Australia in India 2012-13 March 21, 2013

Ashes talk undermines Australia effort

A rivalry that used to be hotly contested and for a decade produced some of the finest cricket in the world seems to have been sidelined by the Australians because of an obsession with their Ashes preparation

Has Michael Clarke's team been guilty of failing to focus on the task in hand? © BCCI

Australia have been so thoroughly outplayed on this tour of India that one can lay the blame at the feet of anything and get away without much scrutiny. One can accuse them of lacking the will to fight, being spoilt by T20 riches, or the new-age culture of high-performance academies. Some of them may even be true. Just as equally true, if not substantially more, is the stark difference in the skills and experience of the conditions between the two teams.

Having said that, I am still going to pick a subject of my fancy and attribute that as one of the factors for their loss. For an outsider, with no stake in Australia's performance on this tour, I found a couple of areas of their approach and preparation absolutely baffling.

Purely in terms of the quality of rivalry, India-Australia was arguably the finest for a decade in world cricket. The stocks of the Border-Gavaskar trophy were enhanced significantly since Steve Waugh anointed India as the final frontier for his champion team back in 2001. The rivalry has produced magical spells, the pinnacle of batsmanship the game has seen, gripping drama, and some obnoxious controversies over the years.

Add that to the fact that for the proud cricketing nation that Australia is, their record in India isn't particularly earth shattering. They have won four series in India in their history and only one since 1969 - that, too, with generous help from BCCI infighting (Nagpur) and the weather gods (Chennai) in 2004. The mighty trio of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting managed two wins in India between them (Adam Gilchrist managed two as stand-in for Ponting though). A series win in India could define Michael Clarke's captaincy in a way no other single series might.

Yet, it was hard to convince myself that Australia treated this series with the sense of importance it deserved. Phil Hughes was protected from the potent South Africa bowling attack for his comeback but was brought to India as if it is his most natural habitat. James Pattinson, the pick of the bowlers in Chennai, was preserved for the major part of the first Test of a critical series when the match was absolutely hanging in the balance. Irrespective of his fragile fitness and the sapping heat, would they have done it in the Ashes?

"If the Ashes is the only thing that matters, why even take the effort to come here? Is this a pre-Ashes preparatory camp?"

You get thrashed in the first, ransacked in the second, and you have two more Tests to go, with one of the most prestigious trophies in the game at stake - what do you do?

If you are Mickey Arthur, Australia's coach, you argue that these failures will have no bearing on the Ashes campaign. Really? He nearly hints that the India tour shouldn't have been part of the schedule at all. If your team has performed well at home and floundered badly abroad, would you look at the positives of performing at home or talk about fixing the performance outside? If the Ashes is the only thing that matters, why even take the effort to come here? Is this a pre-Ashes preparatory camp?

Arthur wasn't the only one. Pattinson thought dropping him on disciplinary grounds was the right step ahead of the Ashes. What about the fact that it ensured there was a negligible chance of Australia retaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy?

What about the homework scandal itself? How important are culture and discipline to the larger objectives of the team? Are the means so overwhelmingly important as to obfuscate the end? Was the incident so severe that it needed to be addressed (in such a high-handed fashion) at the cost of not giving the team their best chance to retain the trophy? Again, would they have dropped a player as critical to the team as Pattinson in the middle of the Ashes? Heck, would they have dropped him had it been a home series against any opponent? Channel Nine honchos would have knocked on the doors of Cricket Australia almost immediately.

Not only is this Australia team a pale shadow of its famed predecessors, it increasingly resembles the Poms of the 1990s: treating every other series as a sideshow to the perceived marquee event every two years, eventually get thrashed in the marquee event anyway.

For the love of "Tubby" Taylor, I hope it hasn't come to that.

When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets @cornerd