Category Archives: 2023 Aus in India

Call the Doctor!

Finally, I understand how Australia can win in India! Visiting teams like Australia should hope the grounds staff doctor the wickets MORE, not less. This is what the Third Test in Indore suggests. They called the Indore pitch ‘poor’? I reckon it was pretty darn good in terms of providing an even contest.

When Indian pitches are excessively doctored to take spin, thereby favouring India’s spinners on decks that visiting teams aren’t used to, the visitors don’t stand a chance of making runs. But here’s the thing: neither do the Indians! It levels the playing field (pun intended).

What’s the ‘right’ amount of turn in a wicket as far as India is concerned? It’s enough turn to make batting difficult for visiting teams who aren’t accustomed to it, but not quite enough to present the Indian batters with something completely alien. It’s a ‘Goldilocks’ wicket: not too little turn, not too much, but juuuuust right.

I have no idea how to quantify this ‘Goldilocks’ degree of spin, but the pitches in Nagpur and Delhi certainly seemed to exhibit it. The batting of Rohit Sharma and Axar Patel was outstanding in the First Test, and the home team won easily. With scores level after the first innings of the Second Test, Australia was competitive at 2-85 in the second innings before dropping their bundle and losing 8 wickets for 38. Most seem to agree that Australia was close to making a game of it before everything fell apart. Would have, could have, should have.

Indore was different.

If you over-egg the pudding, if you put too much spice in the mix, it becomes a nightmare for both teams. But at least both teams have a 50-50 shot. Sure, the matches are over within three days, but as Rohit Sharma observed after the Indore Test, this happens in many places outside India as well. And the contest is more equal.

It has happened before. In the First Test in Pune in 2017, Australia batted first and made 260, with Renshaw making 68 and Starc 61. As they always say, you never know what’s a good score until both teams bat on it. Never was that more true than at Pune. It turns out 260 was an outstanding score. Steve O’Keefe then ripped through India with his left-arm orthodox, taking 6-35 and bowling them out for 105. Steve Smith contributed an astonishing 109 in the second innings, but remarkably it wasn’t even needed: O’Keefe repeated his effort in the second innings – another 6-35 to bowl out India for 107 and give Australian a stonking and entirely unexpected 333-run victory. (Side note: Renshaw’s 68 in the first innings at Pune set up Australia’s victory. Sure, he looked out of his depth in the current series with scores of 0, 2 and 2 in Nagpur and Delhi, but I feel sorry for him because no one has mentioned that he’s won a Test in India for his team before.)

The Indore pitch was a rank turner. This (allegedly) was due to it being prepared for a Test match at short notice because the wicket at Dharamsala wasn’t ready. I assume the ground staff were instructed to ensure the pitch would take spin, so they obliged.

Boy, did they oblige. After Matt Kuhnemann ripped through India with 5-16, Usman Khawaja’s first innings 60 turned out to be a match winner, leaving Lyon to do his stuff in the second innings. I don’t know anything about preparing a Test wicket, but I suspect that achieving that ‘Goldilocks’ degree of turn is not necessarily easy to do. It’s not difficult to accidentally go too far and administer a bit too much stimulant.

I’m fascinated to see what sort of wicket is prepared for the Fourth Test at Ahmedabad. Conventional wisdom was that India, expecting to be up 3-0, would be unconcerned about the risk of a loss and ask for a green seamer to help them prepare for the World Test Championship at the Oval in June. But, stung by their loss at Indore, perhaps India is out for blood and will ask for another turner at Ahmedabad.

Call the doctor!

One-in-Ten Chance

India have gone 2-0 up after the Second Test in Delhi, preserving their perfect record at the ground since 1959.

Poor batting by Australia? Certainly. Can touring teams like Australia’s learn to bat on wickets that are prepared to be low, slow and turning? Evidence would suggest they just don’t know how.

Based on the data since 2010, India have a 75-80% chance of winning a Test played at home. A visiting team has perhaps a 1-in-10 chance.

Is this because the Indian authorities have issued strict instructions to grounds staff to prepare wickets that will give India’s spinners an overwhelming advantage? In other words, are the wickets doctored more now than they used to be?

Or is it something else entirely?

Is it more a case of India having not one but two once-in-a-generation spinners in Ashwin and Jadeja? Will we look back after they retire and regard the past decade as a golden age for Indian spinners in the same way as we think of the 1980s as a golden age for West Indian fast bowlers?

* up to and including the Second Test in Delhi, Feb 2023

I wish I knew.

Cruel But Fair

There’s a bit of debate in the press about Ashton Agar’s omission from the Second Test XI and the last-minute inclusion of Matt Kuhnemann. Some are suggesting Agar was poorly treated and should have played.

Respectfully, I question that.

Selectors often make mistakes. Omitting Head for Renshaw in the First Test was one, although I doubt it would have altered the outcome of that game. Bringing Agar on the Indian tour instead of Kuhnemann in the first place was, I suspect, another mistake. In both cases, however, the selectors have tried to rectify their errors in the Second Test by including Head and Kuhnemann. Correcting mistakes is what they should be doing. It’s their job.

Why did they bring Agar, then, if they weren’t going to play him?

Completely fair question. It’s difficult to speculate when one isn’t privy to the inner workings of the Australian squad, but that’s never stopped me before so let’s get into it:

Agar has been kept in and around the squad for a couple of years. I’ve always assumed the selectors were hoping he would develop into a threatening bowler who could make some useful runs down the order.

Trouble is, it hasn’t happened.

Like some other players like Michael Neser and Glenn Maxwell before him, Agar has been denied the chance to play much first-class cricket because he’s been kept on the bench for the Test team. It’s the Black Hole of Broken Dreams for many an aspiring Test cricketer – you’re not quite good enough for the Test team but good enough that you’re kept in reserve and thus can’t play red ball cricket for your state. Neser finally managed to get out of the Black Hole, managing a Test debut and six Sheffield Shield games in 2022-23, but Agar has remained stuck in limbo.

More importantly, when he does play, he doesn’t take wickets.

Agar played two ODIs for Australia vs England in November 2022, going wicketless in both. Then he took 2-107 across both innings for the PM’s XI against the West Indies a week later. Agar’s had just a single Shield match in 2022-23, when he took 1-105 across both innings against Queensland in early December 2022. He was finally given a Test guernsey when he played in the Third Test against South Africa in January, but didn’t take a wicket in either innings. Not the sort of returns that demand a Test call-up. And he took only 6 wickets in 10 Big Bash games for the Perth Scorchers (average 45.16, strike rate 37). Agar did take 7 wickets across two Tests in Bangladesh, but that was five and a half years ago.

Based on these returns, then, Agar probably shouldn’t have been taken to India in the first place.

Why Kuhnemann, then? Well, he can turn the ball, for a start. I don’t mean to be overly harsh on Agar, but I don’t remember ever seeing him actually spin the ball. Plenty of slow bowlers have done well in white ball cricket by bowling flat at the stumps without getting much turn (remember the likes of Xavier Doherty? Johan Botha?) but in Test cricket in India, a bit of spin is surely required. Kuhnemann is new and inexperienced, but he’s three years younger than Agar. He’s taken 4 wickets at 38.25 in two Shield games for Queensland this summer, but it was probably his 16 wickets from 18 games in the 2022-23 Big Bash (average 26.50, strike rate 21) that made the selectors (belatedly) sit up and say to themselves, hang on a tic, we’ve actually got a better option here than Agar.

And I suspect that’s exactly what happened. It’s their job to pick the player they think will give Australia the best chance, so they did.

According to the ABC, Selector Tony Dodemaide is reported to have said Agar’s “red-ball game” was not where the spinner “wants it to be”. Sometimes it’s that simple. He wasn’t bowling well enough.

Was it tough on Agar? Sure. I feel for him. I’m sure I wouldn’t have the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with the vicissitudes of elite sport. Sadly, though, this is Test cricket, not tiddlywinks. Retired spinner Nathan Hauritz claims Agar was ‘unfairly treated’. Fairness has got nothing to do with it, I’m afraid. Hauritz went on to say of Agar, “If you’re going to take this guy over, you’ve got to play him.”

No. You don’t.

Now if only the selectors would take the same practical, hard-nosed approach to David Warner and force him into retirement, we might manage an opening partnership in double figures.

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.