India: A Bridge Too Far?

Humiliating! Embarrassing!

The critics have their knives out for Australia’s cricketers after their crushing loss in the First Test in Nagpur. And yes, many of the criticisms are valid. Australia played poorly, no question about it.

But hang on a moment. Australia is the No. 1 Test team in the world, at least for now (perhaps not after this series). Did a good team suddenly become a bad team overnight? It’s not that simple.

To those who wish to criticise Australia’s batters for meekly capitulating in the First Test in Nagpur, I have a question:

What did you expect?

You might want to cut the Australian players some slack and adjust your expectations.

Everything was set up for India to win in Nagpur. Every. Single. Thing.

Look, I get it. Australia’s batting was rubbish, it’s true. I, too, have lambasted Australia’s batters in the past for falling in a heap in India. But while the players change, the same thing keeps happening to Australian teams – and other touring teams, for that matter – in India. Which begs the question: WHY?

Is it because Australia’s players are useless? No, they are clearly not, and it’s simply inaccurate to say so. Australia has a good team. It has won seven of its past ten series, including a 1-0 series win in Pakistan and a 1-1 draw against Sri Lanka. These are not insignificant achievements. Australia had lost BOTH of its previous away series to Pakistan (played in the UAE) and its previous away series against Sri Lanka (six Tests in total) without winning a single game. And then there’s the 2-2 drawn Ashes series in England in 2019, which was none too shabby, either. This Australian team has done very well.

I suspect Australia loses in India for one simple reason: to compete on India’s turning pitches, you must grow up playing cricket on them. It’s a set of skills that can’t be acquired later if you’ve grown up on fast bouncy pitches. It simply can’t. No amount of wishing will change that. We’re wasting our time demanding Australia’s batters do that when they only get to play in India once every four years. You think it’s easy? You try it.

Each time Australia goes to India, the coaches and players say they’ve studied the conditions, they know what to expect, they’re prepared. They prepare mock wickets intended to mimic Indian conditions. They conduct training camps. They’re ready.

Except they are clearly not. Of course they have to say they are. You can’t fly overseas saying, ‘sorry, folks, we’re probably going to get caned’.

Don’t get me wrong, India are a very strong team and hard to beat at the best of times (they are No. 2 in the world rankings, after all). And they have won both of their recent series in Australia by a 2-1 margin, which is a phenomenal achievement for players not brought up on fast, bouncy wickets. (Mind you, Smith and Warner were missing in 2018-19 and Labuschagne, who hadn’t yet arrived as a serious Test cricketer, only played the Fourth Test, by which time the series was already lost. India’s 2020-21 series win in Australia was arguably their greatest achievement, posted on the back of a fine century by Ajinkya Rahane in the Boxing Day Test in December 2020 and Rishabh Pant’s brilliant 89 not out in the second innings of the Fourth Test at the Gabba the following month.)

But I digress.

The Indian authorities demand that the home team wins. Period. Pitches are blatantly doctored to ensure this.

Yes, of course, this sort of thing does indeed happen in other countries, too (the raging green-top prepared for the Gabba Test against South Africa in December 2022 was an absolute disgrace and heads should have rolled for it). But everybody knows the hardest of conditions to prepare for are India’s dry, turning wickets. They are just in a different category altogether. Batsmen don’t know whether to play forward or back. They don’t know which way the ball will spin, or if it will spin at all. There is simply nothing quite like an Indian turner.

This is common knowledge and one reason why India has won 81% of its home Tests in the past decade, which according to the ABC is a higher proportion of home wins than any other major cricketing nation (Australia 71%, South Africa 65%, New Zealand 63%, England 58%). For Pete’s sake, India has lost only two of 42 Tests played at home in the past decade (one to Australia in 2017 when Steve O’Keefe took 12 wickets).

But as far as the current series is concerned, Australia has another batting problem apart from the fact that its batters can’t play spin. As Axar Patel’s fine innings demonstrated, India bats down to No. 9. In comparison, Australia has only six batters capable of scoring runs. David Warner’s reflexes are shot and he should retire immediately. He will not succeed in India, nor in England if the selectors are foolish enough to pick him for the Ashes. Meanwhile, Pat Cummins’ batting form is atrocious and has been for the past few years, and the batters below him can’t contribute with the bat either. So Australia is three batters short compared to India. In recent years, Australia’s decent lower-order batting has been a strength, but it’s not at the moment. This is a massive handicap.

Then there is Ashwin and Jadeja. These guys are all-time greats, at least in their home conditions. As the media correctly pointed out prior to the series, Ravichandran Ashwin is an India specialist and preys on left-handers, of which Australia has four batters in the top seven (he got all four in the second innings in Nagpur). Put another way, Ashwin is simply very very good in conditions that he grew up playing on: 70% of his Test wickets have been taken in India (at 20.88) even though he has played only 58% of his Tests there. Outside India, he is okay but less stellar. His average outside India (31.45) is 50% higher than his average at home. It’s a similar story for Jadeja, who’s taken 72% of his Test wickets in India while playing only 61% of his Tests there. None of this is to say both bowlers aren’t masters of their craft, just to emphasize what almost-insurmountable weapons they are for the Indian team. Australia’s batters simply aren’t accustomed to facing such bowling on turning pitches and you can’t expect them to suddenly be able to cope with it. In short, there isn’t much Australia can do about it.

So why didn’t Lyon and Murphy emulate the Indian spinners, you ask? Because they’re not the same kind of bowlers, of course. Both Australian spinners performed well in my view. Murphy’s debut was very encouraging and Lyon created plenty of chances. He was unlucky not to bag more wickets, and he’s done well in India before. Take his 8-50 in Bangalore in March 2017, when India was bowled out for 189. Australia took an 87-run lead on the first innings in that Test, but lost when they were bowled out for 112 in the second innings by – guess who? – R Ashwin, who took 6-41. Sound familiar? Bowlers, especially spinners, need runs to defend! Which brings us back to the same problem – when will Australian batters learn to bat on Indian wickets?

Honestly, I see no evidence to suggest they ever will. I don’t blame them. It’s the hardest task in cricket. And so I find the criticism of Australia’s batters unproductive and fairly pointless.

The Second Test is in Delhi, where Australia has only ever won one Test. That was in 1959. India hasn’t lost there since 1987. So if you bother to tune in (I’m not sure I will), don’t be too hard on the Australians.

No one wants to admit that winning in India is a once-in-a-generation event, and that’s only if you are very lucky.

It’s a good thing the broadcast isn’t available on free-to-air TV. Fewer Aussies will see it.

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