How Australia were struck by delirium in India

What on earth is going on in India? My mum wanted answers. I’m not there, but those who are there don’t seem to have much of an idea either.

After a day three that got stuck on fast-forward in Delhi – much as day three had done in Nagpur – coach Andrew McDonald battled to find what he somewhat delusionally called “the positives”. McDonald told reporters: “It’s probably at the moment too soon after what happened yesterday to talk about the positives because that session probably wiped a lot of that sort of thinking away and we’ve got a lot of work to do coming into Test match three.”

At this point, being a long way from India seemed more and more advantageous. In fact, the further the observers were, the clearer their view. From their studios in Sydney, former captains Mark Taylor and Michael Clarke said sensible things about batters playing dumb shots and the like. By contrast, the nearer they were to the action, the more addled the brains. Those in the middle – the Australian players, undergoing another Krazy Kollapse on another Krazy Paving pitch – were the most confused of all.

India’s Ravi Ashwin celebrates taking the wicket of Australia’s Steve Smith during a calamitous day three of the second Test in Delhi.Credit:Getty

Panic buttons were hit before the game even started. Selector-on-duty Tony Dodemaide came out and spoke the following words: “The key thing is, Greeny didn’t quite make it. Starcy isn’t quite 100 per cent as well and the other thing driving the key point between Renners and Heady was we thought we were short of fifth bowling support in Nagpur. It was something we lacked a bit of, so we feel as Heady, even though he’s an off-spinner that goes the same way, that he’s a more robust option for a fifth bowler as a chop out as required.”

This is an actual record of actual words. The temptation to satirise can be overwhelming, but reality was doing the job. Selectors used to sit far from the rooms, wear suits and utilise the wisdom of perspective. Dodemaide, in team gear, had contracted symptoms of team delirium. So close to the action was he that he had begun to think he was, once again, Dodders.

In Delhi, Starcy and Greeny kept their distance, Heady was in and out, and as for Renners, he was soon replacing the injured Davey, and, if it was possible to imagine a batter in even worse nick than Davey, Renners soon showed that it was. Yet again, like someone trying to win a game of misere, Warner found a replacement opener who could slide in a card lower than his own. Ashton Agar, meanwhile, did not merit a nickname, let alone a Test match. As for a “chop out”, no, I don’t know either, but there was clearly a chop short of the full barbie.

The Australian newspaper reported, that first morning, “Chaos reigns on frantic and fascinating day”. “Has an Australian side ever started a Test match in such chaos?” asked cricket writer Peter Lalor. This was day one.

By day three, someone had had a word in Dodders’ ear. The selector had become Tony Dodemaide again. Greeny had been transformed into Cameron Green and Starcy into Mitchell Starc, restoring their dignity in time to restore their places in the third Test. Ashton Agar remained resolutely Ashton Agar. Davey was still Davey. Dodemaide revealed that the veteran was “going out this morning with his elbow”. I hope Davey’s wife didn’t find out.

In truth, India’s batting is not as strong as it was, they have only been saved by their No.8, and the Australians haven’t been that far from winning. It’s just that their nearness to winning has happened at the wrong time. In Nagpur, they were in a good position on the second morning, and in Delhi they were in an even better place on the second evening. This is the positive, as a golfer might say if they have scored under par in the first round even if they missed the cut after the second. Australia have been good enough. Just at the wrong times. Maybe that’s the positive straw the coach has been grasping at.

Otherwise, they look like a team that wants to learn too much, too quickly. They don’t have coaches and selectors who tell them, “You’re professional cricketers and you have embarrassed yourselves”. Instead, they have Ronny and Dodders, an arm around the shoulder and a kind word about learnings and becoming better people. In Nagpur, teammates saw Marnus Labuschagne do well on the first day playing deep in his crease and presenting a staunch defence. Hey, that looks like the way to play! En masse, they copied him and fell apart on day three, playing too far back, too defensively.

The lesson? Be more “proactive”. So in Delhi, they saw Usman Khawaja do well on the first day attacking the bowling with a variety of sweeps, forward and reverse, sideways, up and down. Hey, that looks like the way to play! Matthew Hayden, aka Haydos, had scored a million runs here in 2001 when he decided to sweep everything that moved. So en masse, they all copied (while Hayden, post-removal of memory cells, fulminated from the commentary box about how stupid it was to sweep everything that moved).

“Play your own game,” is the mantra, but these are batters so adaptable to different modes of cricket that they have three or four games each. In India, they have tried several of their own games, sometimes switching from moment to moment.

Matthew Kuhnemann, as a batter, has no game. To the second ball he faced, he tried his first-ever reverse sweep and dragged the ball back onto his stumps from somewhere near point. If he meant to make a comical statement, to take the piss out of the rest of the team, he did a better job than could be expected from a debutant.

If all this seems easy to say from a distance, it is. In fact, it’s clear from Australia that this team is so radically underprepared that they have played the first two Test matches as if they were acclimatisation exercises – overcompensating in defence one week, in attack the next, veering about as you do when you’re getting used to things.

The home front has become such a good vantage point that many of the team are now taking the opportunity. Davey, Hoff and Ashton Agar are now taking things in from 8000 kilometres away. Starcy, Koons and Sweppo have been here, then there. Along with the lack of commitment to a full tour with first-class matches and proper acclimatisation is the lack of commitment even to being there. Home is just a few hours away, so there’s no reason to stay in India while touring India. Adaptability is the modern method, but Australia have adapted themselves all the way out of their matches.

Cummo, who had to come home for a genuine family medical emergency, has also been getting some perspective from Sydney. On Wednesday, he was clearing his head and trying to make sense of it all by figuring out how to whack a ball as far as possible at Pittwater Driving Range, which he was doing more successfully than in his second innings air-swing at Delhi.

As a method of trying to figure out what is going on in India, it appeared to have its advantages. He will get closer, and so, after they’re finished with adapting and are ready to dig in and commit, will his team. By the end of the fourth Test match they should be well prepared to play India. And who knows, Mum – by the end of September, they might even be prepared to play England.

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