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India vs Australia: In Steve Smith’s lean patch, Australian batsmen feel the heat – cricket

Three days into the second Test, Australia are yet to cross 200 in an innings this series. Given how the second Test is unfolding, they will probably be dismissed well within 200 this time as well. Their run rate this Test has been 2.47, Australia’s second slowest at the MCG since 1992. The last time an Australian opener has made fewer runs than Joe Burns’s four in both innings of an MCG Test was Victor Trumper, who had scored a pair in 1908. This is a far cry from the Australia we are used to seeing, especially at a fortress like the MCG where they have won 15 of 21 Boxing Day Tests played since 2000. Now they are set to lose two Boxing Day Tests in three years.

What has changed? The single most pressing factor has been Steve Smith’s lean patch. He last scored a century during the September, 2019 Ashes Test in Manchester but there have been handsome scores since, till he stumbled in this series. Only once before (in the 2015 Ashes in England) has Smith not reached double figures four times in a row. Monday was only the seventh time out of 61 innings at home that Smith has been bowled by a pacer. India executed their plans well against Smith. Luck too has played its part. Sometimes a lean patch is just that.

What about the others though? In light of Smith’s lack of runs and the forced absence of David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne looks overburdened. There is a tinge of overcorrection in the batting approach of batsmen like Matthew Wade, trying to rein in aggression and still not ending up with a big score as a result.

“To be fair we haven’t gone deep enough yet to really cash in on tired bowlers late in the day,” Wade said after the day’s play. “Our intent’s to go out and score obviously as a batting group and individually, but they’re (India) making it quite challenging at times.”

As pointed out by Wade, India have done remarkably well in containing Smith and Labuschagne with their multi-pronged strategy. But where Australia have seriously erred is in stopping being themselves and allowing the opponents to dominate more sessions. A current series run-rate of 2.64 – their joint lowest at home (India tour of 2018 being the other one) in the last 20 years – is proof of that.

The most remarkable trait of the near-invincible Australia team throughout the 2000s was their ability to mount stunning counterattacks when the chips were down. Australia were always blessed with legendary batsmen at No 3 and No 4, right from the Chappell brothers to Dean Jones, David Boon, Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clark and now Steve Smith. But they finally started making an impression in the subcontinent with Michael Slater, Mathew Hayden and Justin Langer laying down a pretty high bar for all-terrain openers over almost 15 years. Also shoring up that effort was a steadfast middle and lower middle order manned by Steve Waugh, Damien Martyn, Michael Hussey, Adam Gilchrist and Andrew Symonds.

This Australian team has been intermittently struggling ever since Smith and Warner were banned in the aftermath of the 2018 scandal at Newlands. Cameron Green is still new and maybe persisted with but the position of Travis Head, who threw away good starts, could be debated in the time to come. Opener Joe Burns, after scores of 8, 51*, 0 and 4, doesn’t look secure as well.

“They haven’t been able to tick the scoreboard over on a regular enough basis,” said Ponting on Channel 7. “Pressure builds. When pressure builds, bad shots come. I talked about it in the first innings as well particularly with the way they played Ravi Ashwin. They weren’t proactive against him. Yes, it’s been good bowling, but sometimes against the best bowlers you have to take more risks as a batsman. For the sheer fact they’re not going to bowl bad balls.”

Devoid of quality openers and a wavering lower middle order, this current Australia team looks little like the combative all-weather teams of the recent past. Warner could provide immediate relief though. Training at the MCG nets, he has been keeping an eye on Australia’s batting struggles. If he returns in place of Burns, the trio of Wade, Smith and Labuschagne may be able to breathe more easily. That, in turn, should add some much-needed steel to Australia’s batting.

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