Australia bank on Smith and Labuschagne to flip the script in Indore

For Australia to really challenge India in this series they need substantial contributions from their Nos. 3 and 4.

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McDonald and Steven Smith at a training session, Indore, February 27, 2023

Andrew McDonald and Steven Smith at a training session  •  Getty Images

Seven times in this series Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne have walked back to the dressing room in various stages of frustration, dejection and anger. Of course, batters rarely look happy after they are dismissed, but for Smith and Labuschagne the emotions have been acute given how they have been out-thought by R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Notwithstanding the fine innings by Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb in Delhi, for Australia to really challenge India in this series they need substantial contributions from their Nos. 3 and 4. There have been glimpses from both, and Labuschagne is the team's top-scorer from a low base, but his 49 in the opening innings of the series remains their highest score.
It was the moment of that dismissal, when Labuschagne was drawn down the pitch by Jadeja shortly after lunch on the opening day in Nagpur, much as he was by Prabath Jayasuriya in Galle last year, that gave India their early opening in the series after Australia had weathered initial damage from India's quicks.
Labuschagne has got himself set in all four innings but has twice been undone by falling into the trap of playing back to Jadeja on surfaces where low bounce was always a danger. His other dismissal was as part of Ashwin's wonderful over on the opening day in Delhi when a delivery spun sharply to take the front pad.
Ashwin followed that by then pushing one across Smith to nick the outside edge - quite how much was natural variation combined with the subtle changes Ashwin makes remains up for debate - and in the second innings he forced Smith out of his comfort zone by bringing a rarely-seen sweep which resulted in an lbw. It was after that dismissal that Smith let out his frustrations in the changing room.
This week, and perhaps for the remainder of the series, Smith will be back in the captaincy due to the absence of Pat Cummins. It is to Australia's advantage that this mechanism has come into play twice before - albeit in more benign home conditions where their conventional style of cricket was always likely to bring success - so although having to change leaders mid-series is not ideal, it is actually one of the factors they will feel more comfortable with controlling.
"I think it's pretty seamless," Mitchell Starc said. "He's obviously done it for a long time. He's obviously going to have certain ways that he likes to captain as well or different ideas, which is no different when he is vice-captain to Pat. It's going to be slightly different, but I think we've seen over the last sort of 12-18 months when he's stepped in, he's done a fantastic job again. A couple of Tests he had to do in Adelaide were really successful for the group. So hopefully it's another great week for our team to sort of bounce back from the last two weeks."
Australia would dearly like Smith the captain of 2023 to replicate something of what Smith the captain of 2017 achieved in India. His century in Pune came on a surface probably more demanding than the first two in this series; his tally by the end of the four Tests was 499 runs at 71.18 although the latter pitches were not nearly as spiteful.
The early indications of the surface at the Holkar Stadium - the hastily arranged venue for this Test after Dharamshala was deemed unfit - were that it was unlikely to get much easier for Australia's batters. There was a covering of grass in the centre of the wicket but the ends appeared dry. However, there are some enticingly small boundaries for batters who are feeling brave and the fact the practice wickets are on the field should allow the ball to run away across those corners.
However, it isn't that runs have not been possible in the first two Tests. Rohit Sharma's hundred defined the Nagpur contest while Axar Patel has played as well as anybody on either side. There has been some very fine bowling from India, but Australia have offered a significant helping hand.
It was worth noting the thoughts of KS Bharat, India's new wicketkeeper and their least experienced player, when asked about batting in these conditions. "The wickets are not unplayable," he said. "If you apply and back your defence there's definitely scope for batsmen to score."
So far in the series, Australia have passed 200 once, been bowled out for 91 and lost 8 for 28 in another collapse. But there remains much to play for, not least rubber-stamping their World Test Championship final spot and trying to win a Test in India for just the second time since 2004.
Smith is one of Australia's greatest batters and Labuschagne could well be regarded in the same light in years to come, but so far they have been second best to two of India's finest ever. They need to flip the script in Indore.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo