Many a time during the course of the first Test against Australia in Adelaide, Indian fans must have experienced that sinking feeling. Those consistent, jarring reminders that your team is, yet again, undercooked at the start of an important away series.
Make no mistake, as greats like Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar were quick to point out, India did play their part in making the Adelaide Test an absorbing contest for two days and were at the wrong end of a fast-bowling masterclass by the Aussies. Having said that though, there was a lot that Virat Kohli’s team didn’t do right which led to the eventual outcome.
The lasting memory of this match will undoubtedly be the number 36 – India’s score in their second innings, which now happens to be their lowest team total ever in Test cricket. It was a surreal opening session on day three, Indian batsmen came and went as if it were a procession. Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins were relentlessly accurate around the off-stump as Australia rolled back the years for another thumping home win.
However, to think that the eight-wicket defeat India suffered was only due to the phenomenal bowling by the hosts and not a sum of multiple errors throughout the match on the part of the visitors, which when looked at in isolation may not seem too significant, would only be another mistake. The collapse in the second innings might well be looked at as an aberration, but India faltered with the controllables too.
To start with, there was the selection of Prithvi Shaw at the top of the order. Common sense and a quick glance at his recent performances in the two warm-up games and the second half of the IPL would tell one that he wasn’t prepared to face the new ball against the Aussies.
Shaw played both Tests in New Zealand earlier this year, which was India’s last Test assignment, and got scores of 16, 14, 54, 14. Was he included in the team for the Adelaide Test because he was the incumbent? Or was the hope for a quickfire start the only consideration? Either way, it’s fair to say that the decision to pick him made little sense.
Heading into the game, Shaw’s confidence was low, his technical frailties were there for all to see, and he had ‘walking wicket’ written all over him. India gambled with the all-important opener’s slot, making a big mistake that was entirely avoidable.
This brings us to the basics that India got wrong collectively as a batting unit. From the constant gap between Shaw’s bat and pad, to Mayank Agarwal going at the ball with hard hands, to Wriddhiman Saha chasing a wide delivery at the start of day two, to Hanuma Vihari’s feet stuck at the crease… India didn’t help their cause by committing fundamental errors.
It’s one thing to stick to your strengths. After all, you’re a high-class player if you’ve made it to international cricket. But to not respect the conditions at hand or be incognizant of the threats lurking is unpardonable. Each batsmen has a method and shots they’re confident about but in Adelaide, India’s players could’ve done better had they adapted and tightened up their game.
Then, there’s the strategy or lack thereof while bowling against the tail. India’s struggle to dismiss the opposition’s lower order has been a constant for a while now and well documented. In the first Test against Australia, India had the hosts on the mat at 111/7 in their first innings. But the last three wickets added 80 runs which changed the complexion of the game.
While captain Tim Paine’s unbeaten 73 was indeed full of class and grit, India simply had to do better against Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Hazlewood. If it’s true that every team’s lower order tends to do better at home, then it’s also true that no team struggles while bowling against lower orders as much as India does.
The bowlers are the same, the consistency in getting the better of high-class, top-order batsmen is the same, then why do India fail to wrap up the tail time and again? Perhaps the field spreads out unnecessarily, or the bowlers try something extra, or the team’s approach becomes too passive. Whatever the reason may be, this is an issue India must address for it completely negates all the good work done in the first half of an innings.
Finally, there’s the fielding and the heartbreak for the Indian fans that comes with it. In Australia’s first innings, Marnus Labuschagne was on 12 when he was first dropped by Jasprit Bumrah before being dropped again when he was on 21 by Shaw. He went on to score 47 and played a key role in keeping his team’s batting together. Add to that, Agarwal couldn’t hold on to Paine’s catch when he was on 26 and the skipper ended up with a match-winning 73.
All these catches weren’t difficult by any means, they absolutely must be taken at the highest level. It isn’t just about the runs added by Labuschagne and Paine after getting reprieves, it’s also about the shift in momentum and the impact on the confidence of both teams’ players.
And when it comes to India, these are all too familiar sights. Match after match, series after series we’ve seen them commit these game-changing howlers. Had they latched onto the chances presented by Labuschagne and Paine, the match could well have taken an entirely different route.
With Kohli heading home and Mohammed Shami ruled out of the rest of the tour due to his injured right arm, India well and truly have their backs to the wall at the moment. While there’s too little a gap till the next game for Ravi Shastri and his coaching staff to fix what seem like deep-rooted problems, the least India can do is get the basics right. The onus is on each player. For if they fail to do that, a one-sided scoreline in the series is a given.