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Unwanted history brings David Warner, Will Pucovski into the frame for Australia

It's been 32 years since Australia have been pinned down so expertly by tourists, and their captain wants clearer plans from his batsmen

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
29-Dec-2020
Last time Australia stumbled through an entire home Test match without a single batsman passing 50, against the mighty West Indies at the MCG in 1988, the aftermath went down as a seminal moment in the minds of many members of what was then a developing team.
Allan Border had led his men to the 1987 World Cup and a Test series win over New Zealand at home the following summer, but a defeat in Pakistan followed by three consecutive thumpings from Viv Richards' Caribbean side caused plenty of hurt and no little frustration in the home dressing room.
Not unlike the top six harried repeatedly into error by India's seamers in Adelaide and Melbourne 32 years later, Australia's batsmen were playing without confidence or system, allowing the visitors to dictate terms. To see this pattern reach such a point at the MCG where no one was able to hang around long enough to pass 50, the then team manager Ian MacDonald chose his time to let Border's team know exactly what he thought, something recounted some years ago by the late Dean Jones.
"Macca came from an AFL background and he was filthy at our insipid, gutless performance. He then gave us a coach's address of which the great Ron Dale Barassi would have been proud," Jones wrote in The Age in 2016. "Macca yelled out: 'Enough is enough. We need to start to throw some punches against these blokes as they are killing you. They are making you look like a bunch of weak pricks. Listen to them next door, just bloody listen.
'They are treating you guys like club cricketers. Now we better get together, stick tough and sort out our own issues or this team will be remembered as the worst and most gutless Australian team of all time! Now let's stick together and start talking how bloody good we are and not how bloody good they are! Let's draw a line in the sand here as enough is enough!'"
Undoubtedly, the dressing room now occupied by Tim Paine's XI will be feeling similarly low, having failed completely to counter the plans and spells of the Indians, marshalled so expertly by Ajinkya Rahane. They will now be looking eagerly towards the fitness of David Warner, and the recovery from concussion of Will Pucovski, who looms as a potential option either at the top of the order alongside Warner or in the middle.
Either way, the opener Joe Burns looks to be on incredibly shaky ground, while the experiment with Matthew Wade has failed to produce the sorts of tempo-building innings that Australia have come to rely upon from Warner. Paine was clear that the hosts needed to find a better balance between attack and defence after India managed to cut down their scoring avenues for the second consecutive Test series.
"That's the game isn't it, it's risk/reward, it's being clear - I think everyone's going to do it differently," Paine said. "Matthew Wade looks like he's going to sweep, some other guys are going to use their feet. Cameron Green didn't attack overly today but played really nicely.
"Everyone's got to have their own plan, be clear on it and then have the confidence to go out and execute it. We have if anything been slightly tentative in committing to exactly how we want to play the spin or the fast bowling when they're attacking our stumps and setting really strong leg-side fields."
Paine denied that either Steven Smith or Marnus Labuschagne have been caught out by India's planning over many long, Covid-19 affected months leading up to this series, even if few can remember seeing Smith's rotation of the strike so cut back by the posting of two square legs when the pacemen attack the stumps. Instead, he argued that Smith simply needed to get himself established at the crease in one innings to find the metronomic rhythm that has served him so well in the past.
"We have been slightly tentative in committing to exactly how we want to play the spin or the fast bowling when they're attacking our stumps and setting really strong leg-side fields"
Australia captain Tim Paine
"India are bowling well, they've been extremely disciplined, we haven't been able to get partnerships together, but from what I've seen watching say Marnus and Steve Smith in their Test career, this is not the first time teams have targeted their stumps. That happens every single Test match," Paine said.
"These guys are executing it better and someone like Steve in particular hasn't been able to get in yet. Once he does he'll find a way, as he always has, and the rest of us will follow suit and need to improve, there's no doubt about that. But these aren't plans that we're encountering for the first time."
For Smith, the key is that he has not been able to play a single long innings for all of 2020, leading him to the worst two Test matches of his career in terms of runs scored, usurping Edgbaston and Trent Bridge in 2015 where his rapid dismissals set England on the course to regaining the Ashes. "At the moment I'm searching for time in the middle; that's the most important thing for me," Smith told SEN Radio before play.
"When I look at this year, 64 balls [66, during the first ODI] is the longest I've spent in the middle during those one-day games. For me, that's important. I find a lot of rhythm out in the middle. You can bat as much as you want in the nets, but there's nothing that can replicate what a game can do, so that for me is what I'm searching for at the moment. That can be tough to do, particularly in a Test match when you've got some quality bowlers."
This of course will also be a challenge for Warner if he is deemed fit to return from a groin strain, while Pucovski will know that his recent concussion history is likely to see him facing plenty of short balls should he be included for a Test match debut in either of the two remaining matches.
"David looks really good from what I've seen," Paine said. "He's been training this week in the nets and started running a bit between the wickets, so I think the early signs with him are very good for the third Test, which is awesome for us, and Will Pucovski a similar boat, I think he's not far away.
"There's some return-to-play protocol that he has or needs to tick off, I'm not across it all, but my conversations with Will are that he's pretty close to a return. My conversations with him are that he does feel okay and he's excited to come back inside the bubble and prepare."
Either way, the Australians have the chance to redeem themselves over two more matches within this series. Border's men 32 years ago had already lost the series, but went on to win the fourth Test and draw the fifth, an outcome that Paine undoubtedly would take right now.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig