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WATCH - Bumrah bowls Steven Smith down leg, Aus vs Ind 2020-21, 2nd Test, 3rd day
WATCH - Bumrah bowls Steven Smith down leg, Aus vs Ind 2020-21, 2nd Test, 3rd day

One of the more under-rated elements of Australia's' rise to the top of world cricket in the 1990s was the contribution of Michael Slater as a tone-setting opener, unafraid to take pace bowlers on but still sound enough of technique to handle high-quality spells.

He was successful in helping Australia break away from a more obdurate opening tradition - Lawry and Simpson, Boon and Marsh - and with the complementary approach of Mark Taylor, had Australia aiming for at least 300 runs in a day.

Once Slater faded from the scene, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer took things to another level with their left-handed hyper-aggression, bullying bowlers who would otherwise have felt in a most advantageous position when steaming in, fresh, with a new ball in hand. After their retirements, Shane Watson briefly played a similar role, and had fate been kinder, Phillip Hughes may well have done likewise.

Since 2011, though, David Warner played this tone-setting role better than just about any of his forebears. In Australian conditions, Warner has been the single greatest factor in ensuring that bowlers never feel able to drop into a rhythm, while also easing a path for the middle-order batsmen behind him.

Two years ago, when Warner and Steven Smith were banned for their Newlands transgressions, Australia's batting tempo fell away noticeably against India, as a quality bowling attack was able to dictate terms in a way more or less unseen in Australia since the West Indies put clamps on scoring while harvesting regular wickets during their 1980s and 1990s dominance.

An Australian scoring rate of just 2.64 for that series was the lowest for the hosts since 2000, and credit to detailed Indian plans and high-quality execution. This time around, it was widely thought that the returns of Smith and Warner would make it far harder for India to do a similar job - until Warner's groin pinged in an SCG ODI and the whole balance shifted again.

The outcome of Warner's absence has been another sequence of frustration for the Australians, and a scoring rate of just 2.7 per over in the series so far, the second lowest, after 2018-19, since the year 2000. The ability to control the tempo of the game, hustling between the wickets as much as striking regular boundaries, has been almost entirely absent, underlining why Warner's talent for top-order batting in Australia will be missed even more whenever he chooses to retire.

"We know how good David's been for a very, very long time, so it hurts having a guy out that averages nearly 50 in Test cricket obviously," Matthew Wade said of Warner. "So we've done the best we can possibly do and will continue to do the same things when we're asked it.

"Hard to get going, they're bowling pretty well, pretty straight, making it hard for us to score. Our intent's to go out and score obviously as a batting group and individually, but they're making it quite challenging at times. To be fair we haven't gone deep enough yet to really cash in on tired bowlers late in the day, so we've only got ourselves to blame a little bit there, but they've been prettymuch on the mark from the start."

Australia's second innings at the MCG, having started out 131 runs in arrears, was a neat case study in all the aforementioned struggles. In terms of setting the tone for the innings, the woefully out-of-touch Joe Burns and the amateur-opener-but-professional-pugilist Wade gave India plenty of hope from the start that they would be able to control proceedings.

In Burns' case, his increasingly fretful efforts simply to survive left almost all the initiative with the visitors, something that Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj were able to run with even after Umesh Yadav was forced out of action. Wade, though he fought with plenty of grit, shaking off a blow to the helmet with crazy-brave resilience, was unable to turn the strike over or find the boundary with anything like the sort of regularity that would have placed pressure back on the Indian bowlers.

In the meantime, Marnus Labuschagne and Smith continued to find things as tough as they have in Test cricket in the past two years. On every meaningful occasion in this series so far, they have entered the fray under pressure, and this has shown in their inability to find early boundaries or singles to build momentum.

Both have been especially well-corralled in terms of their circuit-breaker deflections to the leg side, largely through the posting of square and backward-square legs in close proximity while the bowlers have pursued straight lines threatening the stumps, in between the occasional short ball. Labuschagne made a telling admission on the opening day of this match in terms of how he and Smith have had to hurriedly reconsider their plans in the face of such well-calibrated attacks.

"Something that we're realising very quickly is people are coming up with new ways, thinking about the game slightly differently," Labuschagne said. "Obviously today, they came out with a heavy leg-side field and bowled very straight and didn't give us any scoring options to the off-side. So for all our batters, you've just got to keep rolling with the punches, learning the game, understanding what they're doing and take that innings to innings. I think that's the key."

Given that Smith and Labuschagne are famously the most analytical, even obsessive, members of the Australian top six, the fortunes of others were hardly likely to be much better. In particular, the travails of Travis Head have raised plenty of questions about his Test-match longevity. While Head's susceptibility to balls angled in from around the stumps is well known, he has also maintained a maddening tendency to mix periods of shotless occupation with a flurry of back-foot-forcing strokes that, on a seaming pitch such as this, offer the chance of an outside edge.

When he skewed Siraj's first ball of a spell into the slips, having failed to find a single boundary in his 46-ball stay, Head caused plenty of furrowed brows around the ground, a year on from a century against New Zealand that had seemed capable of being the making of him. The common denominator for all these Australian struggles was a lack of balanced tempo between attack and defence, with none of the middle-order batsmen able to change the momentum of the game from the halting rhythm set by Burns and Wade at the top.

Ricky Ponting, as much an adjutant coach of the Australian side as he is an analyst and a commentator, did not hold back in his criticism of the hosts, nor in his focus on the fact that, without Warner, there were major tempo troubles in their approach.

"You can't blame the pitch. The pitch has been absolutely perfect today. It's a little bit of spin, yes, but you'd expect that. Day three of a Test Match. Very little on offer for the fast bowlers, but it's just been poor batting. Very, very poor batting so far," Ponting said on Seven. "Once again, this Indian attack have made it so hard for the Australians to score. This is the 55th over, 6 for 110.

"It's been one of the reasons, I think, that they've eventually got themselves out, playing rash shots. They haven't been able to tick the scoreboard over on a regular enough basis. Pressure builds. When pressure builds, bad shots come. I talked about it in first innings as well particularly with the way they played Ravi Ashwin. They weren't proactive against him. Yes, it's been good bowling, but sometimes against the best bowlers you have to take more risks as a batsman. For the sheer fact they're not going to bowl bad balls.

"The lesser skilled bowlers you can sit on all day because you know you're going to one or two scoring opportunities an over, but Bumrah, Ashwin, Jadeja, even Siraj to a certain degree in this game, they don't make many mistakes. They've actually forced the Australian batsman into making mistakes. When you're just sitting there waiting for good bowlers to make mistakes, you're basically are a sitting duck."

Warner, meanwhile, continued his rehab away from the main group, batting and running in the MCG nets. His value as an opening batsman had been felt by his absence two years ago. It has risen only further this time around as his contribution to the success of Labuschagne, Smith and company has now been made crystal clear.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig