Did India beat Australia psychologically before the cricket even started?
Australia’s first test defeat in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy at Nagpur was as telling in its structure as it was crushing in magnitude.
Australia may have lost all its second innings wickets in the afternoon of the third day, but the damage had been well and truly done by that stage. Indeed, you could make a solid case that Australia was beaten before a ball had even been bowled.
Australia came into the game on the back of a preparation that left little opportunity for acclimatisation. They may have hoped that a scuffed wicket at North Sydney Oval could replicate the surface that would greet them in India, but the twenty-two-yard strip in Nagpur proved to be only a fraction of the challenge faced by the touring party.
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Cricket in India is a game quite unlike anywhere else in the world. The constant attack on the senses; the light, noise, heat, humidity, and aroma has thrown touring teams off balance, so it turned out here.
This is a place where, in 2013 in Hyderabad, Michael Clarke famously became the first captain in Test cricket history to declare his team’s first innings closed, then go on to lose the match by an innings. The following match saw the Australians concentrate more on over rates than getting back into the game on the third evening, with a side weakened by internal suspensions over the “Homeworkgate” affair.
In the first test of the 2016/17 tour in Pune, a set Matthew Renshaw was so affected by the local conditions that his innings was interrupted as he was so affected by local conditions, that nature just would not wait.
This tour’s wobbles began with the side embroiled in concerns that the Nagpur wicket was prepared to favour the home spinners to an unfair degree, especially with a concentrated area left underprepared outside the left-hander’s off stump.
As it stood, the conditions in Nagpur favoured the slow bowlers no more nor less than those in Perth assist the pacemen, but this was secondary; the psychological blow had been struck.
The doubt placed in Australia’s minds manifested itself in the selection process. Australia left out the one batter, Travis Head, best equipped to take the attack to the Indians and strike blows for Australia in return.
The Australian logic was that Head’s record against slow bowling in helpful conditions was not as solid as they would have wished, but it would appear not to be a coincidence that his replacement, Peter Handscomb, was a right-hander selected in favour of the deposed left-hander.
After winning a crucial toss and batting first, Australia lost a marginal leg-before decision against Usman Khawaja, and a comprehensively beaten David Warner in the first thirteen balls.
Warner must be a concern to the tourists. He appears slightly slow of reflex, being late on a Mohammad Shami delivery that swung nicely for the bowler but not prodigiously, and losing his off stump.
Australia will be hoping that this is not the beginning of the end of a feted career, but it is another failure added to a long string of unflattering scores.
After Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith had righted the ship, the innings subsided with a speed seen in more than one recent touring team to India. The comprehensive nature in which the second half of the Australian batting order fell away will give coach Andrew McDonald the greatest of headaches. Even more so in the second innings than the first.
The traditional masters of mental disintegration saw the tables turned on them. Years of stewardship by such flint-hard generals as Ganguly, Dhoni, and Kohli have seen India learn their trade well. Their psychological mastery of their opponents is to be applauded.
Head must play in Delhi, and he must succeed if Australia is to seize back the initiative. He must be allowed, as much by himself as team management, the freedom to take the attack to an Indian line-up that, in Nagpur, not so much pinned Australia to the ropes as bent them back over them.
The other vital inclusion is Mitchell Starc, as much for his rapid left-arm deliveries as for the rough he will create outside the off stump of the right-hand centric Indians. This will assist Nathan Lyon that looked unusually powerless on a wicket that offered him little deviation and even less bounce.
What is beyond question is that Australia needs to rediscover a portion of the hard edge seen in the Langer era if they are not to sink without a trace in this Border-Gavaskar series. They have built this series up, and come way too far, to subside without a whimper.
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