January 1, 2012

The quicks are back

Come Sydney, Australia's batsmen can be relaxed and bat better, knowing they don't need a mountain of runs to topple India. Their fast bowlers will do it

The SCG provides Australia with an opportunity to build on their rousing victory over India and continue what is a pace bowling led recovery. The consistently penetrating form of Australia's aggressive young pace bowler James Pattinson, combined with Peter Siddle's rejuvenation and Ben Hilfenhaus' successful return to the international arena is incentive for the beleaguered batsmen to make a New Year's resolution. Knowing now that a score of around 350, rather than a huge total, could be enough to set up a win at the SCG might just be the tonic that prompts the batsmen to resolve to do better in 2012.

With skill as a given, being relaxed is probably second only to confidence in an international batsman's armoury. Anything that helps to relieve tension, especially among inexperienced players, is a step in the right direction. There are also positive signs that Ricky Ponting is playing with more assurance, and while he'll never again be the consistently dominant batsman of the past, he's still productive. As long as there's no young batsman producing scores that demand selection, Ponting can continue to provide value to the team.

Michael Hussey is in the same boat. On the occasions when he stops thinking about playing carefully to prolong his career and just bats naturally, he's still a productive player. However, it's the less experienced batsmen who can benefit most from Australia's pace bowling resurgence. Armed with the knowledge that India's much-vaunted batting line-up can be held in check, they now know that consistency is what's required to complete a winning formula. This knowledge should relax them so they stop pressing and just play naturally without fear of reprisal.

There were signs that the Australian pace bowlers' success against the talented Indian line-up might be more than a one-off triumph. Gautam Gambhir is in trouble since he is discomforted by the extra bounce. If he continues to poke suspiciously at deliveries outside off stump, like a nervous mouse nibbling at the cheese, the Australians will have no trouble springing the trap.

Stopping Virender Sehwag is an important part of restricting India's scoring. The length the Australians are currently bowling is the most testing for the belligerent opener. He loves it short outside off stump, but the Australians, operating on a fuller length, are more likely to exploit his lack of feet movement. Keep Sehwag quiet and you reduce the Indian line-up's effectiveness by about half.

The player the Australians haven't yet found an answer for is Sachin Tendulkar. He looked in top form, and with the SCG being his favourite venue in Australia, they'll need to find a solution quickly. If Australia can shut down both Sehwag and Tendulkar, India could well be propelled on a downhill slide similar to their recent precipitous one in England, which ended in a 4-0 thrashing.

It's no good having a penetrative pace attack led by a tentative captain. Michael Clarke is anything but, and he has shown himself to be a pro-active skipper. He has a good gut feel for bowling changes, and he wasn't cowered into conservatism when Sehwag was firing in the first innings. Clarke just needs to tighten his own batting defences so the opposition doesn't put the skids under his impressive captaincy by making him struggle for runs.

MS Dhoni, on the other hand, set the tone for India's slide to oblivion on the final day at the MCG. He was extremely conservative when the situation cried out for him to attack in order to claim the final two wickets cheaply. Afterwards he lamented India's inability to rid themselves of the Australian tail-end batsmen in both innings. He only needs to pay attention when shaving before the SCG Test to find the solution to that problem.

If the Australian batsmen do provide better support for the fast bowlers at the SCG, the team can halt its current boom-bust cycle. However, in the event of much revelry in the Australian camp over an improved batting performance it shouldn't be forgotten that it has been a fast bowling-led recovery.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist