourne display will result in more draws and losses than the wins that not only enhance the team's standing but also fatten their wallets. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy will be worth a win bonus of around $20,000 to each player - another incentive, perhaps, for closing out the series with a draw.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig