It’s 7.30 in the morning and the Pune sun is yet to become its harsh best.
There is a lone batsman out at the nets. He’s taking throw-downs from a left-arm spinner who is firing the ball in flat and at pace. The batsman is not wearing a front pad because he wants to develop the habit of feeling the ball on the middle of his bat, ruling out pad play and with it the lbw. The batsman in question is Steven Smith, Australia’s captain, and the man walking him through this extra practice session, while a Test match is on, is S. Sriram. If one image summed up Australia’s mentality as they attempted to tame India and its conditions, it is this.
It should come as no surprise that Smith played one of the best innings of his career, a second-innings century on a rank turner that set up his team’s victory. Smith may have been put down more than once in the course of that knock, but the manner in which he approached batting, having a specific plan and the discipline to stick to it while shutting out all else was the single biggest difference between the run-making approaches of the two teams.
With the 333-run win in the first Test, Australia gave themselves the best possible chance to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. But, with so much cricket left to be played they will not be looking too far into the future. That has been the biggest difference between this Australian team and others who have toured before.
In the lead-up to the series, there were no warnings about sledging. There were no predictions of what Mitchell Starc would do to India’s batsmen with his 150-kmh rockets. There were no tall claims of Australia rocking up and winning the series. The days of Glenn McGrath predicting a whitewash were well and truly behind us.
If anything, Australia played down their chances. Nathan Lyon said he watched videos of R. Ashwin bowling for inspiration. Smith constantly reiterated that India’s batting line-up was one of the best in the world.
In contrast, there were many individuals in India who got a bit ahead of themselves. “Yes, it will be very difficult for Australia,” said Sourav Ganguly, who has a long history of needling Australian cricketers. “As I said, I don’t predict in cricket, but I won’t be surprised if India wins 4-0.” Then there was Harbhajan Singh, another Indian cricketer who has plenty of history with the Australians. “This is the weakest Aussie side. There are no Waughs, no Gilchrist, no Hayden or Ponting and McGrath,” said Harbhajan, adding, “This is a namesake Aussie side. Apart from Steve Smith and David Warner, I don’t even know any other cricketer. They have four spinners in the side considering they come to play in India and if they play bad, they will lose 4-0.”
Australia, however, had no interest, or time, to play mind games. Instead, they began their preparation for the tour of India with a stint at the ICC Cricket Academy in Dubai, something they had scheduled over six months in advance. Having struggled on their tour of Sri Lanka, Australia did not want to take chances, especially after their experience of touring India in 2013. Back then, India were careful to provide Australia with flat, batting friendly pitches in warm-up matches and net sessions, saving the rank turners for the actual Test matches.
To combat this, Australia rocked up in Dubai, where Tony Hemming, the head curator at the ICC Academy, had worked out a reliable way to create different kinds of pitches. Hemming calls these hybrid pitches, and he was able to help Australia encounter not only the sharp turners but also pitches that were flatter and slightly lower in bounce. Sriram, hired as spin consultant for tours to the subcontinent, was also present in Dubai, lending valuable insight into the bowling and playing of spin on helpful surfaces.
David Warner explained how the Dubai sojourn helped him and the team. “Having that week in Dubai, and having freshened up as well after our summer was fantastic for me and my preparation,” said Warner. “And I know the guys that went to Dubai early, they were all talking about how good it was to prepare over there and get their mind set and get the miles in the legs to come here. We’re truly grateful for that opportunity. Sometimes when you come here to these countries, in these conditions you probably don’t have as much preparation because as a player sometimes when you’re in this heat you fatigue quite fast. And the next day, when you’re not used to it, you can’t back up.”
Pat Howard, Cricket Australia’s High Performance Manager, was crystal clear in what his team hoped to achieve in their preparations. “India is not going to be the same everywhere. What they can do in Dubai is do a lot of different preparations with different types of pitches,” explained Howard. “The ICC have done a really good job where they’ll have different pitches of the cities … so it’s not just spin pitches, there are different types. But it’s all about a mindset. We cannot copy what we are going to get. It’s all about the mindset that we’re going to adapt.”
The preparation Australia put in allowed them to hit the ground running when it came to the first Test. India, at the end of a long season, having had success against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh on surfaces that were far more true than the one in Pune, were clearly thrown off their game.
What also helped Australia was the manner in which their spinners, Steve O’ Keefe and Lyon, cracked the formula for bowling on pitches that offered excessive assistance to slow bowlers. L. Sivaramakrishnan, the former Test leggie, offered a crisp analysis. “Trajectory is very important. There are people who mistake bowling a flatter trajectory with bowling fast. Nathan Lyon bowled a flatter trajectory. On a good pitch you will naturally have a higher trajectory because you need to beat the batsman in flight. This also means you have to put more spin on the ball to get it to dip. On a pitch where the ball is turning, you have to bowl a flatter trajectory, but still be able to vary your pace.”
Sivaramakrishnan also spoke of the importance of putting overspin on the ball, something Lyon has managed to do far more than Ashwin, simply because of the fundamental differences in the actions of the two offspinners. “What Lyon did well was, use his body in the action, seam pointing to fine leg, getting plenty of overspin on the ball. When you do that, there is bound to be a lot of bounce. Overspin is important because the ball will turn less, but has extra bounce. When you reduce the deviation, for wicket-taking deliveries, you make the batsman play. Also, when the batsman misses the ball, there is a higher chance of him being bowled or leg before when the ball is not turning too much. Balls that don’t turn and bounce too much are the ones that get you wickets on turning tracks. It’s fantastic to watch huge turn, but it’s more important to bowl the kind of deliveries that are most likely to get you wickets. If Steve O’Keefe is getting batsmen out LBW or bowled on a turning track, it shows that he is bowling straight. The art of bowling straight on a turner is the most difficult one. It doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen with two days of practice.”
If Australia had been deliberate and precise in their preparations for the India tour, the home team was not best served by victories on good surfaces. It was not as though India did not train hard enough, or prepare with less intensity than the Australians, but certainly they were not pushed as hard, being more used to the conditions at home. Sometimes, the difference between two teams at the highest level can boil down to little things such as these, as India saw in the early part of this series.
(This article first appeared on the cover of Sportstar magazine on March 10, 2017)