March 10, 2013

Australia's India performance will affect their Ashes showing

And blaming the failures on inexperience and on the unexpected retirement of Michael Hussey is misleading
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The best news Australia have received while touring India is the reports of England's monumental first-innings batting collapse in New Zealand, and Graeme Swann's elbow operation.

The worst-case scenario for Australia was they would depart India with their top six in the batting order in turmoil. Unless there's a major turnaround in fortunes in the last two Tests, that's exactly the situation they'll find themselves in as they prepare for a tilt at regaining the Ashes in England.

Australia know they can match England in fast bowling, but their batting and spin departments were always going to be a concern. Australia's batting frailty is being blamed on inexperience and the sudden decision of Michael Hussey to retire at the end of the home summer.

I'm not so sure those excuses withstand close scrutiny.

While Australia have lost the extremely valuable services of Ricky Ponting and Hussey in a short space of time, India have also recently had two stalwarts retire: Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. In addition, Virender Sehwag, another lynchpin of India's batting strength over the last decade, has been stumbling lately to the point where he's fallen flat on his face during the series against Australia. That's also a lot of experience and runs to lose in a short time.

While the comparison is somewhat biased because the Indian batsmen are being judged in their own conditions, there's a world of difference between Australia's rebuilding efforts and those of MS Dhoni's cohorts. Those Indian batsmen who have been promoted exude talent, technique and flair; they are also reasonably young. In addition to Cheteshwar Pujara and M Vijay, both of whom looked capable when they debuted in Test cricket, India have a depth in batting reserve that Australia don't possess.

While Rohit Sharma has been a disappointment in many respects, he's just one in a talented list of reserve batsmen who have the ability to replace Sachin Tendulkar when he eventually retires. Additionally, during the recent Under-19 World Cup, the Indian batting was superior to Australia's, in both technique and flair. Both Unmukt Chand and Baba Aparajith would either be on the verge of, or in, the current Australian side.

The Australian batting production line has been faltering for some years, and one of the main flaws is exposed when you look at recent history. For a country that used to consistently produce talented young batsmen ready for the Test side in either their late teens or early 20s, Australia have only had Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke (as long-term successes) in that category since Ponting made his debut 18 years ago. Where the early 20s used to be the normal debut age for an Australian Test batsman, it's now blown out to the late 20s and occasionally even 30.

Clarke aside, the current Australian batsmen aren't inexperienced. They have played a lot of first-class cricket. It's just that they haven't established their Test credentials under a variety of conditions. Consequently, the top order is currently a dog's breakfast, and there's no real opportunity to resolve the issues before the England tour.

It's all well and good to say Australia's performances in India won't have any effect on the Ashes series and that they'll bat better in England. Confidence is a big part of batting once a player has reached the highest level, and a lack of it plays an adverse role in the same way as an abundance helps.

Again, apart from Clarke, the batsmen's credentials aren't yet established under seaming conditions. Australia have little choice now but to stick with what they have for the Ashes series, as there's little in the way of alternatives and none of the players back home are making a strong case via the Sheffield Shield competition.

That's why Australia will be delighted to know that England's batsmen have had some issues adapting to New Zealand conditions. And having been mesmerised by R Ashwin's offspin so far in the Indian series, anything that hampers Swann's preparation will also provide welcome relief.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

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