November 7, 2008

Australia have lost their presence

Australia's batting is formidable still and Krejza might still spin them to victory but their manner in the field in the series so far has been an admission of ordinariness

Australia's strategy has mainly involved bowling four feet outside the off stump and begging batsmen to have a go © AFP

It took a hat-trick ball and a No. 11 batsman for an Australian field setting to make its first appearance in this series. Ricky Ponting crowded six men around Ishant Sharma after Jason Krejza had removed Zaheer Khan and Amit Mishra off successive balls. By then India had 437 runs on the board.

It has been strange watching Australia in the field on this tour. In the last four Tests against India, including Adelaide earlier this year, they haven't looked like taking 20 wickets in a match. Television doesn't always reveal the full picture. Watching Australia's struggle on the field, it is easy to sense the subtle difference: they have not looked to take 20 wickets.

It will be wrong to say this is a poor imitation of the great Australian teams of the recent past. This team feels decidedly un-Australian. Admittedly the bowling resources have been thin, the spearhead hasn't fired, and till this Test they haven't played a bonafide spinner. More than anything, though, they have lacked intent. It has been apparent from the first Test, the one they had the chance to win, that their big strategy has been to bore the Indian batsmen out.

The strategy drew inspiration from Australia's tour here in 2004-05, when they adopted defensive tactics to choke the free-stroking Indian batsmen. But then Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz strangled the Indians by bowling straight and homing in on the stumps. This time the strategy has mainly involved bowling four feet outside off stump and begging batsmen to have a go.

It's a plan based more on hope than expectation. It has made for tiresome watching, and it has sent a clear message to the Indian batsmen: we can't get you out without your collaboration in your dismissal.

Occasionally the Indian batsmen have obliged. Rahul Dravid has twice got out chasing wide balls - uncharacteristic strokes that speak of an uncertain mind; Sachin Tendulkar has twice lobbed catches to cover; and Virender Sehwag dismissed himself on Thursday by trying to create a stroke. Mostly, however, they have been ruthlessly professional and have ground out the runs clinically. They have manoeuvred the balls skilfully into the gaps and still managed to hit plenty of boundaries. Consequently the Australian gameplan has looked effete and confused. By depending on the batsmen's charity, they have let the opposition dictate the course of the match.

Ponting has been eager to push his men back at the first hint of an offensive. When Sehwag welcomed Krejza on the first morning with a four and a six, mid-on fell back to the ropes and out went forward short-leg. It was Krejza's first over in Test cricket and only the 13th over of the Test and there were four men on the boundary.

For years the Australians have set the pace in cricket. It was left to other teams to raise their game to match Australia's. India have managed to do it consistently; England overcame Australia by playing brilliantly in 2005. But the rules - and the roles - have changed in this series: Australia have done the chasing

One way of describing it would be tactical retreat, but it felt like a surrender.

Despite the defensive field, the Indian openers still scored at more than five an over through the morning session, and eventually two attacking moves fetched their wickets: Shane Watson got M Vijay by following up one short sharp ball with another, and posting a man at silly point pushed Sehwag into a back-foot stroke. It also must be said that Ponting kept Krejza on after he had gone for 32 in three overs.

On the evidence of Krejza's performance in this Test it would now seem a scandal that Cameron White, who doesn't even think of himself as a bowler when he captains Victoria, was preferred to Krejza in the first three Tests, and to Stuart Clark and Peter Siddle in this Test. The most plausible explanation for this could be that Ponting values White's batting at No. 8, a strangely diffident approach from a team that must win the Test to keep the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

It mustn't be missed that Krejza earned his wickets. Eight wickets are a bit flattering, but he worked for them. The Indian batsmen went hard at him, lofting, sweeping, pulling and reverse-sweeping, but he didn't panic into lowering his trajectory or quickening his pace. Along with his eight wickets he also secured the unflattering record of having conceded the highest number of runs on debut; without him, though, India might have got to 600. Single-handed he has kept Australia in the game.

On England's tour of India in 2001, Nasser Hussain got his pace bowlers to bowl wide outside off stump, and Ashley Giles outside leg, to frustrate Sachin Tendulkar. To an extent he succeeded. Tendulkar charged down the pitch in Bangalore and was stumped for the first time in his career. From the beginning, though, it was an admission of weakness from Hussain. To watch it coming from Australia now, still the No. 1 team in the world, is jarring.

Jason Krejza has single-handedly kept Australia in the Test © AFP

For years the Australians have set the pace in cricket. It was left to other teams to raise their game to match Australia's. India have managed to do it consistently; England overcame Australia by playing brilliantly in 2005. But the rules - and the roles - have changed in this series: Australia have done the chasing. They have been handicapped by meagre bowing resources, by the flatness of pitches, and by losing successive tosses. But it is undeniable they have lost their presence.

Their batting is formidable still, and who knows, Krejza might still spin them to victory, but their manner in the field in the series so far has been an admission of ordinariness.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ranchander on November 11, 2008, 8:30 GMT

    All this heartburn on Australia's decline and the innumerable reasons attached to it, only shows that people have not studied the game well enough.If u look at the success rate of of any great teams in history you will notice it is not the batsman of the team but the bowlers who make the teams great. once you have great bowlers in your side even an avarage batsman becomes a giant. This is what happened to the teams of Australia with Mcgrath and Warne in their side. Cricket is equally a mental game and the presence of good bowlers boosts the confidence levels of the batsmen and the teams start looking invincible.Look at India, Four great batsmen could hardly achieve much for the country till some good bowlers arrived.

  • Anish on November 8, 2008, 17:00 GMT

    If its not "Australian Way".. then its not the "Right Way". This is what i take out from most of the Aussies commenting here. The "Bowler Unfriendly Pitch" have been same for both teams.. so if Indians can take 20 wickets then why cant Aussies. Time to stop the sorry cry from you all, accept the series loss and not be "Sore Losers".

    It has been only one Team of the cricketing world that seems to challenge and beat the Aussies at their own game and that is TEAM INDIA. They have shown the world how to beat Aussies.. more than once. Its just a matter of time that we will see rest of the world sticking it to the Aussies.

    Oh by the way Popcorn.. Aussies weare just 333 shy from 689 and the DREAMS of inflincting series win is just a Pipe-Dream. So eat some of your popcorn and enjoy rest of the game.

  • Roger on November 8, 2008, 7:41 GMT

    1-0 down and the critics are out already, We have underdone players, Not our best spinners OR batsmen for that matter in the side, India will lose 5 great players over the coming year or 2, Who have the Aussies got, They have Nannes, Bollinger, Tait, Hilfenhaus to name a few in the bowling and Marsh, Symonds, Rogers, Ronchi and co. just waiting to get a game, India beat a second rate Pakistan side 1-0 got spanked by Sri Lanka, drew 1-1 with SA, Even with doctored batting tracks flatter than a car tyre that suit thier strength and take our 3 great pacemen out of the equasion, Sharma is going to be a great bowler, Khan's playing above himself, No other fast men in the side, Theyv'e lost thier great spinner in Kumble, I'd be panicking if i was India, Thier 3rd on the rankings and will drop once Dravid and co. retire, Australia will always be in the top 3 and that's being generous as i don't think they will drop out of the top 2 to be honest.

  • Ullas on November 8, 2008, 6:17 GMT

    I love this...every time someone criticizes Aussie tactics, the question of bias comes in. Interestingly, most criticism of Aussies has been limited to the way they have played this series. Everyone admits that they are still No.1. But some people don't see reason, do they?

  • Sam on November 8, 2008, 6:01 GMT

    On another note - there seems to have been quite a bit of noise from India about overtaking Australia as the leading side in the world. (Anyone asked South Africa what they think of this one?) It may indeed happen, but not while you have a team that is one nil up in a series and with a sizeable first innings score playing negative, defensive cricket. Yes, that's right - bowling outside off to an 8-1 field is not about the aggressive pursuit of victory - it's about trying to hold on to what you've got. And that's not what makes a team great like Australia. There's more to it than a 1-0 series win. It's a mindset that other teams respect in you. And it's something that India, if they are serious about being the best look like they might have to learn.

  • Sam on November 8, 2008, 5:37 GMT

    Once gets the feeling that Sambit can't help but let his snide resentment of Australia's success (yes Sambit - we have been noting your writing for a while now...) colour his analysis of this series. The fact is that the team is in a transitionary period - as happens to all teams. To call a team un-Australian is to deny the fact that teams change. Are all future teams that play a different style of cricket to the past 'un-Australian? Did Steve Waugh in re-inventing the style played by Aussie cricketers during his reign render his team 'un-Australian'? It's a ridiculous and rather fatuous idea really. Essentially what we have here is a team trying to redefine itself in a country that produces featherbed pitches to suit it's home team (pitch-doctoring during the recent SA v Ind series anyone?). Oh, and a rather ungracious chief editor...

  • Justin on November 8, 2008, 4:13 GMT

    Settle down - it's 1-0. jeepers. remember, the aussies are playing with an undercooked hayden, their first choice spinner limped home before the series, the thorn in india's side symonds is missing - stuey clark got hurt and wasnt up to his usual standard. then throw in a heap of inexperienced can't expect them to go hell for leather. in fact the tactics so far have been spot on - and mostly have been working. they have lost one test - and if they lose the series 1-0 big deal. as we saw in australia, this unit minus mcgrath and warne is capable of smashing this indian side when fully fit. if australia can pull this test off...youd have to say they have been the better team - they had the better of india in the first and third tests after all. it is india who should be concerned that they cannot easily defeat this weakened aussie team in their own conditions.

  • ganesh on November 8, 2008, 1:14 GMT

    In this series India has dominated so far. However, the Aussies have not only taken the 10 wickets they needed to at Nagpur, but have gotten off to a great start. Clearly, they are batting very well indeed. I don't believe any of the nonsense about India being arrogant in attacking Jason and giving their wickets away. This test will be the first test of the series where India is going to be tested to the limit. Can they continue to be agressive and win this game or will they go on the defensive and lose it?

  • Max on November 8, 2008, 0:35 GMT

    I agree that India have been the better team this series, but this fawning over India is a little over the top, they have only won one test... perhaps when India can win consistently OUTSIDE of India, then we can all gush about how fantastic they are. It's also worth pointing out that the Aussie team are in a transition phase at present, similar to what India are about to embark on... in other words, wait until India are ranked number one in the world (not third) and can stay there for at least a decade before starting this one-eyed love-fest.

  • Josh on November 8, 2008, 0:34 GMT

    A fact Sambit Bal has conveniently ignored in this article is that the pitches prepared for this series have not exactly been bowler-friendly. His bias towards the Indian side is as obvious (and irritating) as Roebuck's.

    I hope that Australia manage to scrape a win here, not just for pride but also to shut Roebuck and Bal up for once. They deserve to eat some humble pie.

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