Australia's topsy-turvy batting on show again
Another day on this Indian tour, another top-order collapse, another tail-end recovery. To quote the great Major League Baseball player and manager Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again. On a cracking pitch that looked more like a surface from day five than day one, Australia finished at an almost respectable 231 for 8. Peter Siddle was unbeaten on 47 and was the highest scorer. It was the third time in seven innings in this series that the top score has come from outside the top six. That is a damning statistic.
Just as the debutant Moises Henriques outshone the specialist batsmen in the second innings in Chennai and Mitchell Starc upstaged everyone else with his 99 in Mohali, Siddle has shown that despite the challenges of this Delhi pitch it can be handled. Not that many of the Australian top order can blame the conditions for their exits at the Feroz Shah Kotla. In fact, what must have displeased Mickey Arthur and his staff the most was the familiarity of the dismissals, the lessons that haven't been learnt. It was like a clip show from the previous three Tests.
Playing straight and showing patience have been mantras the coaches have tried to instil in the batsmen in this series. Arthur was livid when Warner was bowled around his legs trying to sweep R Ashwin early in his second innings in Hyderabad. In the second innings in Mohali, he flashed at a wide ball with no footwork and was caught behind in the first over. Here he did exactly the same for exactly the same result. At least he waited until the second over.
Warner's sweep in Hyderabad followed a similarly poor attempt from Phillip Hughes that yielded Ashwin another bowled around the legs. It must have been especially frustrating, then, for the Australians to see Cowan get out the same way on day one in Delhi. And just like Warner's ill-fated sweep, Cowan chose to play from the first ball after a change of angle from Ashwin. Over the wicket, sweep, bowled. Cowan had shown such patience in his 99-ball innings of 38 but it was another start squandered.
Michael Clarke spoke before the tour of the importance of batsmen going on with their starts, turning twenties, thirties, forties, fifties into big triple-figure scores. The tally is now up to 26 times that Australian batsmen have passed 20 in this series. But Clarke's 130 in the first innings of the tour remains their only hundred. Clarke is not part of this Test due to his sore back, but one of his dismissals was recreated by his captaincy successor Shane Watson.
In the first innings in Mohali, Clarke advanced to Ravindra Jadeja and was beaten by the flight and the turn, stumped because he failed to get to the pitch of the ball. Watson's dismissal in Delhi might have been a carbon copy, except for the lack of grace in his footwork. It would have been easier for the heavy roller to make a quick u-turn on this pitch than Watson. He cannot be criticised for using his feet, for reluctance to do so has been a failing of the batsmen all tour. But better judgment of length is key.
Here another Yogi Berra-ism comes to mind: "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." It is all well and good to talk about footwork and ways to counter the spinners, but against quality, in-form bowlers like Jadeja and Ashwin, no amount of theorising or net batting against Xavier Doherty, Nathan Lyon, Steven Smith and Glenn Maxwell can truly prepare a batsman for the battle in the middle.
Hughes looked in wonderful touch until he was roughed up by an Ishant Sharma bouncer and tentatively played on three balls later. It was fine bowling and the unexpectedly sharp bounce put down into Hughes' mind. In that way, he could perhaps claim to be the only one of the top-order men whose dismissal was a result of the surface. Matthew Wade can also be forgiven; he was given out bat-pad to a ball that touched only his leg.
Apart from Warner, the No.7 Maxwell has the most to regret about the way he departed. When he had faced only 15 balls he tried to force Jadeja through the leg side and tamely chipped a catch to wide midwicket. It was a Twenty20 shot, not the stroke to be played at 129 for 5, regardless of Maxwell's natural aggression. Perhaps he could have watched the way Smith batted.
Like Maxwell, Smith struck a six early in his innings. But he reined in some of naturally attacking urges and by the time he had faced 100 balls - the only batsman to reach that milestone until Siddle - he had only 24 runs. The politician Stephen Smith has served as Australia's minister for defence and minister for foreign affairs; here, his namesake was Australian cricket's minister for defence and handling foreign conditions.
Smith is a natural at using his feet and it was notable that he was often prepared to advance and then block. Most Australian batsman, Clarke aside, seem to think if they are down the wicket they must slog. But the Smith-Clarke approach is an important method of defence in these conditions. Alas, Smith couldn't push on and nudged a catch to short leg. At least he had helped Siddle with the recovery in a 53-run stand.
But the list of starts continued Australia's stuttering trend: Cowan 38, Hughes 45, Watson 17, Smith 46, Maxwell 10. Siddle showed outstanding patience and if he goes on to become the only man in this innings to score a half-century it will be an indictment on the rest. In truth, it already is. Eleven of Australia's 19 best partnerships in this series have involved a batsman outside the top six. What have the top order been doing?
Down 3-0 and five days from heading home you could understand if their minds are elsewhere. But this was an opportunity to show what they had learnt in their six-week tour. These men all want to be part of this year's Ashes tour. They are doing their cases little good. To borrow from Berra once more: "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else".
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here