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Match Analysis

Frustrated Australia lose their edge at critical moment

"Probably didn't build pressure the way we wanted to" against Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur, says Josh Hazlewood

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Last ball of the 100th over of the Indian innings, a rare one from over the wicket by Nathan Lyon to Washington Sundar, the batsman pushed a half-volley back down the pitch and for his troubles had the bowler fire a return back at his head, requiring evasive action.
Not long afterwards, Australia's coach Justin Langer was pictured in the team viewing area spilling a water bottle alongside his laptop - not once but twice - and cursing and then walking away as the team's amiable strength and conditioning coach, Aaron Kellett, stepped in to clean up. Shades of Headingley 2019 and the bin.
When the match-shaping stand of 123 between Sundar and Shardul Thakur was finally ended by Pat Cummins - who else? - the Australians assembled less in celebration than stocktaking. The huddles around the next two strikes were some of the most desultory for Tim Paine's team in the three years since cricket was the least of their worries at Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2018.
Then, in the final overs of India's innings, the Nos. 10 and 11, Mohammed Siraj and T Natarajan, received just four balls aimed at the stumps amid a flurry of bouncers. Natarajan entered the match with a first-class average of 2, but now was able to make an unbeaten 1 while Siraj collected an impish 13. The fourth of those balls at the stumps hit them.
What all these scenes showed, for Australia's 100-Test spinner Lyon, their pacemen Josh Hazlewood, Cummins and Mitchell Starc, and also their leadership duo of Paine and Langer, was that mentally, if not physically, the resilience and persistence of India have got thoroughly under the skins of a host side that had expected to win well, and in particularly to blast out the visitors with their "big three" pace bowlers aided by Lyon.
Given the match and series scenario, plus the likelihood of heavy rain in Brisbane on the final two days, the Australians really needed to burst through India's batting with the aid of a bouncy and speedy surface, and then give themselves plenty of time to hurry into a big lead. By the day's midpoint, in spite of some curious hesitance to stack the slips cordon that allowed Ajinkya Rahane to get away with several eminently catchable edges off Starc's bowling, they were on the way to doing so.
"I think we missed our mark a little bit, we were a touch full or a touch short and a bit of width here and there, so we just let them off the hook a little bit there and probably didn't build pressure the way we wanted to"
Josh Hazlewood
This was due largely to Hazlewood, who put in a performance that, if not as shattering as his Adelaide spell, was a decent re-enactment of his debut five-for against India at the Gabba in 2014, all tight lines, subtle movement and steep bounce. A score of 186 for 6, with the new ball due inside 14 overs, left the road seemingly open for Australia.
Instead, Hazlewood, Cummins, Starc and Lyon found themselves struggling to muster their best stuff for the auxiliary duo of Sundar and Thakur, and very quickly losing their focus in the process. There was no reason, other than mental fatigue, why one of the most vaunted bowling line-ups in Australian history could not find enough balls in the right areas of a helpful enough pitch to ensure this pair did not settle in.
That they did, for what proved to be one of the finest lower-order stands in living memory, offered up a marked contrast to how Cummins' batting has fallen away in particular, and how Australia's first innings was middling at best. The other major question opened up by it centred on whether, in the bio-secure confines of the 2020-21 summer, the hosts might have considered more resting and rotation of a far deeper bowling squad than has been seen on the field.
The emergence of Siraj, Natarajan, Navdeep Saini and Sundar has left the likes of Michael Neser, Sean Abbott and Mitch Swepson wondering what they might have achieved if given the opportunity to perform. Instead, Cummins, Hazlewood, Starc and Lyon have appeared more or less able to pick themselves provided they are physically able to get on to the field, leading perhaps to the lack of sharpness when it was most required on day three in Brisbane or day five in Sydney.
"There wasn't too much at all, to be honest," Hazlewood said when asked how much discussion there had been of the bowlers' places. "Everyone pulled up well from Sydney, we had a pretty quiet start to the series, to be honest, those two games we didn't bowl a hell of a lot in Adelaide and Melbourne and we had quite a bit of time off in between.
"So everyone's feeling pretty good and I think [Cameron] Greeny makes a huge difference, there's that odd spell here and there that he bowls and he's going to get on a real roll soon and take a few wickets for us and help out. Even the short spells make a huge difference.
"We probably just let pressure off at certain times, I think, throughout the day. Everyone's body is pretty good, to be honest, the heat was there as well. I thought Gazza bowled really well again and everyone else backed us up. We just let a few moments slip, I think, and there were a few half-chances there we could've grabbed and made a bit of a difference. But obviously, four Tests in we bowled a fair bit last game, but I think everyone's in reasonable shape for this time of year."
Contrast this to the 2019 Ashes, when only Cummins played all five Tests among the quicks, and James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Starc all played specific roles in two or three matches apiece. Hazlewood, having made a comeback from injury, was held out of the first Test in Birmingham to be absolutely right for Lord's, and demonstrated the need for this freshness when he broke through at critical times throughout the rest of the contest. Undoubtedly, a little more freshness of mind and role was missing at the Gabba.
"It's hard to put a finger on exactly what happened at Adelaide and you probably don't see that every day and we haven't seen it again in this series," Hazlewood said. "The tailenders, these days I think there's not much differences between Nos. 7 and 8, they put a lot of work into their batting, Nos. 8, 9 and even 10 sometimes are difficult to get out. You've just got to treat them like a top-order batter unless they have a real specific weakness, but we'll probably go back to our normal stuff in the second innings, I think, and see how that goes.
"There's a bit of frustration there, when they're six down you think you're well on your way to knocking them over. But, in this day and age, teams bat all the way down, especially a team like England or something. I think we missed our mark a little bit, we were a touch full or a touch short and a bit of width here and there, so we just let them off the hook a little bit there and probably didn't build pressure the way we wanted to. So, again, credit to them they batted beautifully and we'll have a look at that for the second dig."
As for the short-pitched attack on India's final pair, Hazlewood rationalised that full balls were more likely to be hit than short ones. "I think here at the Gabba the bounce is so consistent, even tailenders can hit the ball and score runs if you pitch it up," he said. "I think the short ball's probably the best way of getting the tail out, and if not it's setting it up for the full ball. If you're just bowling full, the bounce is very consistent and it's probably one of the wickets where tailenders can score runs in front or behind the wicket. I think bouncers can not only halt the scoreboard but bring about wickets as well."
Much as there was logic to Hazlewood's words, it was undeniable that frustration had crept into the Australian approach as well. There were too many signs at the Gabba on day three that, in a contest with an India side rotating far more bodies due to injury and thus cycling through some fresher minds, the most settled bowling line-up in recent Australian history has been blunted just enough to make this far closer a contest than anyone on the home side had reasonably expected after Adelaide.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig