It was unmissable with each passing delivery and not something you associate with Australian cricket. As the final hour of the Sydney Test wound down, one could see the shoulders of the Aussies drop. There was a sense of resignation as Hanuma Vihari and Ashwin Ravichandran defended everything. Here was a team, with one of its most potent attacks in history, on a day five pitch, having just five wickets to show after more than 120 overs bowled.
Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne, two of Australia’s greatest cricketers, had no hope of India surviving the last day at the SCG. While Ponting reckoned India would fold inside 200, Warne was a little more generous and reserved his opinion till after Cheteshwar Pujara perished when he said the hosts would wrap things up quickly. Glenn McGrath, in the studios in India, also thought there was a chance the match might get over in a session on day five.
As bold as they seemed, one could see where these legends were coming from. They were used to Australian teams being ruthless at home. That’s the way they played their cricket. That’s the way we’re used to seeing Australia play their cricket. Which is why it came as a bit of a surprise when Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne cited lack of assistance from the pitch when reflecting on their team’s inability to bowl out India.
As the dust settled at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Monday, as the Indian team and the cricketing world marveled at the great escape, Australia were left to rue the opportunities they missed. Rue the fact that despite having a near full-strength side for much of the series, they were heading into a decider. And one couldn’t help but wonder how things turned around so quickly. How a visiting team, faced with relentless setbacks, seemed to have the edge at that point.
A lot has happened since the 36 all-out at Adelaide. An interim captain has shown remarkable fortitude in rallying his team forward. A bunch of bruised, possibly fatigued cricketers have fought tooth and nail to stay afloat. But as much as one would like to credit India entirely for the way things have panned out over the last two Tests, there’s no denying that there are significant cracks in the Australian team that have surfaced for all to see.
First things first, there are the issues with the playing XI. Since the series began, Australia have been searching for a dependable opening pair. The first two Tests saw Joe Burns and Matthew Wade stride out at the top of the order but neither could make the position his own. Burns was subsequently dropped but Wade managed to slip into the middle order.
In the Sydney Test, it was veteran David Warner opening the batting with debutant Will Pucovski. While Pucovski did well to get a 62 in his first innings, he ended up injuring his shoulder and is a doubtful starter for the Brisbane Test. On the other hand, Warner, who missed the first two games due to a groin injury, looked far from his best in the 5 and 13 he managed in Sydney and it remains to be seen if he will be fully fit for the decider.
Then there’s the lack of contribution from the No 5. To be precise, Australia have yielded 79 runs in five innings from that position. Wade took Travis Head’s place after the first two Tests but between them, they haven’t provided any stability in the middle order. Wade’s made more news for his banter with Rishabh Pant and if he does hold on to his place, his team will expect better from him than the reckless dismissals he’s provided.
In terms of bowling, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood have formed the spearhead for Australia. They have taken 15 and 11 wickets at averages of 18.13 and 18.00 respectively in the series so far, providing breakthroughs and building pressure each time they have come into the attack.
Nathan Lyon, though, has failed to make the impact one thought he would. Of course, he wasn’t helped by the dropped catches on day five in Sydney but the match situation was such that one did expect Australia’s greatest off-spinner to make more inroads. He has taken six wickets at an average of 57.66 so far this series and his team needs him to come to the party in what will be his 100th Test.
Mitchell Starc is the other underperformer in the bowling department. The left-arm pacer bagged a four-for in the first innings of the series but has picked just five wickets since. The thing about Starc is that one never really knows what to expect of him. He’s entirely capable of producing an absolute ripper every now and again but his tendency to not maintain the pressure has continued to hurt his team.
Despite all this, the biggest concern for Australia heading into the fourth and final Test is captain Tim Paine. India’s historic collapse at Adelaide may seem recent but the same can’t be said for Paine’s match-winning contribution in the same Test. That unbeaten 73 kept his team alive and earned him the player of the match award, but his career seems to have derailed dramatically in a matter of weeks.
It isn’t the batting that’s an issue when it comes to Paine. After a quiet game in Melbourne, he contributed an important 39 not-out in Australia’s second innings in Sydney. It is, however, in the field that Paine has come up short.
As the wicketkeeper, he dropped a catch each in the first two Tests but those errors didn’t prove to be too costly. In Sydney, though, he let three chances go down – two off Pant’s bat and one off Vihari’s – and that went a long way in Australia failing to close out the win.
In terms of strategies and field placements too, the 36-year-old copped criticism for his moves in the all-important fourth-innings of the Sydney Test. In the final session, Australia started off by attacking Vihari and Ashwin with short-pitched bowling and a crowded leg side field. Apart from leading to a few bruises, all that did was waste precious time and strengthen the batsmen’s resolve.
However, Paine’s biggest mistake was, of course, the exchange he had with Ashwin. Credit to him that he made it a point to come out later and apologise for his act, but it must be said that calling an opponent ‘dickhead’ to their face simply isn’t on.
To be fair to Paine, he is often not given the credit he deserves. He was thrust into the deep end after the ball-tampering episode in 2018 and worked incredibly hard to help restore faith in Australian cricket. The sincerity with which he has gone about his business over the past few years was apparent in the courage he showed to own up to his mistake after the run-in with Ashwin.
But the fact of the matter is that Paine’s actions, as a cricketer as well as a leader, have led his team to a precarious position. His win percentage (64%) as captain in home Tests is the lowest for any Australian in the last century. And now, with their backs to the wall, with the series on the line, against an opposition that’s probably more motivated than it’s ever been on this tour considering the obstacles they have overcome to get this far, Australia have to step up in a game that could have far-reaching consequences.
A lot was spoken about India’s series win Down Under the last time, how it came with the hosts missing two of their biggest stars. But Australia will have no such excuse this time around. In fact, it’s the Indian team that’s ravaged by injuries and the burden is firmly on Australia’s shoulders. Also, as much as Australia like to call the Gabba their fortress, a 33-year unbeaten run brings with it some pressure too.
There’s an Australian brand of cricket that audiences have been familiarised with over decades. Two of its prominent features are: unrelenting consistency in the field and a propensity to push the boundary of the moral code. In Sydney, Paine and his men only showcased the latter. In Brisbane, they’d want to reverse that.