For the coming Test in Galle, on what promises to be a spinning minefield, Australia must seek the best way to combat the clever art of Rangana Herath and Co.
The best way to play a quality spinner on a turner is to get to the other end. If both batsmen have this mindset, singles come at a canter, the scoreboard ticks over, and the bowler starts to worry. The great players of spin down the years - Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Doug Walters, Garry Sobers, Brian Lara and VVS Laxman, to name a few - all knew the value of rotating the strike. When a batting pair rotates the strike, it soon creates great concern for the spinner. He starts to change his field: one or more of his close catchers are moved back to plug the gaps. When the singles come in a flood, the spinner also starts to lose patience. There are more loose balls on offer, and thus, a greater volume of boundaries.
This Australian team as a batting collective is all at sea, especially against the wiles of Herath. They are not helping themselves. Joe Burns goes hard at the ball and often has his bat a long way in front of his pad when playing a forward-defensive shot. David Warner needs to be patient, and Usman Khawaja, who shapes not unlike Lara on a good, fast pitch with the ball coming on, needs to be tighter in defence against a good spinner. As with Burns, Khawaja's bat is too far in front of his pad when he plays forward. Erapalli Prasanna, easily the best offspinner I've seen, would have demolished this Australian team, even on a wicket that afforded only a hint of spin.
Why? He got the ball to dip in an acute way. If a batsman misjudges the length of an acutely dipping ball, and his bat is in front of his pad, it is only a matter of time before he gets an inside edge, presenting a catch to a close-in fieldsman.
There is a looseness in the manner in which most Australian batsmen go about their work. A spinner loves nothing more than a batsman coming down the wicket to hit him on the half-volley. If the batsman misjudges the length, he's liable to be caught or stumped. Bob Simpson, a splendid player of spin, used to say that when you move down the wicket to hit a spinner, try to get him on the full. That way, if you misjudge the length slightly, you can quickly adjust to hit the ball on the half-volley.
In Pallekele, Steven Smith was the lone Australian batsman who looked competent at the crease. But his dismissal in the first innings, when he tried to hit on the half-volley, was a classic case of misreading the length. The likes of Adam Voges and Mitchell Marsh look decidedly uncomfortable on these slow Sri Lankan pitches that afford spin and variable bounce. One doesn't expect either to have much impact in Galle.
In the short form of the game, especially T20, batsmen rely on huge bats to smite the ball. It is very much wham, bam stuff, with not a skerrick of footwork. Even in Test cricket these days rarely do we see a batsman advance to a spinner and ease the ball through a gap for two or three.
Walters, a brilliant judge of length, once played a remarkable innings for Australia against Northern Districts in 1974, scoring a century in a session without hitting a boundary. He worked the ball into gaps and used his feet to drive through the covers or wide of mid-on. He didn't sweep once. Prasanna has long been convinced that the sweep or slog sweep are usually deployed by batsmen who don't use their feet well against spinners.
Batting on slow, spinning wickets is not easy against a top-flight spinner, but it is not impossible. Certainly 21-year-old Kusal Mendis, with that masterful second-innings 176, found the supposed minefield in Pallekele very much to his liking.
In effect, Australia's batsmen need to embrace five points:
Rotate the strike.
Play with soft hands, and the bat not in front of the pad when playing forward defence.
Use their feet to work the gaps.
If they sweep or slog-sweep, do it sparingly.
A spinner knows what he likes and dislikes about the manner in which a batsman goes about his work. The batsman who rotates the strike, works the gaps, has soft hands and rarely slog-sweeps is an opponent very much up for the contest.
A few years ago Herath was a member of my Spin Australia coaching clinic in Colombo. A solidly built little bloke, he wasn't a standout gifted spinner, but I liked the way he competed. He tended to bowl flat, and from the time it was suggested that he drive up and over his braced front foot, he improved out of sight. His stock ball is hard-spun, and if he bowls a flat delivery, he knows how to regain the desired just-above-the-eyeline loop by reaching up a little higher on his front foot at delivery. That enables him to stay for a split-second longer on his front foot, and helps him achieve maximum revolutions on the ball. How brilliantly Herath rewarded Sri Lanka in the wake of the selectors finally getting things right. In 71 Tests he has taken 313 wickets at a good average of 29.64.
Steve O'Keefe's injury is a big blow to Australia, but Victoria's Jon Holland, also a left-arm orthodox spinner, might prove a surprise packet in Galle. Holland will enjoy Smith's captaincy. Smith will get his fields right in Galle, and they will be a far cry from the "Far Flung" Chinese field Holland's Victoria captain Matthew Wade set for him in the Sheffield Shield final at Glenelg Oval a few months back.
Despite the ludicrous field placings, Holland bowled splendidly then to help the Victorians to a deserved victory. As with O'Keefe, he will nicely complement Nathan Lyon's offspin. Lyon needs to take a leaf out of Herath's spin book and change his pace in a subtle way. Even on a big turner, change of pace is important to break the rhythm of the batsman.
The Australian batsmen haven't much time to develop a winning mindset. They'll need to bat and bowl out of their skins to turn the tables on the Sri Lankans, but most likely the visitors are looking at a 3-0 whitewash.