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Analysis

Dazed Australia search for answers after first-round knockout

Australia thought they could not be faulted for preparation, but it seemed to make no difference to the outcome

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
11-Feb-2023
What now for Australia? They came here with a plan. A plan to pick horses-for-courses at the cost of the in-form Travis Head. A plan to be proactive with the bat and stick to their individual methods. A plan to bowl dry and control the tempo of the game and attack with two spinners and reverse swing.
In the end, nothing went to plan. As Mike Tyson famously said, "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Australia got punched in the mouth not once, not twice but three times with India throwing a 1-2-3 combination from Ravindra Jadeja, Rohit Sharma and R Ashwin to knock Australia down and score the first points in this heavyweight Border-Gavaskar fight.
It leaves Australia staggered and wondering what to do next. Australia have had a habit of making fast starts on tours to India. They won the opening Test in 2001, 2004, and 2017 and went close in 2010. But in Nagpur in 2023 they have been annihilated in two days and two sessions.
For all the pre-match worry about a made-to-order pitch that would rag square from specifically curated rough patches outside the left-hander's off stump, Australia's batters were beaten on the good part of the pitch. The same pitch where Rohit compiled a sublime 120. The same pitch where India's No.9 Axar Patel made his highest Test score of 84. The same pitch where India's No.10 Mohammed Shami made 37. Australia's only score higher in the Test match was Marnus Labuschagne's 49 in the first innings.
"I think everyone came with pretty clear plans," Australia captain Pat Cummins said in the aftermath. "I think the challenge is under the furnace to be brave enough to be proactive at the time. They will be the conversations over the next couple of days. We faced some pretty tough bowlers at times."
Each player had prepared their own individual method. But the plans simply didn't work. For all the preparation against spin, Usman Khawaja and David Warner both fell to pace against the new ball in the first innings.
In the second, Khawaja edged a very full delivery trying to drive Ashwin out of the rough while Warner went completely into his shell. He defended for his life for 41 balls and it yielded just 10 runs. His crease-bound defence meant he was a sitting duck to Ashwin. He was dropped at slip by Virat Kohli off the outside edge by one that gripped, before being beaten on the inside edge by one that skidded and pinned lbw. He now has just three half-centuries in 18 innings in India, averaging 22.16, and had the look of a defeated man as he trudged off.
Labuschagne was beaten trying to play forward and trying to play back. His 49 in the first innings was Australia's best innings of the match. He played some glorious shots, including driving Ashwin inside-out through cover against the turn and clipping Jadeja wide of mid-on against the turn. But after looking near flawless in two hours of batting he was lured out to drive Jadeja and was beaten by flight and spin to be stumped. It wasn't dissimilar to his dismissal to Sri Lanka's Prabath Jayasuriya in Galle in Australia's innings defeat last year. Having been burnt using his feet in the first innings, he was trapped on the back foot in the second to Jadeja and pinned lbw to a fuller length.
Steve Smith looked outstanding in both innings. He played some sublime lofted drives off the left-arm spinners. But having worked so diligently not to be beaten on the inside edge by left-arm orthodox in India in 2017 to great reward, he was beaten on the inside by Jadeja in both innings. He was bowled twice through the gate by balls that skidded on. He was only reprieved in the second thanks to a no-ball.
Matt Renshaw was preferred over Head as the better horse for the course against spin, yet he was pinned on the crease lbw in both innings trying to defend for 0 and 2. He did not unfurl any of the sweeps, reverse sweeps, or powerful drives he possesses.
Peter Handscomb defended as well as any Australian in the first innings and looked impressive for his 31. But he too was pinned twice lbw while trying to defend from the crease.
Alex Carey's plan to sweep and reverse sweep everything was clear for all to see and he was prepared to do it from ball one. He found the boundary with a reverse sweep first ball in the first innings and a conventional sweep in the second. His proactivity caused India's bowlers to rethink their fields in both innings and he looked as free-flowing as any Australia batter in the game. But he lived by the sword and died by the sword, out attempting premeditated reverse sweeps from the line of stumps in both innings.
Australia's bowlers contributed 18 runs across two innings of the Test match, while India's last four batters compiled 130 between them in one innings.
Cummins believes that both Smith and Carey's proactivity was still the way to go despite their limited success in the Test match.
"You saw Smithy and Alex Carey at times put the pressure back on the bowlers," Cummins said. "I think it takes a bit of bravery, it's easier said than done. If you're just facing ball after ball and the bowler's pretty good, you're going to get one with your name on it. Again, that will be the conversation this week. If we get the same conditions, the same bowlers, what are we going to do differently? I think at times probably being more proactive."
Do Australia's batters now stick or twist? Do the selectors stick or twist? All the advice coming to India was for Australia's batters to find a method and stick to it. But as Cummins notes, that is easy to say and harder to do. How do you stick to a plan when you've been punched in the mouth?

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo