For Adelaide read Abu Dhabi: Australia lose grip again

4:52 AM ET

  • Daniel BrettigAssistant editor, ESPNcricinfo

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      Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel’s chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth – a rare Australian victory that summer.

Among the countless things that have confronted Australia’s coach Justin Langer since he took the job in May, most recently the criticism of none other than Sachin Tendulkar for the team’s Adelaide scoring rate, none will be a source of greater frustration than this: the script evolving in his first Test in charge at home was much the same as that written for the preceding encounter away to Pakistan in Abu Dhabi.

Separated by a few weeks and a 13-hour long-haul flight, Abu Dhabi and Adelaide have thus far evolved in maddeningly similar fashion for an Australian team trying, despite slender resources in batting terms especially, to make a fresh start.

In both cases, Tim Paine lost the toss. In both cases, his bowlers found an early opening by way of their opponents’ indiscretions. In both cases, a couple of sturdy innings and a discernible drop in the quality and intensity of Australia’s bowling allowed for the cobbling of a defensible total. In both cases, an unsteady Australian batting lineup was strangled into submission by precise bowling plans and slow scoring. In both cases, the third innings unfolded without the sort of dramatic incisions required to turn the tide.

While Adelaide is far from over as a match, and a momentous rearguard in the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai will give the home side some hope, the fact that the Australians have been unable to make the most of productive starts with the ball – by far their strongest suit in the absences of Steven Smith and David Warner – will undoubtedly cause Langer’s brow to furrow. For as much as he has talked about fighting qualities and not giving up in the game’s longest form, capitalisation upon advantage is a central plank of any successful team.

In between these two Test matches, Langer will have noted how New Zealand were able to scrap their way to victories against the same Pakistan side that humbugged his collective, demonstrating the sort of sustained performance vital to defeating an opponent as capable as Virat Kohli’s India. Equally, he will know that the confidence of the team under his tutelage remains decidedly fragile, even when bolstered by the dual advantages of home turf and a full complement of fast bowlers.

It is this last factor that will also be a source of disquiet for Australia and enormous succour for India after day three. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are, with the support of Nathan Lyon, the truly world-class element of this team. The truism that bowlers win Test matches has stood up throughout history, with the caveat that any team containing them must produce at least a middling supply of runs to defend. By creeping up toward parity with India while occupying the crease for an additional 10 overs, the Australian batting lineup did not grant their bowlers an advantage but also left the game open for them.

Adelaide was, in a promising trend, Australia’s longest first innings since making 351 in 110.4 overs in Durban, not coincidentally their last victory. That has been followed by 243 in 71.3 in Port Elizabeth, 255 in 69.5 in Cape Town, 221 in 70 in Johannesburg, 202 in 83.3 in Dubai, 145 in 50.4 in Abu Dhabi and now 235 in 98.4 in Adelaide. What followed was to the credit of India’s top order, but also a sobering sight for Langer, Paine and bowling coach David Saker. Even as the removal of India’s openers for 76 brought some respite for Australia, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the pacemen had not quite seized a critical moment of this Test when armed with the new ball on an overcast day in Adelaide.

KL Rahul and M Vijay were given enough latitude to leave plenty of balls early on, with neither batsman overly worried about scoring runs in the opening overs of the innings. Starc, gaining some useful swing once again, struggled to control it as he wanted to, while Hazlewood’s tempters floating away outside the off stump were a little wider and more frequently so than they had been on day one.

Having seen through the opening salvos, Rahul was emboldened enough to open his shoulders, cracking Cummins for six over cover point then following up with a boundary through the same region. Only 11 runs ticked by in the first nine overs, but they were followed by no fewer than 51 from the next nine. The effect of these runs was also to force Paine to post in/out fields for Lyon, who was unable to prevent regular turnover of the strike in his first five overs – costing 19 runs – despite not conceding a boundary.

So when Starc coaxed Vijay into following a ball well wide of the off stump and edging it to Peter Handscomb, the Australian huddle was marked by far more relief than jubilation. Though they were to be further deflated when a caught behind verdict for Lyon against Cheteshwar Pujara was overturned after replays showed no contact between bat and ball. Hazlewood belatedly found Rahul’s outside edge to setup a brief and theatrical duel with Kohli before the break.

Well though Kohli and Pujara went on to bat, the latter assisted further when adjudged lbw playing no shot at Lyon but reprieved by ball-tracking that showed the off-break barely easing over the top of the middle and leg stumps, they had been given a head start not afforded on the opening day of the series. Kohli’s exit late in the day, undone by Lyon’s bounce in a spell that grew in quality the longer it continued, provided a glimmer, but even a rush of day four wickets will still leave a testing chase.

This all demonstrated that, so far, the Langer/Paine Australians have proven themselves more adept and comfortable being underdogs and fighters than front-runners and dominators. As Langer himself put it on SEN Radio: “There’s going to be some bumps over the next five weeks and the next couple of years, because you can’t just give these guys Test experience.

“They’re great young blokes, they’re working so hard, they’re well prepared, they’e good players, but trust me Test cricket is so hard. It took some of my best mates a long time to get it right and that’s usually how it works. What the public saw yesterday, they’re fighting hard. You can’t just switch on ‘I’m going to be a Test cricketer today’.”

The way that Adelaide’s third day unfolded meant that they will still be fumbling for the aforementioned switch on days four and five. Langer, for one, will be ardently hoping it can be flicked soon, while remaining realistic about the fact that it may not for some time to come.

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