Tim Paine's Australia in dire need of Steven Smith and David Warner's return
After the Melbourne defeat, the Australia captain bluntly admitted that the team has been unable to fill the hole left by the duo
In the shadows of a defeat that left the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Indian hands, Australia's captain Tim Paine made his bluntest admission that the national team is in dire need of Steven Smith and David Warner to return from their Newlands-scandal bans to fill the gaping hole they have left in the batting order.
That gulf was something ruthlessly exposed by India on an MCG pitch that required methodical, consistent cricket beyond the home side's means, underlining the fact that next to all the noise and hand-wringing about whether or not Smith and Warner can be reintegrated successfully, the cold and unavoidable calculation is that Cricket Australia and Paine's team quite simply have no choice but to do so.
While there are other questions in Paine's mind, about wider systemic issues in Australian cricket that he has discussed with the players' association, and also about the preparation of pitches for international cricket that do not suit his team's preferred exploitation of pace and bounce they saw in Perth in particular, he had no qualms about admitting that Smith and Warner could not be adequately replaced for the hosts to compete with the likes of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara.
"I think that's pretty clear. I think if you took Pujara and Virat out of India's side I think you'd have the same conversation," Paine said in Melbourne. "If you've got world-class players that aren't in your team, are they going to add to our team? I think they will. So while at the moment it's challenging and everyone's frustrated, it is what it is.
"Everyone is working as hard as they possibly can and we're getting guys who are getting experience of high-pressure situations in Test cricket and learning on the job. At times you're going to get inconsistency from guys that are in that situation. The silver lining is that we have got world-class players that are available soon to come back into this side and clearly when they do it will make a huge difference."
The level of noise around Smith, Warner and the third banned player Cameron Bancroft enveloped the Australian team on Boxing Day, and though Paine said the distraction had not been significant, he was adamant that the conversation around the trio needed to move on from recriminations for Cape Town to detail on their returns. "I'm sure guys went home that night and listened to them and had their own thoughts on it but it certainly wasn't discussed during play," Paine said. "What's happened has happened.
"We're getting towards the end when those guys are coming back. That's what the conversation should be around now. It's all been out there. People have had their say and the guys have nearly finished their bans and done their time so I think it's time we started focusing on the fact they're coming back and from that there are real positives."
Into the eighth year of the Big Bash League, Australia's players, coaches and selectors are into the familiar jumble between Test squads and an unrelenting parallel T20 schedule that has seen the dropped batsman Peter Handscomb go off to play for Melbourne Stars before returning to the squad, while Peter Siddle will do likewise for Adelaide Strikers on New Year's Eve and then return to long-form duty ahead of the SCG Test from January 3. Paine said discussions with the Australian Cricketers Association were ongoing, though it must be noted that the players' union already had a higher degree of input into this season's schedule via a standing committee shared with CA that was part of the 2017 MoU negotiation.
"It's out of our control. As players our job is to play cricket and turn up where we are supposed to turn up. We don't do the programming and can't help it at this stage," Paine said. "We're having conversations with the ACA on how we can do it better down the track and Cricket Australia and the ACA will work through that. At the moment you can't use change of format as an excuse. We're not playing well enough under pressure when it matters - that's a fact whether it's Twenty20, one-day cricket or Test cricket. It's happening through all three formats at the moment.
"It's modern day cricket, you've got to be able to switch between formats, do it really quickly and we've got some players who aren't available and because of that some guys are getting an opportunity before they would have.
"There's been a hell of a lot of talk about our batting and our top six, but we've seen if we can get Virat and Pujara out there's some holes in the opposition batting as well. We've just got to be able to score enough runs to give our bowling attack a chance to line them up. We're not scoring a lot of runs but I don't think India are [either] and part of the reason for that is both attacks are really good as well."
Paine reserved perhaps his sharpest words in the wake of the Melbourne defeat for a general critique of pitches in Australia. "We prefer to see wickets that have got a bit of bounce and carry on it," Paine told ABC Radio. "Our strength in Australia is our pace and it's very rare you go to India and get a green wicket, and it's been disappointing at times we've produced wickets that have played into their hands a little bit, albeit they've outplayed us in these conditions anyway.
"The wicket was always going to be a bit of a grind. it was going to be slow and at times that can expose a bit of a gap between sides - but i just think you have to give India credit. they won the toss, batted really well and kept us out there [in the field] for two days. After that we were behind the 8-ball and it's pretty hard to come back from that. i just think plain and simply we were outplayed and India deserved to win this Test."
The Melbourne Cricket Club's chief executive Stuart Fox rounded off a week in which the MCG surface was heavily criticised on days one and two before the game began to move more quickly, reiterating that longer term plans to dig up the central concrete base for drop-in pitches, replacing them with a pylon system favoured in Adelaide and Perth, was going ahead regardless of the result and whatever pitch rating is subsequently determined by the match referee Andy Pycroft.
"Really we just reflect on day one," Fox told SEN Radio. "We don't know why [it was so dull], we'll do a lot of work over the coming weeks to work out why, but rest assured we're in a probably three to five year programme. Work started last year and we're going to aggressively make changes in coming years. The message is it takes time, you can't just rebuild a pitch and a number of pitches and have them ready for next year."
As it is for the MCG pitch, so it must be for Australian cricket's batting stocks, though the returns of Smith and Warner will provide short-term relief.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig