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Match Analysis

Death by a thousand sweeps a window into Australia's soul

In an effort to be proactive and brave, they're playing the man instead of the ball, and facing a series sweep as a result

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Steven Smith almost never sweeps. He's on record saying it's not his preferred shot against spin.
He has faced 1595 balls in Test cricket in India, scoring 731 runs at 52.21 with three magnificent centuries in one tour in 2017.
In those 1595 balls, he has swept just 18 times. In 178 balls on this tour so far, he had not played a single sweep.
Yet off his 179th, his 19th of the third innings in Delhi with Australia 85 for 2 and looking in a solid position to set India a challenging fourth-innings chase, he inexplicably attempted a sweep off R Ashwin and was trapped lbw.
It sparked a stunning collapse as Australia lost 8 for 28 in 74 balls, with five batters falling to sweeps and reverse sweeps in a frantic hour that cost them a Test match they could have won.
That Smith even attempted the shot, let alone executed it as poorly as he did, is a window into the soul of Australia's batters right now. They are looking for demons. Demons in the pitches. Demonic deliveries from Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Australia have spoken at length about owning an individual method in India with a premium placed on proactivity and bravery. Get them before they get you. Put pressure back on the bowlers to avoid getting one with your name on it. But it looks like they are playing the man and not the ball.
Ashwin and Jadeja are in their heads right now, living large and rent-free. It's hard to blame the Australians for being spooked. In terms of average and strike-rate, they are the greatest bowlers to have ever bowled in Indian conditions. They are forcing Australia into frantic decision-making and frayed execution with unrelenting pressure and high skill.
The sweep is a viable option in India. Matthew Hayden made 549 runs at 109.80 in the 2001 series in India using the sweep as his go-to weapon against Harbhajan Singh. But he used it judiciously. And he also practiced it for hours at a spin camp two years earlier in 1999 under the supervision of Bishen Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna.
"If Australia's best batter of this generation and possibly since Bradman is frazzled, then no wonder the rest are struggling"
Smith had just as much success as Hayden in 2017 without sweeping against Ashwin and Jadeja. That he tried it here speaks more to the issues those two are causing him. Jadeja beat his inside edge twice in Nagpur with balls that slid straight on after sharp turn had threatened his outside edge in the lead-up. Ashwin found Smith's outside edge in the first innings in Delhi. Ashwin particularly is causing Smith problems. Up until 2018, Smith had scored 378 runs against Ashwin for just three dismissals. Since then Ashwin has knocked him over five times for just 73 runs.
If Australia's best batter of this generation and possibly since Bradman is frazzled, then no wonder the rest are struggling.
But it's not just frantic decision-making. It's also execution. Usman Khawaja has shown the sweep and reverse sweep can be incredibly profitable in the sub-continent and against Ashwin and Jadeja. Like Hayden, he has practiced it at length across his career and during the three sub-continental tours over the last 12 months.
He played both shots beautifully at times in both innings in Delhi. His 81 in the first innings was sublime. He should keep sweeping. It's just a case of slightly better execution. He picked out fielders in both innings. He was unlucky in the first innings to fall to a stunning catch to KL Rahul. There is a risk attached to the reverse sweep for handsome reward and he fell foul of the risk with a cover-point in place. That can happen. In the second, he was simply a little careless with a paddle sweep off Jadeja. The sweep was on, he hit the middle of the bat but was almost shocked to find leg slip placed there to catch it. A full-blooded sweep or an angled bat to keep it down would not have brought about his downfall.
For others, it is a combination of execution and decision-making. Alex Carey has been bowled around his legs reverse-sweeping in three of his four innings in India so far. It is a profitable shot for him but he needs to review how and when he uses it. Reverse-sweeping from the line of the stumps is high-risk already. He can and has done it successfully. But doing it while placing your front foot well outside the line to expose middle and leg behind you is a recipe for disaster.
Australia attempted 20 sweeps and reverse sweeps in their second innings in Delhi and lost 6 for 29 with five either bowled or lbw. India attempted just seven sweeps in the fourth innings of the match for 10 runs without loss. It was noticeable that India's batters never swept from the line of the stumps. Rohit Sharma's paddle sweep fine for four was to a ball spinning well down leg. KS Bharat's slog sweep for six was dragged from outside off stump. Bharat and Axar Patel both fell to the sweep and slog sweep in the first innings but neither ball was hitting the stumps.
Australia can also succeed without sweeping too. Peter Handscomb played just one sweep shot in his first innings 72 not out, instead trusting his defence and using his crease forward and back to play Australia's most assured innings of the series.
Travis Head did not play a single sweep or reverse sweep in his second innings 43 which included six fours and a six. But they both fell to Ashwin and Jadeja's best balls of the day with neither doing much wrong trying to defend.
And that only reinforced Australia's panicked mindset. Their desire to be proactive and brave. Their belief that they needed to get Ashwin and Jadeja before they get them.
They're playing the man and not the ball. And they're facing a series sweep as a result.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo