For Australia, playing spin in the subcontinent has been a puzzle and the side is searching for a clue to solve it. Now touring Sri Lanka, Australia lost the first two Tests to lose the series. The reason? Poor batting against the spinners. For a team of Australia’s stature, the weakness is major.
Australia was shot down on 106 in the first innings at Galle and 183 in the second innings to lose the second Test. Lankan spinners Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath guided the home side’s success. At Pallekele, the visitors lost the first Test after giving wickets to Herath and Lakshan Sandakan.
Of the 17 Tests played in the subcontinent since 2008, Australia lost 12, drew four and won just one. Australia has ignored addressing its flaw in batting in order to negotiate spin.
With a weak defence, the Aussie batsmen came up with bizarre solutions such as playing reverse sweeps and attacking strokes. Nathan Lyon got out playing a sweep, Adam Voges tried to go over the cover but couldn’t get elevation at Galle. Steve Smith jumped out but failed to reach to the pitch of the ball.
“It is sort of instinct,” Smith said. “All the guys growing up in Australia, the majority of wickets that we play on, they’re pretty true. You don’t often see too many spinning past the bat or the one that does go straight; it doesn’t speed up off the wicket as such. So it’s certainly a lot easier to play spin in Australia. We have to find ways of doing it differently.”
In 2008, the Aussies had no clue to India’s off-spinner Harbhajan Singh’s variations. Ricky Ponting failed on the tour as his initial front-foot stride forced him to commit early to the spinners. Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey and Shane Watson covered the spin properly. Occasionally, Hayden stood slightly out of the crease to cover the roughs and employed the sweep shot to disturb the length of Harbhajan & Co.
Then in 2013, Australia lost 4-0 to India and it was India off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin who tagged with Pragyan Ojha to demolish Australia. At neutral venues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi against Pakistan, Australia lost two Tests and leg-spinner Yasir Shah and Zulfiqur Babar claimed wickets.
Unsure footwork has been a thorn for Australians. Smith mentioned that the pitches in Australia don’t offer sharp break or uneven bounce. But when Aussies bat in dusty and dry conditions in the subcontinent, their one-dimensional approach doesn’t help. As a batsman, a strong defence is a must.
Unlike the Indian and the Sri Lankan batsman, Aussies plant the front foot wrong. An Indian’s first line of defense on an armer or on a flighted delivery is his bat. The Australians put the front pad in the line of the pitch of the ball. David Warner was trapped by Perera at Galle and his front leg was exactly in line of the pitch of the ball.
Peter Nevill was similarly trapped by Herath in the first innings at Galle, which was pushed in the air and Nevill offered his pad in the line of the ball. Secondly, Aussies are not the best judges of the variations.
On a delivery that is pushed through the air and has a 90 per cent chance of going straight, they plant their foot in the line of the ball. On a flighted delivery, the Australian batsmen plant their foot inside the line of the pitch of the delivery. The ball is meant to break away from the batsman and the Aussies find themselves far by playing inside the line. The result is they prod at the ball.
Let’s focus on Warner’s dismissal in the first innings of Perera. The off-spinner flighted the ball and Warner planted his foot on middle stump with his bat defending the turning ball. The ball took the edge and went to slips. Then Voges did a similar thing. As Herath flighted the ball, Voges planted his foot on the leg-middle to play a drive through cover. His bat was near the fourth stump, away from his body and he was in no control to play the shot.
The Sri Lankan spinners used the crease well and varied their trajectories. But the Aussies failed to differentiate between a ball that broke from the pitch and the one that skidded through.
Both Perera and Herath went wide in the crease and pushed the ball through the air, aiming the pads. They gave the ball air and delivered from closer to the stumps when they thought of turning the ball. But for Australians, every delivery was dealt with an one-dimensional approach. Usman Khawaja was castled by Perera to a delivery that was flat and was bowled from wider from the crease.
Former Indian batsman Sridharan Sriram was hired as Australia’s batting consultant during the 2016 WT20 to help the side play spin but was released soon. Australians then hired former Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan at the start of the Sri Lanka tour to help the Aussie spinners. Australians want to improve the weakness and it could be an excellent idea hiring some former subcontinent batsman.
With Australia scheduled to tour India early in 2017 for a Test series, it is time for a change in technique.