Will Pucovski and the other Australia batsmen need clarity to succeed at SCG
The possible return of David Warner should provide the batsmen with an ideal exemplar of proactive Test-match batting
As a Test-match debutant with an exhaustively documented history of struggle against short-pitched bowling, Will Pucovski's problem this week will be a more acute version of the difficulty facing Australia's entire top six, after their collective failure to fire in either Adelaide or Melbourne against India's precision. The batsmen concerned will more or less know what is coming, having dealt with it previously and shown enough evidence of susceptibility. The Indian bowlers will have plenty of reason to take the same tack once more.
In the instances of Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith and Matthew Wade, the successful corralling of scoring zones, whether they be boundaries or singles, has reaped rich rewards for an Indian team that knew before the tour that the traditional fifth-stump lines of attack had been proven faulty against Australia's Nos. 3 and 4 in particular.
The scenario, rightly pointed out by Ricky Ponting, has become one where the Australians are simply trying to survive after having their usual strike rotation zones blocked off. Against good enough bowling on a sporting enough pitch, this has primarily served to make them, in Ponting's carefully chosen words, "sitting ducks". The captain, Tim Paine, was of similar mind on match eve as he pondered how to escape India's stranglehold.
"We've just spoken about mindset. We think we've actually got some decent plans, it's just a matter of going out and having the courage to execute them," Paine said. "So if you're a guy who wants to take them on and hit over the top, or if you're a guy or wants to sweep or reverse-sweep the spinners when they're bowling - then we've just been encouraging guys to do that. To have the courage to take the game on and play the way you want to play.
"At times, we've just let them dictate to us a little bit, let them build pressure. Then, with pressure, you get wickets at times. It's about being really clear in your plans and now having the courage to execute it and do it in your way."
Being clear was missing when Pucovski plonked forward to Kartik Tyagi during the Indians' tour game at Drummoyne Oval a month ago, and seemed to be both ducking and trying to play the bouncer that dented his helmet and caused the latest in a series of concussions. It was clearly also somewhat elusive until Pucovski received a second expert neurological opinion about the potential for his concussions to have long-term effects: the verdict, if not completely cut and dried, was favourable enough to have him in line to play.
What Pucovski will be seeking to remind himself, as undoubtedly the coaches and team-mates around him will too, is that on days when he has a clear mind and a focused approach - making early decisions on whether to evade or hit the short ball - he plays it as well as most. His state coach, Chris Rogers, was at Drummoyne and contrasted that incident with what he had seen before and during Pucovski's two double-centuries in the Sheffield Shield to begin the season.
"When I first turned up as coach of Victoria, him and Sammy Harper, they do a lot of work with tennis balls, getting in really close with a tennis racquet and firing them in at each other. Will's done a heap of work where he wants to stand up and roll the ball down to fine leg. You'll see that shot from him quite a bit," Rogers told RSN Radio. "Then it came to the matches and we played SA early on and Wes Agar came on first change and went straight to bouncers at Will, and he pretty much ducked them for the whole first session.
"Then after lunch he played one of these rolling pull shots and from there he never looked back. They targeted him with the short ball for prettymuch the whole game and then WA did it from about the ninth over onwards as well. He would have faced a heap of short balls and he looked comfortable doing it and the way he stood up and played it, he made it look easy. So when that happened on day three at Drummoyne, it was an awkward situation where there was nothing to gain and he probably just got caught in two minds, so hopefully he'll learn from that."
"It's not like he doesn't practice this, he does a heap of work. So they will bowl short at him, and hopefully he'll be prepared"Chris Rogers on Will Pucovski
Paine, himself no stranger to being targeted by short stuff in the wake of the serious finger injuries and subsequent mental hurdles that threatened to prematurely end his cricket career, noted that in Test cricket, Pucovski needed to be capable of dealing with spells like the one hurled down by Mitchell Starc at the Indian tail at the MCG, where 24 of 30 deliveries were short. As much as the Australians have Pucovski's welfare at heart, they also know that Test matches are played more uncompromisingly than any other form of the game.
"Playing Test cricket is difficult and playing the short ball at that pace is uncomfortable," Paine said. "I think if you're someone who is perceived to have a weakness in that area, or even if you're not, it's part of the game. It's how teams test your mettle, test what you're made of, until you show otherwise. I think the short ball is a great option and it's going to continue to happen. It's a tactic that we've used so we expect to get plenty back as well.
"I think it's a tactic we use pretty consistently, particularly to the lower order. I think lower order batsmen are getting better and better as well so the fast bowlers' pact of not bowling bouncers to each other is well and truly dead by the looks of it. They love peppering each other these days. I think it's a tactic that's already in the minds of batsmen when they come to Australia to play against our attack. We don't have to show it in the first game. They know it's coming; we know it's coming and we know it's going to come back so we're also planning and thinking about it."
Like tailenders waiting for the short ball without total confidence as to how they might play it, Pucovski will need to put any thoughts about concussions and his unfortunate history to the back of his mind once he walks out to bat if given the opportunity as seems likely. A clear mind and an instinctive response to the ball coming down tend to work in symbiosis, with any hesitation at such high speeds likely to result in a wicket, an injury or both.
"The worry is I think with him, when he does get hit, the effects linger for a bit longer than perhaps other people," Rogers said. "It's never nice, you just worry about him, but he's the one who gets to make the decisions. He's gone and sought expert advice, and good on him for doing that.
"You just hope if it does happen again he'll be fine, but that's his choice and it's up to him and if he does get this opportunity hopefully he can play well and get out of the way of them. The other thing about it is he's done a lot of work on this as well. It's not like he doesn't practice this, he does a heap of work. So they will bowl short at him, and hopefully he'll be prepared."
As for Smith, Labuschagne and the rest, the return of David Warner from a groin injury should provide them with an ideal exemplar of proactive Test-match batting, where no bowler is given the chance to settle entirely, even if the left-handed opener is judicious about which balls to attack. Success at the crease often depends upon how a player's natural game can best be married to the challenges being presented by a particular opponent and the set of conditions in which they meet one another, and Warner has mastered this balance more often than most in Australia.
"We want to be batting for long periods of time but how you do that is very much on the player," Paine said. "Davey is known as a dashing opening batter, but if he goes out tomorrow and they bowl to him well then he'll respect that and get through it.
"He likes to be aggressive, no doubt about that, but he'll play the ball as it comes and he's got great hand-eye and great skill so he can often score a bit quicker than others, but I don't think he goes out there with the intent of just taking it down. He goes out and plays what comes at him, and if they bowl well then he'll respect that."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig