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

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