It's been 24 years since an Australian team batted as slowly in the first innings as Tim Paine's did on day two in Adelaide. Back then, in January 1994, a burgeoning XI led by Allan Border slogged through 141 abstemious overs from South Africa to post 292 on a slow, low turner at the SCG, grinding out a first-innings lead but not, in the end, a victory.
At the time, this innings and the match were seen as markers of a team facing signs of overt conservatism and stagnation under Border and the coach Bob Simpson. By the following summer, the captaincy had been passed to Mark Taylor, and a goal of scoring at least 300 runs in a day brought with it more than two decades of attacking batsmanship and plenty of success. Crises of confidence have seldom afflicted Australian batting, particularly at home.
But in December 2018, lacking Steven Smith and David Warner while facing a skilful Indian attack on a searching Adelaide Oval pitch, Australia's performance was as notable for its mediocrity as the obvious effort each batsman was putting in. As the debutant Marcus Harris acknowledged, this was the performance of a team still trying to work out how to do Test cricket.
"You can only put the bowlers under pressure if they give you the opportunity to put them under pressure," he said. "Like today they bowled really well and the wicket doesn't let you play like that. You want to come out and blast them everywhere and be going great guns, but sometimes its not that way. That's why it's called Test cricket. We're still fighting, still in the contest."
"We haven't got millions of Test matches in our top six, so I think people just have to be a little bit patient. We'll work it out, but it's a tough wicket and they bowled really well. Sometimes there's going to be days where you can't come out and blast them at three and four an over, just got to grind away. A good thing with this wicket is it gets better as this match goes on, so I think that should hold us in good stead."
If Aaron Finch was guilty of inattention to the seaming new ball in the hands of Ishant Sharma, resulting in some of the more spectacular images of splayed stumps yet captured, it was understandable given his status as anything but a specialist opening batsman.
Shaun Marsh, for so long a rare talent without the record to match, fell prey to the nerves that have so often afflicted him, hands too far in front of the body trying to force R Ashwin through the off side and dragging on as a result. Marsh's eagerness to feel bat on ball has brought him a dire run of scores at precisely the moment Australia needed him most - he is most certainly yearning for success so badly that he is finding it impossible to relax in the manner that he does on his best days, playing the ball under the eyes and striking it with certainty.
More was glimpsed from the debutant Harris, who alongside Usman Khawaja seemed to be establishing a morning platform. While offering the occasional flashy stroke, Harris was largely the model of an Australian opening batsman, showing sound judgment around the off stump and pouncing on anything loose. His misread of line and length from Ashwin brought a squeeze to silly point and a departure for 26, but it was not an innings without promise.
Khawaja, only a matter of weeks since knee surgery, placed a high price on his wicket, though looking at times as though the weight of expectation was heavy. Whereas in the UAE against Pakistan, he was able to find the boundary with enough regularity to ease close-in fielders away from him and rotate the strike often enough to escape the clutches of Yasir Shah in particular, here he was gradually worn down, eventually pushing his hands into the general vicinity of Ashwin's offbreak and being caught behind. He will face unrelenting pressure all summer.
Peter Handscomb unveiled a more balanced batting method in his first Test in Australia since he was dropped at the end of last year's Adelaide Test against England a year ago. At the time his technique was very much under the microscope, facing all manner of critiques for a method that saw him corralled in his crease and exposed by the precision of James Anderson in particular.
Since that time, he has worked extensively with the former opener Chris Rogers and also the Victoria coaches Andrew McDonald and Lachlan Stevens to find a better balance. Coming in at the fall of Marsh immediately after lunch, Handscomb was able to demonstrate more positive weight transfer, leaning into his drives and forward defence while not losing the back foot strength he has long been known for.
Equally, Handscomb was able to show his proficiency against spin, handling Ashwin with rather more certainty than the bevy of left-handers in the Australian top six. Harris, Marsh and Khawaja were all deceived for length by Ashwin's flight and drift, getting trapped into a guessing game as to how much the ball would spin and bounce. But his demise, trying to run a ball down to third man and edging wretchedly through to Rishabh Pant, was a moment Handscomb will run through his mind plenty of times until he gets to bat again.
"It was one of those sorts of days where you see blokes face a fair few balls," Harris said. "It can be one of those sorts of wickets where you can face some balls and it's hard to score so you try to force it a little bit. Usman got a pretty good ball, I thought Pete was batting really well, so just one of those things where if someone gets 70, 80 or even a hundred the score looks a little bit different. But I think you find that with a bit of an inexperienced line up that you've just got to be patient, there's going to be those little ebbs and flows in form, just with guys trying to work it out.
"You want to attack all the time but sometimes it's not that easy. The wicket wasn't overly easy to score on, and I thought they bowled really well and set some good fields. It was just one of those old school, hard days of Test cricket and I think it's pretty even and both teams have bowled pretty well so far, like you've seen."
The major consolation for Australia arrived in the day's second half, when Travis Head offered up a performance of composure and no little local knowledge - as befits the captain of South Australia. Using his feet to smother the spin of Ashwin, he was able to cuff plenty of runs to the short square boundaries that have favoured so many left-handers in Adelaide, not least David Hookes and Darren Lehmann. But Head was also able to score down the ground, punching two drives through cover and mid-on that left quick bowler Mohammed Shami reassessing his options.
A few nervous moments were negotiated to the close, but Head's resourcefulness allowed the Australian innings to creep into the third day with some chance still of overhauling India. In that, it resembled a couple of significant scores made in that aforementioned SCG match by Michael Slater and Damien Martyn. The latter was to be widely criticised for his dismissal amid the second innings collapse to Fanie de Villiers that won South Africa the Test, but 24 years later Australia's selectors cannot afford to be so dismissive of the modest resources at their disposal.