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Lack of lower-order runs compound Australia's batting woes

Australia hope Starc and Green's return to the XI will "bridge the difference" between them and India

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Australia need more runs from Pat Cummins in the lower order  •  Associated Press

Australia need more runs from Pat Cummins in the lower order  •  Associated Press

Australia face an uphill battle trying to find lower-order runs in the third Test in Indore and it may shape their selection.
Australia are still picking up the pieces from their second-innings collapse on Sunday in Delhi where they lost 8 for 28 in 74 balls to concede a 2-0 series lead to India. India's lower-order batting, meanwhile, has been one of the major differences between the two sides in the series so far.
But the visitors did have India 139 for 7 on the second day before Axar Patel and R Ashwin added 114 for the eighth wicket to ensure India did not concede a first-innings deficit.
Similarly in the first Test in Nagpur India were 240 for 7, leading by just 63 before Ravindra Jadeja, Axar and Mohammed Shami added 160 for the last three wickets to hand the home side an insurmountable lead of 223.
By contrast, Australia were 162 for 6 in the first innings in Nagpur to be all out for 177. They were 227 for 6 in the first innings in Delhi only to be bowled out for 263. Peter Handscomb was set at the other end on both occasions but was unable to garner any support from Australia's bowlers.
Australia batting coach Michael Di Venuto admitted it is difficult to help inexperienced spinners Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann find a way to contribute with the bat in Indian conditions when even Steven Smith is having trouble handling Ashwin and Jadeja.
"That's a hard one especially when two guys are brand new to Test cricket and coming in there," Di Venuto said. "Nathan [Lyon] has shown some good resolve. It's encouraging. Potentially changes. Potentially Starcy [Mitchell Starc] comes in who's done well with the bat here in the past. That adds a little bit more depth to the batting. Patty [Cummins] showed in the first innings a good method of defence and attack, so it is there. The younger ones, that's a work in progress. That's a big learning curve for them with the bat and the ball."
There is a clear gap in talent with the bat between Australia's and India's bowlers. Axar Patel averages nearly 34 in first-class cricket and 31.80 in Test cricket, while Ashwin is batting at No. 9 in this current India team with five Test centuries to his name. Coach Andrew McDonald noted India's depth of batting.
"They bat right through to nine, and that's the reality," McDonald said on Monday. "On the flip side to that, we've got to make sure we bridge that difference with our lower order as well. That's been a clear distinct difference in the two Test matches so far, where you get a team five down and suddenly they creep out. They got 400 in that first game in Nagpur, it wasn't a 400 wicket."
By contrast, Australia have had Cummins batting at No. 8 with a Test average of just 15.93. Intriguingly, after 17 Tests of their respective careers, Cummins had a higher Test average (20.95) than Jadeja (20.62). Jadeja has become a world-class allrounder, fulfilling his Test batting potential having scored 12 first-class centuries overall, including three triples, while Cummins has regressed.
"Plans certainly weren't wrong. Our plans were good. Guys under pressure moved away from their plans of what worked and you pay the consequence in this country."
Michael Di Venuto
That gap in talent was part of the reason Ashton Agar was so heavily considered as Australia's second or third spinner, given he has three first-class hundreds, a Test 98, and averages 28.32 with the bat in first-class cricket. But it is understood he was struggling so much with the ball in training, having taken just 20 wickets in his last 12 first-class games at a cost of 63.45 and a strike rate of 131, that he and the selectors mutually decided he was not in the right place to play in Australia's four-man attack. The selectors are currently considering whether to fly him home to play some domestic cricket in Australia.
Starc's return from injury would bolster Australia's batting at No. 8 but it may come at the expense of the third spinner unless Cummins is unable to play given his personal situation.
"We need to find runs," McDonald admitted. "We knew that before we came away, that runs is always the biggest challenge in India. We felt like we'd be able to take 20 wickets but how we find runs is really important. So do we bat a little deeper? Mitchell Starc coming in, he's had some good success with the bat, albeit he's a lower-order player. He got 99 in Mohali and 62 in Pune on a spinning wicket as well, so does he come into calculations? Do we play two quicks? All those conversations are happening but the bottom line is we do need to find runs, and that's our big question."
Cameron Green will return in Indore which will balance the side even more. That could also open the door for Australia to do something radical and play eight batters if they had confidence in taking 20 wickets with playing just three specialist bowlers, Green and Travis Head as support. But that option would probably only be considered if an extreme spinning pitch is presented in Indore.
Ultimately Australia's top order needs to do the heavy lifting with the bat. Former Australia opener Matthew Hayden, who is working as commentator on Star Sports this series, has offered his support and expertise to the Australian team but it remains to be seen whether any players will reach out.
Di Venuto believes Australia's batters aren't trusting the methods and plans that they have been working on.
"Plans certainly weren't wrong. Our plans were good," Di Venuto said. "But if people go away from their plans they get in trouble as we saw. I think if we look back at the position we were in at 2 for 85, executing our plans very well in that second innings and ahead of the game and the wheels fell off after that.
"Guys under pressure moved away from their plans of what worked and you pay the consequence in this country.
"Batting, it's a pretty simple analogy I think, you've got to swim between the flags in this country. If you go outside the flags and your game plan you are going to get in trouble.
"Each individual has got their own method which we think can work. But if you're coming over here and you're not a sweeper and you're trying to sweep, that's not going to work. I think we have some good examples of that and saw that."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo