The Australian cricket psyche is an interesting one, developed through years of success and periods of grim defeat. Our early nation’s triumph in English shores to begin the Ashes rivalry kickstarted a time where Bradman, Morris and co all instilled the now-entrenched Australian cricketing superiority. But it wouldn’t have been so grand if we hadn’t of faced disorganised trips to the motherland for years that ended in losses. Likewise, with our recent golden era of the late 1990s to the mid 2000s; if we hadn’t of fallen behind the dominant West Indies and Ian Botham-led England in the 80s then perhaps our aggressive entitlement wouldn’t have grown to be so domineering. Instead, we now treat all summers of Australian test cricket as a time to bully visiting countries into submission and kick them out feeling rather satisfied with ourselves. Dave Warner’s chalked up 300? Of course – Pakistan are a rabble.
But the narrative of test cricket history has changed once again for Australia. It may not feel like it, but this Boxing Day loss to India (our second consecutive MCG test loss to the dominant nation) is a landmark. 2018’s capitulation was tarnished by a lack of Smith and Warner. Yet this match holds no excuses, and comes in such remarkable fashion for a galvanised Indian side.
Instead of Australia crying foul circumstances, it was the travelling party who had the most reason to whinge. With Kohli returning to India after leading his side to a damaging third day loss in Adelaide, most of us smug Australian fans sat back and prepared for a Boxing Day drubbing. What we learnt instead was that incessant diligence and a sense of risk-taking always beats tentative self-righteousness.
Both teams approaches couldn’t have been more different. India enhanced on their bowling plans from Adelaide and ignored the time-honoured code of attacking off-stump (or just outside it) to a waiting cordon of slips and cover fielders. Jasprit Bumrah may not be the highest ranked test bowler in the world, but he is certainly the most dynamic. Visiting his happy hunting ground for the second time (in the 2018 Boxing Day test he took nine wickets for the match), he picked up where he left off by incessantly attacking middle stump. Without Shami, debutant Siraj followed suit and reaped similar rewards to his awkward spearhead.
India’s middle stump approach didn’t bear immediate results – it was never planned to. It takes time; attacking fields with leg slips and bat pad being common tightened the flow of runs. Only Matthew Wade found a way to break through on Boxing Day morning, flying to 30 courtesy of some loose Umesh Yadav bowling that trickled outside the off-stump line. But after his reckless dismissal all fellow batters refused to take the game on.
Flashpoints of moments from Australia’s opening innings set the tone. If Labuschagne and Smith had decided to use their feet to Ashwin early and loft anything trickling onto the pads over mid-wicket or square leg, then the wily offie wouldn’t have had such a golden opportunity to wheel away on the same spot for an entire test match. If Head had continued to show such intent at the crease by running singles and pushing through gaps, then he may have encouraged Green and Paine to come out of their shells earlier. But wickets only led to Australia following another time-honoured ritual of knuckling down and preventing another quick scalp. Instead, they should’ve been establishing a presence at the crease and building a score, not just defending time.
Trickling to 195, all eyes turned to whether it was an Australia problem or an issue plaguing both sides. With more reason for caution (after just being rolled for 36), India came out and did the exact opposite. In essence, after Agarwal’s dismissal in the opening over they made the perfect move, and it came from a debutant. Shubman Gill has a tremendous first-class record, and decided to play his natural game. He rode his luck through an early drop on the first evening and another on the second morning, but by then he was already in double figures and scoring freely. Gill may have thrown away a perfect start on 45, but he batted for just over half the amount of balls that Labuschagne did and made only three fewer runs; a lesson in intent.
Gill changed the game. His knock was only brief, but it encouraged his more experienced middle order to trust in their scoring shots. Rahane followed suit with a sublime captain’s knock (and a match that made everyone question whether he could be as good a leader as Kohli) full of driving on the up and flamboyant back foot shots. Supported by a flowing Pant cameo and a mature Jadeja half-century, Rahane took the game to Australia much like he did in the 2014 Boxing Day test and reaped the rewards with a momentous century. The next day Sunil Gavaskar labelled it as having the potential to be one of India’s most important knocks in their fabled test match history. He wasn’t wrong – Rahane’s counterattack was fundamental to India’s mindset that could see them take this series.
Yet Australia fought back with five wickets in the opening session of the third day. From there, Australia’s unwarranted optimism flickered back to life like a rusty basement lightbulb. But there was no electric surge to sustain the light; Wade lost all momentum from his previous innings and no batter decided to push back against India’s oppressive bowling. It was perfect for debutant Siraj, who could steam in all day without fear of being dispatched. No matter what he did, he would bowl plenty of overs in Yadav’s absence and he wouldn’t be carted for bulk runs. Yes, his bowling was brilliant, but it was aided by Australia’s negative approach to batting.
It’s no surprise then when they crumbled to 6-99 on the third evening. There was no change; Langer was comfortably outplayed tactically, and he didn’t even consider shaking it up. Neither did his bats, who may as well have carried shovels instead of bats out onto the hallowed MCG turf to commence digging their own holes. Cam Green and Cummins fought hard, but both gave away chances of scoring vital half-centuries (or more) by refusing to score regularly.
India could then lick their lips and prepare for tough catching opportunities without the fear of a ball being smacked at them. They always remained in the game, and could endure long periods without a wicket while still staying ahead in the contest. It’s no wonder Ashwin, Bumrah, Siraj and Jadeja ended the second innings with such fantastic figures – they could build pressure without having to revert to a different plan. Up the other end of the wicket, Australia’s bats refused to conceive a back-up way of tackling a solid bowling and fielding idea.
With only a minimal target to chase, India capped off a superb four days by banishing some demons. Two early wickets would have caused nerves to jangle for the more pessimistic Indian supporter, while rousing the blindly confident Australians, but it only allowed Rahane and Gill to end the test match in the way they started it – brutal aggression.
Australia can go away and change personnel, but their issues don’t lie in particular players. Sure, Warner and perhaps Pucovski may change the way the next test is played, but it won’t suddenly bring Smith, Labuschagne, Wade, Head, Green and Paine out of their shells. Australia’s issues don’t lie in simple adjustments; it lies in a deeper sense of intent and attacking that has slowly dissipated since the Darren Lehmann stepped down as coach. Langer and Paine have done remarkable things leading Australia, but their mindset must change (for example, where has the old yet effective tactic of hitting the opposition spinner out of the attack gone?).
The home side now have the script reversed since Adelaide. India managed to bounce back and put the pressure on the other side in a perfectly executed counterattack. But they are a special side, and it’ll take another two tests to see whether Australia are strong enough to match them, or whether we are a rung below such a durable Indian outfit. To do so, they must access their inner-Australian sense of aggression and confidence.
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