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Analysis

Australian batsmen, selectors get a strong dose of reality

The home team had a chastening wake-up call to choose the best players available for the roles required

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
18-Dec-2020
Leading into the first Test, Australia captain Tim Paine was extremely eager to emphasise that, David Warner or not, his team was a far more accomplished side than the unsteady combination that had faced India at home two summers ago.
Since losing to India at home, Australia had defeated Sri Lanka, Pakistan and New Zealand at home, while retaining the Ashes away. Warner and Steven Smith were back too, and Marnus Labuschagne was discovered.
"This team is not the one that took on India two years ago, it is not even the one that played last summer, we are in a better place and playing even better cricket," Paine wrote in his News Corp column. "The Ashes were critical to our growth and I can tell you we are very confident about this series."
The team had the confidence to rouse Joe Burns out of his early season batting slumber that had scores of 7, 29, 0, 10, 11, 4, 0, 0 and 1. Burns had a couple of intensive net sessions with Justin Langer encouraging, cajoling and silently deliberating in equal measure. Matthew Wade, never an opener in 150 first-class matches, would be capable of reinventing himself after the fashion of Langer himself at the Oval in 2001, when he was slotted in alongside Matthew Hayden as a short-term option and stayed there for another six years.
As Wade put it to the broadcasters on day one: "I've never opened the batting in first-class or any other [red or pink-ball cricket]. I've batted seven, six, five, four and three now, so I thought I'd tick off one or two. I'm not going to turn into an opener overnight, I know that. Who knows if it's going to be for one or two Tests, I'm not 100 per cent sure. But I'll give it a good crack. I'm lucky that I've batted at Bellerive [Oval], which is a bowler-friendly wicket, for the last three years, so I'm confident I can play the ball late enough for the brand new ball."
If this DIY ethic was redolent of Wade's time working as a builder in Tasmania at a quieter point of his career, it was a somewhat dangerous foundation on which to build the first innings of a Test series against India. The visitors' bowling attack had shown two years ago that they could scythe through the home side. That Australia were missing Smith and Warner had always stuck in the backs of the minds of both sides, but the assumption about their return to play a dominant role had always been just that.
Reality had presented the Australians with a scenario where Warner's predatorially busy approach to the new ball was missing, while the staggeringly prolific first innings run of Smith against India - including six centuries and a 92 in 11 innings since 2013 - was to be challenged by his interrupted preparation for the game due to a sore back. Paine had dismissed these concerns on match eve, suggesting that a break from training for Smith may be a "blessing in disguise".
As it turned out, Smith did look underdone, never fully comfortable in a 29-ball stay that reaped precisely one run. And he was given only the most fragile of middle order safety nets by Burns and Wade, who quite understandably were unable to transcend their issues - recent runs and familiarity with the opening position, respectively.
Initially, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah were a little too short, enabling Burns and Wade to leave plenty of deliveries. But with time and overs, and no scoreboard pressure, Bumrah recalibrated successfully enough to pin both lbw in the space of consecutive overs, meaning that Smith and Labuschagne were facing a situation where the touring bowlers were in the ascendant when they arrived.
No-one benefited more from this state of affairs than R Ashwin, who had taken six wickets in the corresponding Adelaide Test in 2018 to be an integral part of India's series-shaping victory. This time, he teased Smith with a couple of fullish floaters, before delivering a quicker, flatter delivery that went on with the arm and bounced enough to take an edge near the splice to slip. His celebration of this wicket was understandably ebullient, but he was no less chuffed to find a way past Travis Head, who was crestfallen to miscue a return catch when beaten plainly in flight.
When the debutant Cameron Green toed a short ball to a diving Virat Kohli at midwicket, Australia had lost their first five wickets for less than 100 runs for the very first time in a Test match since Smith and Warner returned from their Newlands bans, and the chance for a first-innings tally of genuine force had been effectively lost.
More importantly, though, the Australians had been given a chastening reminder that theirs is not a team so strong that they can afford not to choose the best available players for the roles required, especially against a team as accomplished in Test matches as India. Things might have been worse still if a trio of chances had not gone down, allowing Labuschagne to wriggle his way to 47 and then Paine to fashion a decent wicketkeeper's innings.
His excellent contribution, perhaps Paine's best with the bat since his 92 in Mohali way back in 2010, was at least a reminder that, for the most part, specialist positions are characterised that way for good reason.
"Certainly not our best performance but you've got to give India credit, they put us under pressure and we couldn't get any momentum or partnerships," Paine said after the second day's play. "Our top order's done a terrific job for a fair while now, I'm back them in, they'll come good. Happy to contribute with the tail. While I was happy to go up [to open], I was happy to stay at seven as well and do my job. We were able to build a few partnerships and get into the Test match is nice, and that's where we want to be."
Paine ultimately thought better than to promote himself to open the batting, but his team was not good enough to make similar compromises at the top with Burns and Wade. The day had actually begun with a cautionary tale shared through the now ubiquitous Twitter feed of the footage archivist Rob Moody, showing how Bruce Reid failed to score even a single to avoid a one-run ODI loss to New Zealand 30 years ago.
What Moody's video did not quite show was that Reid found himself in the above predicament due to Allan Border's decision, amid a run of victories, to shuffle the top six so some of his middle order might get more of a hit. Border himself ended up batting as low as No. 8, but the lesson always stayed with him in later years. So too might this day of harsh reality shape the future calls of the Australian selectors.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig