India have fluffed their lines when they've had their chances against Australia. Many times, it has come down to a lack of self-belief or a few moments of panic when they've realised that they are in control and self-doubt creeps in, writes Michael Jeh
What do you get when you combine huge numbers of cricketers with an unmatched passion for the game? You certainly don't get the West Indies! Watching this once-proud cricketing region being pounded in Australia this summer has whetted local appetites for a genuine contest when the most-watched country on Earth lands on our shores soon. Who would have thought that we'd get to the day when Australian fans rate the Indian pace attack and batsmen as more capable of beating the home team than the West Indies?
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India opener Shikhar Dhawan avoids a short ball from Australia pacer Mitchell Starc during the 2015 World Cup semi-final match at the Sydney Cricket Ground last year. Pic/Getty Images
Before we get too carried away, let it be said that for all their talent, India have yet to consistently win matches against Australia in Australia. There have been moments of brilliance and the promise of great things but when they've had their chances, they've fluffed their lines.
Many times, it has come down to a lack of self-belief when it matters most or a few moments of panic when they've realised that they're in control and self-doubt creeps in. In Australia, it is no use winning the battle if you lose the war. The nature of these pitches means you have to win a session and then go on to win the next one. And the next one.
Getting too close
Think about the 2014-15 Test series. India could have won in Adelaide on Day Five but for the dumb shot played by Wriddhiman Saha which led to the collapse when Virat Kohli holed out in the deep, fearful of running out of partners. In Brisbane, renowned for its pace and bounce, India batted superbly on Day One, had Australia in trouble until the tail wagged, got back in the game and then had a horrendous morning on Day Four (when Shikhar Dhawan retired hurt).
Imagine beating Australia at Fortress Gabba — they were oh so close. In Melbourne too, Kohli and Rahane bossed the Aussie quicks until that late hook shot ended Kohli's innings and put paid to a possible 600-plus first innings. With a bit of luck, some street smarts and a bit more self-belief, India could conceivably have won three nil instead of the final two zip scoreline.
The reverse can also be applicable in India when opposition spin bowlers are often not respected enough. It's as if there's a cultural imperative to attack the foreign spinner, even when the circumstances dictate a more cautious approach. The smarter cricketers soon learn that respect is not a form of cowardice.
Remember Tendulkar in Chennai 1998? He swung wildly Warne in the first innings and perished, trying too hard to hit him out of the attack. Being the great batsman he was, he soon figured out that bravado alone was no antidote to Warne's guile and he scaled back his game to start more cautiously and then try to take him apart when the match situation warranted it. 155 not out in the second innings. Tendulkar was a cricketer who rarely let his ego triumph over commonsense.
Play on Oz ego
The most important thing about winning on hard, green pitches is to not panic. What is sauce for the goose can be korma for the gander too. Look at Sri Lanka vs New Zealand in Hamilton last month. Put into bat on a pitch that Paul Reiffel described as one of the greenest decks he had ever seen, as cricketer or umpire.
It should have been a rout, Southee, Boult, Bracewell and Wagner against an inexperienced batting line up sans Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Samaraweera and Dilshan. When NZ won the toss and inserted the Lankans, the commentators had already written off the visitors' chances. But this is where India can learn some lessons about how to beat countries like Australia, South Africa and NZ on their home pitches — play on their ego!
The general consensus is that Asian teams don't have the techniques or firepower to flourish on green, fast, bouncy decks. Perhaps the reverse perception applies equally in the subcontinent. So instead of playing smart cricket, NZ allowed their ego's to get the better of them and they forgot to bowl a 'green pitch' line and length.
When it was their turn to bat, when Sri Lanka set aggressive fields to test the hook shot, NZ's ego did not allow them to eschew the hook shot. Instead of ducking and smiling, they kept hooking and kept sinking. One presumes the mindset was thus; "how dare these Asian medium-pacers try to beat us at our own game? Who do these Sri Lankans think they are? Aussies? We're not going to be intimidated on our pitches by medium pacers so we'll keep hooking until we die." And perish they did, to trail by 55 on a greentop.
Sri Lankan example
Where Sri Lanka then threw the game away was when they too fell for the same trap in the second innings and got bowled out for 133 after a great start. They suckered the Kiwis into a bouncer war on a pitch where the obvious danger was the good length ball and then fell for their own trap by playing horizontal batshots that don't come naturally to Asian batsmen on hard decks.
Set 189 to win, ego continued to wreck NZ's chase with every batsman except Kane Williamson refusing to put away the hook and pull strokes. Williamson was the only batsman to swallow his pride and duck the short ball. Not coincidentally, he was the only batsman in the game to score a century, a matchwinning one at that!
This is where I think India needs to play it smart. Even if they're confronted with pitches that look alien, even if they lose the toss, even if the experts have written them off... ruffling the ego of the macho Aussie cricketing culture can work. Don't be afraid to play mind games with the Aussies so long as they don't fall for the same hook, line and sinker.
Literally. India's quicks are quicker than most of the Aussie boys so perhaps taunt them into trying to take on the short ball with two men back. Shot selection by India's batsmen need to reflect the areas that suit their strengths too. If hooking and pulling is not your game, put the cue in the rack.
Ego and frustration, in tandem, can derail the home team's advantage but only if India doesn't then get carried away and deviate from their own game plan. So many foreign teams come to Australia, see the bounce and seam movement and panic. Their bowlers run in and try to bowl too short without protection behind square and the batsmen often think the pitch is more venomous than it actually is. This Indian team have nothing to fear except fear itself.
Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player