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Feature

Difficult questions are coming for Australia, but not just yet

Having planned diligently and picked spinners for the tour, they can't make wholesale changes on the back of one heavy defeat

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
13-Feb-2023
David Warner took strike on day five at Nagpur's VCA Stadium. The dust was gathering around the crease line. The rough was prominent outside his off stump. He lunged forward to defend and his defence was breached.
But it wasn't R Ashwin who breached it as it was on day three. Or Mohammed Shami as it was on day one. Or Ravindra Jadeja, or Axar Patel, or Mohammed Siraj.
It was Australia's third choice, now possibly fourth-choice, spinner Ashton Agar. There was no umpire, no crowd, no long walk off. The nets were up around the centre-wicket which was two strips over from the pitch Australia were bundled out for 91 on just two days earlier.
Warner and his team-mates were searching in a controlled practice session. Searching to find a method to counter India's spinners ahead of the second Test in Delhi starting in just four days' time.
There is a serious conversation coming about Warner, although it won't happen in the next four days. He knows it. Everybody knows it.
This is not the same bullish Warner who vowed on Christmas Eve to play like his old self when the walls were closing in on his Test career. It's not the same Warner who then delivered an astonishing 'I told you so' double-century three days later.
This is the Warner that has told us he is exhausted. It is a subdued Warner who looked defeated when he trudged off on the third day in Nagpur for a tortured 41-ball 10.
Warner's struggle epitomises Australia's problems right now as they sit 1-0 down heading to Delhi trying to avoid the tour running right off the tracks. Warner has likely hit over a thousand balls on this tour already. He spent as long in the centre-wicket net on Monday as anyone trying to shore up his defence. But that's not the way Warner plays when he is at his best. He also doesn't hit this many balls when he is at the top of his game. His preference when he's on song is to relax, remain fresh, play some golf. But those options aren't available in Nagpur.
And so instead he's searching for a method. Except there is no way to replicate facing Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar in these conditions other than out in the cauldron of a Test match.
Australia's batters, including Warner, had rock-solid plans coming in. But they all got spooked. Warner's second innings was clear evidence. Having spent hours preparing for the spin threat, he was shell-shocked in the first innings when he was bowled through the gate by Shami in the third over of the match.
Warner is searching for a method. Except there is no way to replicate facing Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar in these conditions other than out in the cauldron of a Test match
That dismissal led to his second innings sit-in. The old Warner, the white-ball wizard Warner, would not sit on Ashwin for 38 balls without playing a shot in anger. But he just wanted to feel his way into the game. To spend some time in the middle. And Ashwin didn't let him breathe with unrelenting accuracy. He got two slightly overpitched balls that he finally pounced on. But Ashwin twice breached his defence either side of those boundaries, catching his outside edge only to be dropped by Virat Kohli at slip, before beating his inside edge to be trapped lbw.
Warner's ongoing struggles in India are causing Australia's selectors a headache. A headache of hypocrisy. Warner has just three half-centuries from 18 innings in India and averages 22.16. In 10 Test innings in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year he made just two half-centuries and averaged 29.12.
Those numbers aren't quite as bad as Travis Head's in those two series. But Head has been Australia's most consistent and dominant player at home in the last two summers and yet was victim to a horses-for-courses selection call in Nagpur.
Head spent as much time as Warner in the centre-wicket net facing Agar, two net bowlers and the guile of bowling coach Daniel Vettori's left-arm orthodox throwdowns. He was trying to prove his worth for Delhi, and prove he has the methods to succeed in India.
But it's hard to prove his form in the nets when it counts for nothing against Ashwin and Jadeja in the middle. Marnus Labuschagne played as fluently as any Australian batter in the nets on Monday, flicking balls against the spin wide of mid-on, lofting drives down the ground while working assiduously on picking the right length and line to defend off the back foot.
He looked as good as he did in the first innings of the Test, where he looked as good as Rohit Sharma for his 49. But he even he succumbed to the skill of Jadeja in both innings.
There are hopes that maybe Cameron Green can return to give Australia much more flexibility in terms of their batting and the attack they can pick. But like Australia's batting methods, it looks good in theory but it's hard to know how he will go in the cauldron of a Test match. His bowling loads are up and he's raring to go after a strong centre-wicket spell bowling on a side wicket.
But he is yet to catch proper cricket balls. He caught soft balls on the outfield today as he continues to protect that broken finger. He also didn't bat in the middle, opting instead for the nets out the back of the VCA Stadium and he faced spin exclusively from local net bowlers as he has done all tour. He is yet to graduate to face fast bowling having jarred his surgically repaired right index finger in the training camp in Bengaluru.
Australia are in a bind. They can't make wholesale changes on the back of one heavy defeat having planned so diligently and picked spin specialists. To do so would be to panic and backflip on all of their planning in one fell swoop. They have been talking about doubling down on their methods and simply executing better under pressure.
But if they can't do that in Delhi, then some difficult conversations are coming.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo