India came here on the back of winning the Test series at home against Pakistan. They played on slow, low and flat wickets against a substandard Test side. It wasn't the ideal preparation for fast and bouncy pitches Down Under, or, as they discovered, even the thought of fast and bouncy wickets, for the MCG was nothing like that.
To make matters worse, they had only one warm up game before the Boxing Day Test, instead of the two they wanted (they had reportedly suggested they play five ODIs against Australia instead of seven at home earlier this year and three against Pakistan, but that was not accepted by the BCCI).
That lone tour game too was marred by rain. Anyone who's played on these surfaces would tell you it takes more than a few net sessions to get used to the conditions. Kumble agreed later, saying the warm up was “definitely not enough” and “players needed time to acclimatise to Australia.” He, however, added he would not offer this or anything as an excuse.
Still, it’s easier to adjust to the lack of bounce than to extra bounce. And while Kumble stated that the “batters were more finicky” about the need for time to adapt and rightly so, bowlers too coming here would need time to find the ideal length to bowl at.
BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah, asked a while ago about the lack of match practice before a big tour said: “These are professional cricketers and must learn to adapt quickly.” India, players and Board alike, have only themselves to blame for the lack of planning and communication.
Top heavy and lopsided
Where do we start! India had a different opening combine in the Test series against Pakistan. Though they kept Karthik (who opened in 9 of the last 10 Tests) in the squad, it was almost certain he’d lost his place at the top. Virender Sehwag was included on reputation alone as an X-factor, yet no one, even while boarding the flight to Australia, was certain what the opening combination here would be.
India opened with Rahul Dravid, their most successful batsman in Test cricket (at No. 3) with Wasim Jaffer to accommodate Yuvraj Singh. It was a gamble but then, so was picking the out-of-form Sehwag, and the first didn’t work. Dravid never found his feet at the top; he not only failed in both innings, he also struggled to get the ball off the square. He played at deliveries he should’ve left, blocked balls that he could have scored off and eventually put so much pressure on himself that his failure was inevitable.
Jaffer, on the other hand, never got going and lacked his usual fluency. In his case though, it’s only his first Test in this country, but he’ll be watched carefully.
Past, O glorious past!
The famed Indian batting line-up has failed to perform collectively for quite a while now in an overseas series of note (discounting the series against Bangladesh). They had only one century from the top seven in South Africa and none in England.
They’ve been doing more than enough to sustain themselves individually but no player has put his hand up for a while now and made a really big score that mattered. Kumble later said what mattered was the collective scoring, not necessarily big individual scores but then, you need a bunch of big starts at least. Like how Australia managed here with some half-centuries and only one century from Hayden.
India managed that more than a few times in England and won the Test series with some luck but this won’t do in every innings against a quality attack. More often than not, only a couple of players get a start and when they do, it’s essential to make those starts really count and build the partnerships.
Fielding and its follies
When you’re playing against the best side in the world, you can’t give them an inch because they know how to take a mile from there. India’s fielding was never their strength but good teams, especially on huge grounds like this, expose this as a major weakness.
Teams like Australia feed on their opposition’s frailties and they did just that by thoroughly exploiting India’s lack of athleticism. Every time the ball went to a relatively poor fielder, they would scamper for a single. It not only got a player off the strike and kept the board ticking, it also put extra pressure on the bowler.
Every time the ball went to the deep, they took three, two for the distance the ball had travelled and one for the weak arm. By doing so, and without hitting boundaries, they managed to maintain a healthy run rate despite losing wickets.
There is often some risk involved in getting the boundaries. But if you get four runs in an over with singles and doubles, why would you take a chance, especially on a wicket where the ball was not coming on to the bat?
Kumble agreed that the ground fielding was a problem area, one where India needed to up the intensity but he spoilt it some by adding: “When you have a few players over 35 in the side, including me, you need to manage as best as you can.” Just for the record, India have five of their playing XI over 30 and two over 35. Eight of Australia’s XI are 30-plus while three are over 35.
And while fielding, they threw themselves at everything, restricted the batsmen, backed up their bowlers beautifully and made a vital difference. Ponting said as much. “Our fielding was outstanding in both innings and that run-out at the end (Harbhajan run out by the Hussey-Hogg combo) really summed up the difference between the two sides.” It did.
Bubble, bubble, toil is trouble
Ponting also said that what made the difference was their “healthy scoring rate” on Day I. As a result, even though they lost wickets, they had still scored around 340, a defendable total.
Before India left, all the talk was about positive intent and how the only way to beat Australia at home was to take them on and play their aggressive brand of cricket. But it’s one thing talking about it and quite another to do it in practice.
They didn’t have to go after the bowling from ball one but the intent to take the attack to the opposition whenever the opportunity arose should have been constantly present. The Indians seemed to be in a shell when it came to batting as the run rate crawled, except for a phase in the first innings when Tendulkar and Ganguly were batting together.
This meant that even after playing 70 odd overs, India didn’t get enough runs on board to pressure the opposition. They were biding time, which was fine if they were preparing for an assault later but that assault never materialised. It was instead, an abject surrender.
Where there’s a will…
When India were chasing an unlikely target of 499 and had their backs to the wall, it was easy for the Australians to sit back and wait for things to happen (they would have happened anyway).
Instead, they kept increasing the pressure, to the extent of suffocating the batsmen, ball after ball, over after over. They chased, dived and did everything to ensure that not even a single run came easily to the Indians. “The whole idea was to limit the opposition’s scoring,” said Ponting, adding that he “didn’t ever think” they would lose the game after declaring.
That desperate will to succeed and finish it off didn’t seem to be around when India were batting or bowling. They often ambled across while running between the wickets and never put enough pressure on the bowlers by converting ones into twos and twos into threes. While bowling, there were more than a few phases when they seemed to have given up (especially on Friday evening) and looked like they were waiting for Australia to make mistakes or eventually declare their innings. It’s not how anyone would want to see their team play.
Let it rip, snort, snap
There’s thought to be a particular way of bowling on these tracks and Ponting confirmed it when his team won the game: You have to run in and hit the deck hard, ball after ball after ball. Australia’s trio of pacers did it consistently and India didn’t.
Not that they didn’t want to, but somehow, they are just not able to do it consistently. India’s bowlers are relatively shorter in height and smaller in frame and thrive on swing bowling rather than seam bowling.
They come into their own when they find lateral movement in the air but if that’s not available (and it isn’t in Australia for the most), they find it difficult to get similar movement off the deck.
The bowlers were underrated and did well enough at the MCG, but Australia’s superb tacticians would be working on working out any possible chinks in their batting armour. India need to do the same, in double-quick time.
Pressure, that relentless pressure
The Australians have mastered the art pressuring the opposition and then sustaining it for as long it takes to strangle them. Physically, on the field; and mentally, in the run up to matches and during them, with words and tactics.
While batting, they might go through dry spells but as soon as they get a whiff of something, they quickly change gear. They will run hard, walk down the track to the quicker bowlers as if to intimidate them. In this game, they went to the extent of humiliating the Indians by declaring with three second innings wickets and more than two days remaining. It’s a superb pressure tactic, one that disdainfully stated, “It’s enough to get you”.
While bowling too, Australia have the skills to execute plans and once they see a batsman struggling, even if it’s No. 10, they increase the pressure with strange field positions that will play on a batter’s mind even while constantly maintaining aggression with the ball. Kumble said his batsmen “were not intimidated” in the least but that’s not how it looked.
India had their moments, especially with the ball, but didn’t have the resources to sustain that pressure for longer periods. “We just wanted to finish it quickly,” said Ponting. They did exactly that.
It’s all in the strategy, mate
Sachin Tendulkar was set up beautifully on Saturday, V.V.S. Laxman got a snorter he couldn’t avoid on Thursday. Jaffer seemed to have been easily sorted out, as were Yuvraj Singh and M.S. Dhoni, while Dravid was choked, choked, choked. Asked later how Australia, who are reputed to play to an exact plan, handled Dravid’s move to the top, Ponting’s answer was almost chilling: Both because of the cool confidence with which it was delivered and because of what he said.
He said it didn’t really matter where Dravid played, or anyone for that matter, because Australia always had four to five different plans per opposition player. “We prepare for different players, each in different situations, different conditions,” said Ponting. “Given the technology and video analysis at our disposal, we should never ever be guessing. You should know each opposition player inside out and that’s what we do. The way we plan, we’re as good as anyone can be.”
India, on the other hand, still don’t know even their own players. For instance, who will open in the next Test? They’ll see the Sydney wicket and decide.
Pick ‘em early and back them through
Talking about the openers, when Kumble was asked why he opened with Dravid, when it obviously made India’s regular No. 3 so uncomfortable and unhappy, he replied: “I have to see the team dynamics based on who’s in form,” he replied, a little testily adding that if Yuvraj hadn’t been accommodated, there would’ve been more criticism. “There are always ifs and buts”.
He also made a very interesting statement later in this context. “If Viru and Karthik were in great form, we would have thought differently”. Well, if India are admitting they thought the two reserves were not in form even before the first Test, why were they picked?
And there are not always ifs and buts. Ponting, asked whether he, also a No. 3 bat, would have agreed to open, simply smiled and said he might have if needed. But said that need would never arise. “Opening is a specialist’s job and the Aussie selectors would always pick a specialist opener”.
Then again, once they made a choice, look how they handled it. Take Brad Hogg, when Tendulkar and Ganguly were going after him in the first innings. They persisted in keeping him on. Ponting said he and vice-captain Gilchrist talked it over and decided that if he got some wickets here, it would give him confidence ahead of the Sydney Test. “And that’s what happened,” he added gleefully. India could really learn from all this.