Waiting nervously to bat in the first Test in Mumbai in 2001, Adam Gilchrist tried to visualise himself as in and set, obviating the paralysing tensions of first ball, first run, first half hour. “I tried to make my mind and my heart and my body feel like I’d already faced 30 balls and was 20 not out,” he said. “That’s the optimum state you want to be in, in any innings.”
At 5-99, he joined Matthew Hayden. “He verbalised [his approach]. If he saw a ball with a slightly higher trajectory, he’d say out loud ‘full’,” Gilchrist said. “If it was a slightly later release, and it was going to be short, he’d say ‘back’ or ‘short’. It was his trigger. It allowed him to be decisive, even in defence.”
Matthew Hayden batting in India in 2001.Credit:Hamish Blair/ALLSPORT
Both made thumping centuries, and together put on 197 and Australia cantered away with the match. Hayden proceeded to make 549 runs in that epic – albeit lost – three-match series. Gilchrist barely made another run, but assimilated enough knowledge and awareness to lead Australia as locum captain to a rare series victory in India three years later.
How to bat in India? It’s the eternal question. Use your feet? Michael Clarke did in making a masterful century in Chennai in 2013, but not everyone can, and as a rule, the Indians don’t. Play back? Hit with the spin? Against the spin? Again, the Indians’ way is counterintuitive to the Australians’.
Sweep? Play only for the ball turning in? Steve Smith did in making a stand-out century on a bunsen burner in Pune in 2017, neutering Ravindra Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin and setting up a win for Australia and a dominant series for himself. But not many have Smith’s trance-like mental discipline.
One thing is certain: bat-pad play is not the answer. DRS has pretty much killed it off.
Best Australian scores in India
- 210 Dean Jones, Chennai (1986)
- 203 Matthew Hayden, Chennai (2001)
- 178* Steve Smith, Ranchi (2017)
- 167 Graham Yallop, Eden Gardens (1979)
- 163 Norm O’Neill, Brabourne (1960)
- 162 Allan Border, Chennai (1979)
- 161 Jim Burke, Brabourne (1956)
- 153* Mark Waugh, Bengaluru (1998)
- 151 Michael Clarke, Bengaluru (2004)
- 146 Michael Hussey, Bengaluru (2008)
- 140 Neil Harvey, Mumbai (1956)
- 138 Ian Chappell, Delhi (1969)
- 130 Michael Clarke, Chennai (2013)
- 128 Marcus North, Bengalaru (2010)
- 126 Shane Watson, Mohali (2006)
- 123 Ricky Ponting, Bengaluru (2008)
- 122 David Boon, Chennai (1986)
- 122 Adam Gilchrist, Wankhede (2001)
- 119 Matthew Hayden, Wankhede (2001)
- 114 Neil Harvey, Delhi (1959)
- 114 Paul Sheahan, Kanpur (1969)
For all its best-laid plans, Australia are as far as ever from breaking the code. At the start of the century, a still star-studded side broke even in India. But in nine matches over the last 10 years against a better-armed India, Australia have passed 300 only three times and won once. Their 91 all out in Nagpur was a new low.
Australians did once make plentiful runs in India, in a time when food, heat and unruly crowds were bigger threats than bowlers and pitches. As India gradually tapped into its vast but latent potential, run-making grew exponentially harder.
Dean Jones picked the brains of two previous Australian captains, Lindsay Hassett and Ian Chappell. “I was never really a dominant player of spin because I was a bit scared to use my feet,” Jones said once. “But Lindsay and Ian helped me develop a game plan to release the pressure against the slow bowlers by working singles to mid-on and mid-off.”
In the hellfire of Chennai in 1986, he made his famous 210, hailed by coach Bob Simpson as the best single innings ever played by an Australian.
Steve Waugh puzzled over the brisk leg-spin of Anil Kumble, India’s all-time leading Test wicket-taker, until resolving to play him as a slow inswing bowler. It worked. Ricky Ponting laboured on his first three visits to India before making respectable runs on his last two.
“We were doing all [our training] in indoor nets, and it was so false,” he said in 2013. “You could run down the wicket without any fear at all of getting stumped or one spinning past the outside edge.” This will chime with those who think Australia missed a trick by not playing any sort of tour match this time.
At length, Ponting asked former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin for advice. “It was all about not getting trapped to good length balls,” he said. “It was about trying to hit it before the ball spun or well after it spun. That’s what the good Indian players did. That’s a concept that Australian batters don’t have to think about because the ball doesn’t spin very much in domestic cricket.
“It sounds pretty easy, but it’s difficult to do in the heat of battle against quality spin bowling. But the technique makes a lot of sense.” In Nagpur, Smith and Marnus Labuschagne demonstrated that this was both the hard and only way.
Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist celebrate victory over India in 2004.Credit:AP
Simon Katich was not a superstar, but did make redoubtable runs in India. He says each man has to find his method. “The lesson I learned was that you have to trust your defence early, particularly against spin, with men around the bat,” he said. “I liked to use my feet, so that helped me ask questions of the spinners’ length and gave me more scoring opportunities off both front and back foot.”
Katich’s other morals were to bat high, before the spinners come on – he was in the top three – and make runs in the first innings because the second will be all about survival. Exhibit A: the Australians in Nagpur.
The paragon of 21st century batting in India by a non-Indian is Alastair Cook, England’s all-time leading run-maker. He made a century on Test debut there in 2006, and three more in his first three Tests as captain in 2012, founding a series win. Renowned for his temperament, he averaged 51 in India, against a career average of 45.
“The skill lies in not getting caught playing half-forward, half-back,” Cook wrote in his 2019 autobiography. “A delicate balance needs to be struck. When the pressure is on, aggression can be self–destructive.”
Michael Clarke en route to a century in his first Test in India in 2004.Credit:AP
Cook was no Bazballer, but he worked out how to make runs. “Batting in India is a mental challenge. The first 20 or 30 balls are very hard work. Everyone is around you, chatting away. Bowlers specialise in pinning you down. You must be at ease having fielders clustered around the bat. You must learn to manipulate the field, to milk runs carefully but decisively.
“Batting against spin has certain certainties. It’s picking length, watching the revolutions on the ball. It’s reading the drift, responding to variations, especially the one that goes straight on.
“You either want to get as close as possible to the pitch of the ball and smother the spin, or as far away as possible, on the back foot, to allow the ball to spin before you select your shot. We had to learn to trust our defence and when to attack on our own terms.”
On Australia’s last two tours, two innings stand far above all others, in air too rarefied to act as a blueprint for mere mortals. Clarke’s 130 in 2013 on a Chennai pitch that looked like Roland Garros was distinguished by exquisite footwork.
Steve Smith on his way to a century in Pune in 2017,Credit:AP
It had to be. Spinners Jadeja, Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh bowled 193 of India’s 226 overs in that match.
“He showed that footwork is not simply about rushing at the bowler,” wrote cricinfo’s Brydon Coverdale, who as the Shark on Chasers is never wrong. “It is about choosing the right ball and remaining light on your toes, allowing for quick adjustments to stop the ball whizzing past. It is about mixing things up, sometimes going deep in the crease, sometimes far outside it.”
Next best for Australia was Moises Henriques’ 68, made by clubbing from the crease. After play, he admitted he simply was not nimble enough to play like Clarke. Later still, Virat Kohli made a century and M.S. Dhoni, moving his feet only sideways to make room for his bat swing, and seemingly oblivious to where the ball pitched or how far it spun, belted 224 and India won easily.
One of the lessons about batting in India is that it is impossible to do it as the Indians do. That is, don’t try this in your home or theirs.
The Pune Test in 2017 was played on a pitch so potholed that even India grumbled and Steve O’Keefe took 12/70. Though Australia led by 155 on first innings, it would not have surprised if they had been bowled out for 50 in the third innings.
Ashwin and Jadeja were all over Smith at first, but he had both his wits and a plan. Ashwin he repeatedly swept because it felt right. Left-armer Jadeja was another matter. “With Jadeja continually beating me on the outside edge, I just took my ego out of play and kept playing for that straight one, confident that if it spun it was going so far it would beat edge,” he explained later.
CricViz recorded 22.3 per cent false shots in that innings, set against a career average of 7.8. But these were like faults in tennis, factored in. It was a will finding a way.
“You have to know that the ball is going to fizz past your bat often, and it could look really ugly, like you’ve got no control,” said Gilchrist this week. “Knowing that the only delivery that matters in your career is the next one.”
There was one other factor, necessary for success in India. Smith was dropped five times, and said later at a sports function that the innings was “a fluke”, “five good 20s”. But when not fishing for laughs, he did say that this was the best of his 21 centuries to that point.
In more than 18 years, Australia’s win in Pune stands in grim isolation. Smith made two more centuries on that tour, but in the end, Australia simply did not make enough runs.
The elixir they seek has no formula. It’s a puzzle, but not a mystery in the Sherlock Holmes sense. A national appeal won’t solve it, nor another ream of data. Noted Katich, deceptively simply: “It really comes down to each individual and what they feel comfortable doing.”
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