Michael Jeh October 5, 2008

Advantage India

Will India be comfortable with being the team that has to now make the running instead of reacting to it

Finally, a look at what Australia’s world will look like after Warne, McGrath and Gilchrist. All three men were ‘once-in-a-generation’ players. Australia were indeed blessed to have them all playing together. Especially when you add the other great names of that period.

That golden era is about to end I’m afraid. The two alpha predators of the jungle are about to face off and that aura of invincibility is no longer the birthright of the next generation of players to don the famous baggy green. Don’t get me wrong – they will be competitive of course and they will probably win more matches than they lose. But they will need to change their hunting style to suit their strengths. There will be change.

The biggest change we’re likely to see is a more defensive and more pragmatic approach in the field. Australia used to pride itself on entering every single Test match with the sole intention of winning it. Playing for the draw was the fallback position, employed as a last resort when every avenue of winning had been exhausted. It was this sort of attitude, combined with a powerful talent pool that revolutionised modern cricket. The only teams that occasionally beat Australia during this period were the ones prepared to adopt similar tactics. England’s Ashes triumph in 2005 was the blueprint that other teams will now need to follow.

South Africa – for some inexplicable reason, they went into each series against Australia with a plan to first secure a safe position and then press on for a win if the opportunity presented itself. Against the top predator, such timidity rarely brought rewards. In very simplistic National Geographic terms, the Aussies were like a pride of lions, taking on prey head-on and making big kills. The rewards were worth the odd botched hunt. The South Africans reminded me of hyenas, highly efficient and tireless, nipping away at the heels, waiting for a moment of weakness and then darting in for a slow kill if the opportunity presented itself.

In India next week, I suspect that analogy will no longer apply. With arguably one of the weakest spin attacks in world cricket at the moment, Australia will no longer have the luxury of attack, attack, attack. Ponting will be forced to employ defensive fields with sweepers in place from the outset. It will be fascinating to see how the team reacts to this new philosophy and to see if affects their natural aggression in the field. It’s going to be a lot harder to mentally dominate the inner-circle when half the fielders are in the deep and someone like Sehwag or Tendulkar are in full flow on home pitches.

It is this facet of the game that will provide some riveting viewing. It will give Australia a glimpse of what the next decade is going to be like until they find another Warne or McGrath. They have been so used to dominating the opposition and creating an aura around the crease which resulted in a ‘bubble’ that simultaneously hypnotised and intimidated. The combined pressure of accurate bowling, great catching and constant ‘chat’ around the bat was a powerful cocktail that had a crippling effect. It’s a lot harder to sustain that pressure in searing Indian heat with the score on 4-320, four fielders in the deep, no close-in catcher and a passionate home crowd egging Tendulkar on with Jason Krezja and Cameron White bowling in tandem.

The Australian batting still looks deep enough to match India’s class but will their psyche be affected by the knowledge that the bowlers don’t have the firepower? It’s easy to bat freely and aggressively when you know you’ve got 700+ Test wickets in the bowling arsenal. The current attack, Brett Lee apart, looks decidedly vulnerable to a blistering counter-attack from someone like Sehwag or Dhoni. Or liable to be worn down by a Dravid epic.

The big question of course is whether India will be comfortable with being the team that has to now make the running instead of reacting to it. Will that affect their mindset? If Australia sense that India are not quite ready to storm the fortress, they might just live to fight another day. Like any lion pride, there comes a moment when the challenger senses a genuine opportunity and this may be one such moment in history. That moment will arrive when the Aussie spinners come on to bowl – India’s reaction will tell us all if they are lions or hyenas.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane