November 4, 2014

Australia need to learn the Asian tempo

The path to victory in Asia can be difficult for an Australian cricketer to grasp. It involves suppressing the desire to push the game along

Australia need to learn that Test matches in Asia seldom run to an antipodean schedule © Getty Images

Almost everything about Australian cricket's Test match resurgence last summer was about setting the pace of the game. There was Mitchell Johnson's bowling, David Warner's batting, Michael Clarke's quick thinking captaincy in the field, and above all, fast wickets. The pace was relentless, and England and South Africa could not keep up.

But on slower pitches in the UAE, Australia have been caught speeding by Pakistan. If it was a shock after the Ashes, it was also very familiar. Australian teams have battled for years to find a style of play that's going to work in those conditions, but after India in 2013 and now this result, a solution seems to be as far away as ever. These past two series have seen Australia a long, long way off the mark, not even competitive. A lot of what I saw was a bit frenetic, a bit fast. We didn't allow ourselves to get deep enough into those games to be in a position to try to win.

For a few minutes at the start of the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai it looked like Australia would be able to pick up the pace of the game, grabbing two early wickets and expecting more. But as I learned slowly, and at times painfully over the years, Test matches in Asia seldom run to an Australian schedule. Younis Khan dug in, the bowlers lost some of their earlier edge, and a major first innings was built. Unfortunately Australia seemed unable to pull back a gear or two after those earlier successes.

What Younis did was a classic example of following the style of cricket proven over many years on the subcontinent. The game meanders for the first three and a half to four days and then tends to open up really late. What you've got to do is be in a position come tea on day three where you can still win the game, and in both of those Tests by late on day three Australia were completely out of the match. It's very rare that games don't last very late into day five in those conditions, and the way Australia played didn't allow them to get there.

It's hard work, of course. You've got to grind it out, bat for long periods of time and try to build pressure with back-to-back maidens when you're bowling - in short, play within yourself. Yet after the loss in Dubai it actually seemed as though the selectors were determined to force the pace even more by choosing the team they did.

In many ways, the path to victory in Asia is difficult for an Australian cricketer to grasp. Our desire to push the game along has to be suppressed sometimes, even though we may not exactly enjoy it. We had been ten years without a Test tour of India when I first went there in 1996 for a one-off Test in Delhi, and all the players made mistakes as we returned in 1998 and 2001. That year, as part of Steve Waugh's team, I saw how we were pulled up after an opening victory in Mumbai, and the experiences of Kolkata and Chennai were put to good use three years later when we did finally win in India. That tour stands out as much for our style of play as for the rare result.

For an Australian side, we looked at things differently with our field placings, making sure they didn't score too quickly, not allowing them to get away from us. A lot of the time we attacked batsmen at their strengths, plugged their strong scoring zones with catching midwickets, and had a third man in play right from the start. That was unusual, even uncharacteristic, for an Australian cricket team, but it worked. In 2008 and 2010 we tried similar approaches with less experienced sides. If we didn't win, we at least pushed India closer than these past two Asian series have been.

While there can be no doubt that the conditions are designed to stymie the way Australia play, it is a matter of working with those circumstances rather than fighting them. In the first innings of both Test matches they began with three days still to bat, and that's the way you've got to look at it. You've got to set yourself to try to bat for as long as you can in the game. Thoughts of running up to 500 as quickly as possible, feasible in Australia, are pipe dreams in Asia. The opposition don't allow you to do it, putting fielders out straightaway with spin on, and the in-out fields all the time, making sure you can't score rapidly. If you don't wear them down, they will do it to you.

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That 2001 tour taught me a lot about how not to bat in spinning conditions. After making runs in the lead-up games and feeling pretty good, I went out to face Harbhajan Singh in the first Test and stretched forward to a ball that I was looking to defend. To my horror, it broke the surface, caught my glove and lobbed up to bat-pad. I got back to the rooms, sat down and thought, "I don't think I've done much wrong there, so if he's going to keep bowling that way and I keep playing that way, more often than not it's going to pop up to one of those fielders."

Australia can expect to see more slow pitches in their Test match future. That being the case, I hope the harsh experiences of India last year and now the UAE can foster a style of Australian play that will stand a chance of succeeding in Asia

So I worked during the week on sweeping a bit more, or using my feet and getting down the pitch. Instead of trusting my technique, I was trying to find a way to be different and change. Sure enough, in the next Test I was out sweeping, and the next Test I got out running down the wicket and stumped. I didn't trust my own game enough and it brought me undone. Seventeen runs in five innings made it an easy lesson to remember.

In the UAE, the guys who trusted their technique were the ones who had the most success. Steve Smith in the second innings of each match, Mitch Marsh in the first innings in Abu Dhabi, and Warner in Dubai. Chris Rogers succeeded to a certain degree - it looked difficult, but he batted for a long time and soaked up a lot of balls. They did that on the back of just trusting themselves.

Between Tests, Darren Lehmann made a worthwhile point about the number of wickets that had fallen to straight balls. This is the product of an Australian batting background, where breadth of spin and natural variation is an uncommon sight. In Australia the bounce and deviation off the pitch are often so true that you can start to predict where it is going. The best subcontinental batsmen either hit the ball before it spins, on the full or on the half-volley, or well after it spins, off the back foot. They very rarely get trapped in between, on the length that brings bat-pad catches, lbw appeals and edges into play.

I understand Michael Clarke's disappointed that he hasn't been able to lead by example with the bat in the series. It's good to hear those things, as he understands how important it is for him as the most senior batsman, and captain, to stand up. I know Michael will bounce back quickly this summer against India at home and that will have a positive effect on the rest of team, especially the young blokes, who will be lifted by the sight of their captain leading by example.

One thing that's certain is that Australia can expect to see more slow pitches in their Test match future. That being the case, I hope the harsh experiences of India last year and now the UAE can foster a style of Australian play that will stand a chance of succeeding in Asia. At times the players may almost have to say, "It might be really hard for us to win this game, but we're not going to lose it", and keep themselves in that mindset going into days three and day four. We were beaten in 1996, 1998 and 2001, but those defeats helped to shape the triumph of 2004. For Michael's team, the current pain should be the base from which they can build to an equally satisfying victory.

One of cricket's modern greats, Ricky Ponting captained Australia in 324 matches and scored over 27,000 runs

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