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Australia's plateauing performance puts World Test Championship final place in danger

Even victory in the Border-Gavaskar series would likely require Australia to still avoid a series loss in South Africa

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
No better measure may be found for how Australia's Test team have struggled to live up to their own expectations this summer than their increasingly shaky hold on a place in the World Test Championship (WTC) final. Due to the events already played out over three Tests and two days against India, Tim Paine's team may now stand a better chance of reaching the decider at Lord's later this year should their looming tour of South Africa be cancelled rather than be played.
This is not just a sharp reflection on the "points per series played" metric that was brought in once the WTC schedule was ravaged by Covid-19, but also a marker of how - against a severely under-manned India - a nominally full-strength team have plateaued rather than flourished. A 3-1 series margin over India would have meant that a 1-2 series loss to South Africa would have been sufficient to ensure a place in the final.
Instead, another determined show from India to get a draw at the Gabba would mean that the Australians require at least a 2-1 margin against South Africa over three Tests away from home to guarantee their place in the final.
Even a dominant performance over the next three days - weather permitting - to emerge victorious in the Border-Gavaskar series would still mean Australia would most likely need to avoid a series loss in South Africa, with draws being worth more than defeats. It is a series currently the subject of vigorous discussion between Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa, given the deteriorating coronavirus situation in South Africa.
There has been informal discussion of moving the series in its entirety to Perth, where South Africa enjoy an enviable record of success. But the scenario presently being war-gamed is for a repeat of South Africa's recently concluded series against Sri Lanka, where the squad was housed in a self-contained resort and shuttled between Test matches at the Wanderers in Johannesburg and Centurion Park in Pretoria.
"We saw even with the England series. It wasn't ticked off until really, really late - four or five days before the team jet set over there," Andrew McDonald, Australia's senior assistant coach, said. "For me, it'll be [on] until we're informed [otherwise]. Otherwise, we're expecting the tour to go ahead. All our planning and preparation with our quicks and everything on the back end of this tour will be geared around the team going to South Africa for the Tests and going to New Zealand [for T20Is]. I think it's important for world cricket that the show goes on."
This task would be a steep one given the mental and physical fatigue on display among the Australians at the Gabba, where they were again unable to convert a promising overnight position into one of first-innings dominance on a quickening pitch. Ever since India were shot out for 36 to bring the opening Test in Adelaide to a shatteringly rapid conclusion, the hosts have never quite managed to pull it all together; now, they look increasingly as though they will be facing a substantial penalty for being unable to do so. Only they will know how much of this can be put down to the disorientation of a "Covid-safe" summer.
"What I would say in terms of the biosecurity and the way we've been looked after, it's been outstanding," McDonald said. "There were fears at the start of the series that if we were to go into tighter restrictions and regulations that would have an effect on the group. At this stage, so far so good. Everyone's in a great mental space, [and] physically we've got most of our bodies available.
"In terms of team performance, there's no doubt we've had some lulls with the bat. A couple of difficult surfaces in the first couple of games that lent themselves to a bit of movement - in particular seam - which made it difficult for the batting units. We saw that equalled out in Sydney where we did get a flat wicket that didn't deteriorate, and then here there's a lot of cricket to go that will define the series and the team performance."
As Marnus Labuschagne rightly pointed out after the first day in Brisbane, players are generally their own harshest critics. If Labuschagne, with 401 runs for the series at 57.28, cannot be entirely happy with his performances, then others will be even more introspective. Steven Smith has had - by his own lofty standards - a mediocre time of it, and his batting compatriots Joe Burns, Travis Head, David Warner and Matthew Wade have achieved even less.
At Nos. 6 and 7, Cameron Green and the captain Paine have scored respectable amounts of runs, but without enough of the defining performances they would still be expected to provide in those positions. Paine's innings in Adelaide was among the best of his career, but he was clearly frustrated not to at least match it in Brisbane, wincing as he walked off after a week in which his behaviour and performance were both put under enough scrutiny to have him make a public apology for his actions on day five at the SCG.
Similarly, Green's 199 runs at 33.16 have showcased a talent that is far from fully developed, but likely to learn quickly given the chance at a young age. Both Paine, suckered into the drive at an away-swinger, and Green, bowled by a gentle drifter from Washington Sundar that did not turn, might have wished to sell their wickets a little more dearly and not require Nathan Lyon to nearly double his series aggregate to ensure the total passed 350.
A judge as shrewd as Brad Haddin reckoned the Australians fell at least 100 runs short of the ideal first innings, given the conditions and the opposition, and the early passages of India's first innings did not suggest a rush of wickets will follow unless they are to be conjured by the remarkable Pat Cummins. Alongside Josh Hazlewood, Cummins has performed at extremely close to his best throughout. He might have even easily dismissed Cheteshwar Pujara once again if not for the India No. 3's soft hands on a defensive blade.
But neither Mitchell Starc nor Nathan Lyon can make the same claim, meaning that out of the players selected during this series for Australia, only three could reasonably suggest they have been close to the level they want to be. This will be a problem for the WTC final qualification, as it has already been for closing out an Indian side more resilient and persistent than most.
"It probably is already," Ricky Ponting said on Seven, when asked whether the SCG result would hurt Australia over the rest of this Test. "I think they would still be smarting about what happened in Sydney, but they've got no one else to blame. They weren't able to get the job done."
Unable to get the job done in Sydney, Australia now face a far more difficult job to qualify for the Test Championship decider. Unless, that is, the administrators are forced into taking a decision through which the vagaries of the points system paradoxically reward them more for avoiding South Africa rather than playing there.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig