You could forgive this group of hapless Australian cricketers for thinking March is the cruellest month, particularly if it is a year they must tour India. Of the 13 Test series Australia have featured in since 1956, this is only their third here at the death of the season, when the wickets are toasted and treacherous. Australia have won four of those 13 – their last in 2004 – all four victories coming around October-November when the wickets were more hospitable and the heat and humidity less hostile.
Michael Clarke was not overstating the case when he said last month – as he was getting on the plane to India – this would be the toughest challenge of his career. There was no way even he could have known it would be this miserable.
Just about halfway through the series, and Clarke is trudging through wasteland, surveying the wreckage he has little hope of restoring on this tour. Even the jingoistic among us, or those prone to schadenfreude, can hardly celebrate this exhibition of self-destruction from perhaps the weakest Australian side to tour India in 57 years.
The Indian media, however, long in search of a revenge story, finally has one after 20 humiliating months. The script went all wrong on England’s recent tour of India. But with Australia proffering the possibility of a 4-0 scoreline, there is no mistaking the gloating now-you-know-what it-feels-like riposte from a few Indian papers and news networks.
The Australian media hasn’t shown much sympathy either to a team in long-term transition. Australian fans have been advised to fast-forward to the Ashes tour in July. “If we shut our eyes, put our fingers in our ears, and hum loudly to ourselves, the India series eventually will go away. Immediately, there is no other viable tactic,” Greg Baum wrote in The Age. In a cheeky attempt at faux optimism, Baum goes on to say, “Here’s a positive spin: of the Hyderabad XI, only Michael Clarke and James Pattinson are guaranteed to play in the first Test at Trent Bridge, so the selectors have plenty of scope.”
While the Australian team has copped some flak, it is the John Inverarity-led team of selectors that has come in for severe criticism – especially for its mishandling of Nathan Lyon, the offspinner who arrived in India low on confidence and is now taking a break to work on his game. From remarks about the selectorial stupidity in replacing the team’s frontline spinner with a net bowler (Glenn Maxwell) and a spinner who managed just two wickets all summer, Xavier Doherty, Tom Moody spoke for many when he tweeted: “I can’t understand why Nathan Lyon was axed. He’s not the finished product yet but was on track. Lack of patience and trust!” Rahul Dravid went so far as to call Lyon’s drop a “tactical blunder”.
Shane Warne agrees. In the fourth chapter of his manifesto for Australian cricket, released yesterday, Warne wrote about the state of spin bowling in Australia, and the critical need for a change in approach.
Warne, who had picked Lyon among the six key members of the Australian team in part one of ‘The Way Forward’, wrote, “The attitude should always be about taking wickets and not about economy rates: 4/100 off 25 overs is a good result and better than 2/60 off 25 overs.” But in an inexplicable move, the Australian selectors, including coach Mickey Arthur, decided to chastise Lyon for leaking too many runs (4 for 244) in Chennai.
“I believe the expectations are too high and the young spinners are put under a lot of pressure to be both attacking wicket takers as well as tight economical bowlers, which is very hard to do,” wrote Warne.
He would know. Despite jocular exchanges on social media between ex-Australian players and Warne about making a comeback to rescue Australia from the depths of subcontinental hell, the world’s best spinner never tasted much success in India, picking 34 wickets from nine Tests at an average of 43.11, his most successful tour being 2004 when he averaged a shade over 30.
In 2004 – their only victory in India in 43 years – Australia had a very clear bowling plan: three pacers and a spinner with Nathan Hauritz replacing Warne for the fourth Test in Mumbai, and Clarke pitching in as part-time spinner. During that series, the Australian quicks – Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Mike Kasprowicz – delivered 43 wickets, the spinners 25.
When Australia announced its side two days before the first Test, Clarke spoke about sticking to team strengths and the traditional three seamers-one spinner approach, without worrying too much about the strategies India adopted. However, this plan was abandoned after the Chennai defeat as the Australians played right into the hands of the Indians who expressed surprise at Doherty’s omission.
Right on cue, Lyon made way for Doherty. There might even be some merit to the thinking that the Indian batsmen were not averse to gifting their wickets to Doherty and Maxwell, on day three of the Hyderabad Test, to ensure the innocuous Australian spinners retained their place in the side. Cheteshwar Pujara hasn’t helped Lyon’s cause either by saying he was “comfortable” facing the offspinner and expected his omission.
One would not be surprised if Australian spin bowlers in the future would much rather avoid an India tour as history has proved particularly cruel to offspinners – Hauritz and Colin Miller played their last Tests here; Gavin Robertson and Jason Krejza played just one Test after an India debut that met with mixed reviews. Could Lyon, all of 25, be the latest one to join this ignominious list?
Speaking about the bowler, Arthur said, “There are a couple of technical things we wanted to work on a little bit away from the game”. Australian writer Patrick Smith’s response? “How far away? Glasgow? Port Hedland? What technical issues could possibly be better sorted out away from cricket?”
Others have taken to joking about Clarke’s latest injury, a broken heart, Australia’s request to borrow the old Dravid now that India have found the new one, Doherty’s 102 average in Test cricket (with the ball) before he came on to bowl in Hyderabad and Philip Hughes’ panicky pokes and senseless sweeps.
With as many as six to seven players of the current squad slated to play the IPL before Australia board the plane to England for the Champions Trophy and the Ashes tour, concerns about a fatigued Australian unit that will have been on the road for six months by the end of the Ashes are not misplaced at all.
Naturally, the post-mortems have already begun before the series is half done. A review in The Australian of the team’s progress in implementing the Argus committee recommendations looks at the several counts on which Australia have failed: winning the World Twenty20 in 2012, selecting players on the weight of runs and wickets, retaining the number one ODI ranking and better succession planning. Andrew Faulker concludes dismally that Australia’s blindspots, including the batsmen’s vulnerability to spin bowling, “might not be fixed for a generation”.
Clarke and his men have two more Tests to prove everybody wrong.