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Feature

Points to ponder - what Australia need to do to revive a flagging campaign

There's a lot at stake; not just the series against India, but their position in the WTC final, which is not quite confirmed yet

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
25-Feb-2023
Steven Smith a training session, Delhi, February 24, 2023

Steven Smith does not need extra motivation to score runs, but having the leadership may help bring out his best  •  Getty Images

After an extended period in Delhi following the swift conclusion to the second Test, Australia head to Indore on Sunday to try and rescue a tour where they have conceded the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in barely five days of playing time.
However, there is still a huge amount at stake for Australia. To haul the series back to 2-2 would be a remarkable achievement, but the first port of call is to shore up their position in the World Test Championship final, which is not yet inked in. Should they lose 4-0 to India, they could still miss out if Sri Lanka were to turn over a struggling New Zealand 2-0 during March.
There have been a number of departures since the second Test, including captain Pat Cummins for the heartbreaking reason of spending time with his seriously ill mother. Steven Smith will captain the side in Indore at least, while Australia would be reinforced by the availability of Mitchell Starc and Cameron Green.
For two days in Delhi, Australia went toe-to-toe and were ahead of the game before it fell in a heap. Here are some talking points as they look to find just a second victory in 18 attempts in India dating back to 2004.

Can captaincy inspire Smith?

Smith was livid with himself when he fell sweeping against R Ashwin in the second innings in Delhi. It's a shot he rarely uses, especially in Tests, and the dressing room knew how angry he was. It followed the opening Test in Nagpur where he had looked very good at the crease before being beaten by Ravindra Jadeja in the first innings, and it would have happened twice in the game but for a no-ball. One of Australia's big mantras is don't get beaten on the inside.
Smith will be back in the captaincy seat in Indore, the third time he has filled in for Cummins. He does not need extra motivation to score runs, but having the leadership may help bring out his best. As captain he averages 67.33, and on the 2017 tour of India produced one of his finest series with 499 runs at 71.28.

Play your game

On the subject of that sweep shot from Smith, Australia's batters need to recalibrate their approach. Cummins pretty much admitted there had been two extremes so far in the series: too cautious in Nagpur, too frenetic in Delhi. They need to find a middle ground. That will look different for every batter. And it doesn't mean shelving the sweep entirely.
Smith may ponder whether to play it again, and Alex Carey probably needs to consider whether the risk-reward has become too skewed. But Usman Khawaja is unlikely to stop playing it despite his dismissals in Delhi. Marnus Labuschagne had some success with the slog-sweep variety, hit hard along the ground through midwicket. It was notable that Travis Head did not play a single sweep; he stuck to his own strengths. Peter Handscomb also had an excellent balance in the first innings.

Try and take a pause

"Things move quickly," is becoming one of the catchphrases of the series. It's easier said than done against an opposition attack that swoops at the first sign of panic setting in, but Australia have to find a way that when a wicket or two fall, they can stop the bleeding before it becomes a match-losing collapse. Attacking is one option but is fraught with risk. It might mean just seeing out a few overs or reaching the next drinks or session break to take the sting out of the game.
"It's tough to try and gain momentum when the team is as good as they are and can exert that much pressure on you that it can crack," Head said. "But that's the challenge for us over the next couple weeks, when we find ourselves in those moments how can we draw it back. There's enough experience in that room to know the right answers, it's about when it's a full stadium, there's noise going [and] wickets falling."

All-round boost, but be careful of expectations on Green

A lot has gone wrong for Australia on this tour, but one of more significant moments that had an impact happened on December 27 when Green suffered his broken finger against South Africa. That's not to say results would have been different, but it knocked out of kilter so much of Australia's planning around how they would balance the side.
Now Green is back, having been delayed a little by a setback at the Bengaluru training camp, but this will be one of the biggest challenges of a still young international career. The 77 he made against Sri Lanka in Galle, an innings rated very highly by his team-mates, provided an example of how quickly he can learn - it's worth noting that the sweep, not a natural shot for him, played a pivotal role.
However, he hasn't batted in a match scenario for nearly two months and the last two home summers have shown how he can take time to get into his groove. But he's a player with many India tours ahead of him and the learning starts now.

Don't forget pace

It feels as though Australia's quicks became a bit of an afterthought during the first two Tests. It's a significant contrast to India, who, while dominating with their spinners, have had Mohammed Shami play a key role. As this piece points out, it continues a trend.
There will be a new look to Australia's quicks in Indore with Starc set to slot back in for the absent Cummins. Green's availability gives them a second option regardless of whether they stick with three specialist spinners. It will be interesting to see how Smith uses them. Cummins was reluctant to bowl himself in Delhi. The ball has not reversed for the Australians as it did in Pakistan when it provided the series-breaking weapon, but equally they have not pursued the tactic for very long.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo