Australia's recent struggles against spin is more than just a traditional problem

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BCCI

Australia's recent struggles against spin is more than just a traditional problem

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Bastab K Parida

06/19/2018

Mark Taylor’s team was annihilated, Steve Waugh claimed that winning in India would be his last Frontier, and Ricky Ponting made 3 visits to India. But none of them could achieve what they desired as India always turned into a difficult proposition for the Aussies of the lore and the millennials.

Well, the case was not that tricky for the Aussies once the unlikely candidate in the form of Adam Gilchrist stepped in as the captain in 2004-05 and won the series 2-1, which perhaps is Australia’s biggest achievement in the Asian subcontinent in almost two decades. While it is a well-known fact that Australia’s counterintuitive actions against spinners have resulted in many an embarrassment for them in India and the sub-continent, their struggle in England in the recent series, albeit in the limited-overs format, has been one big wake up call for the team management. 

In the first ODI against England, spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid troubled Australia top-order to no end and a mixture of poor shot selection, poor execution, and ill-discipline by the batsmen saw four of Australia’s top five getting out to slow bowling. In the second game at the Sophia Gardens, too, four batsmen surrendered to the same duo to spell the death kneels in the match and thus find themselves 0-2 down in the ongoing ODI series. Cutting them some slack for the recent farces in the team, and the change at every level of the Australia management - from captain to coach to the CEO, who had the reins at Cricket Australia for 17 years - England were always going to be the favourites coming into the series, but you are still Australia and can’t surrender the way you did in the first two matches. 

Of course, this isn’t something that Australia had never experienced in the past. But their recent struggles tell a whole different story and one that would not make the team coaching staff proud. To be very precise, since the last World Cup at home, Australia’s batting average against spin is a lacklustre 35.51, which is the seventh best in the world, and it’s also affecting their results significantly. In the last one year, they failed to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions Trophy, lost 4-1 to India in the subcontinent, and 4-1 at home to England, which has put doubts on their World Cup preparations given the flatter English conditions is going to be more helpful for the spinners more than ever, especially in the early summer.

So, the question here is what is the reason for the Australian batsmen's incredible struggles against spin? As evident from the last two matches, the issue seems to be rather a new one for the Aussies than the ones faced by their old-fashioned predecessors. While players from the previous generation had to deal with the spinning talents of Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Harbhajan Singh and Ajantha Mendis, albeit for a short period, Shahid Afridi also piled on the numbers despite not being at the same level, in terms of skill, as the rest. What the Pakistani "all-rounder" excelled in was the ability to give the ball enough flight to tempt the batsman to go after him. While it didn't work too often against the best in the business due to their match awareness, the current Australian team's inherent desire to play more attacking shots against spin have been their biggest nemesis. 

The Australian players, since the last WC victory, have attacked 48% of their deliveries against the slower bowlers, which is the highest among all One-day international teams, with the next two being England and New Zealand. However, as a matter of fact, India, whose batsmen average an incredible 64 against the spinners, during that period, is at the 11th position when it comes to play attacking shots against the spinners and instead they go for more singles and doubles in the middle overs before going gaga over the pacers in the death. The trick has been effective for the Indians, who undoubtedly are the best limited-overs side in the world at the moment. 

But, as many experts in the past have argued that going after the spinners rather than sit back and milk the bowling is a viable tactic in the shorter versions of the game, as things go, Australia are not good at that either. The team are the eighth best team in the world against spin and considering they attack more against the spinners, it doesn’t bode well for their World Cup preparations going forward.

While Australia’s struggle on the tour of India was understandable, nothing can justify the reason behind their struggle against Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, especially when Moeen was struggling to save his spot in the side. While a week ago, a team as inexperienced as Scotland destroyed Moeen with the sweep and scored 20 runs from just 10 sweeps against him, Australia batsmen failed to execute the shots effectively, scoring three runs off four sweeps, and even lost a wicket. While Moeen looked more controlled in his deliveries and was fully undeterred by the demons of his horrible performance in Edinburgh, Australia’s inability to pressurize him proved their impatience, which could be illustrated in their attacking approach, and a lack of awareness regarding the match situation. 

However, to their credit, they kept Adil Rashid under the carpet in the first game and gave him just one wicket. But in the next encounter, the leg-spinner managed to pick up three wickets to exploit the Australians' struggle against wrist-spinners. Since the last World Cup, Australia average just 26.17 against wrist-spin, which is 10th best in the world. Given all the teams are trying to fill their teams with wrist-spinners lately, it is heavily unlikely that the Tim Paine-led side would have a chance without working on the issue at hand first. 

In hindsight, it is not that difficult to understand that a bit more caution would be beneficial for the players to counter the threat and instead of going for shots too early, they can play the ball a bit later. Going down the track is fine, but with that also comes the danger of being stumped and Leg Before Wicket, which the bowlers’ slower ones basically offer. As was seen in the first ODI, Australia players depend more on lunging forward instead of dancing down the track, and if they can avoid that, it will help them find more room to experiment with their footwork and shot selection. 

Think of the second game. When no one was ready to take up the responsibility, Shaun Marsh actually stood apart with his sheer strong will to get the better of the spinners. Coming in after 3.4 overs at a position as dangerous as No.3, Marsh stayed on the crease until the 46th over and scored 131 runs from just 116 balls. Sure enough, there was power and aggression in his innings, but there were flashes of class when he danced down the wicket and flicked Moeen Ali through midwicket. Other batsmen chilling in the change room should take a leaf out of their mate’s book.

It is true that Australia have been without their two top dogs - Steve Smith and David Warner - but none can argue against the fact that their batting lacks the lustre lately and the time is running out of their hands to pull up the socks. After all, the World Cup is less than a year away and the same England will play the role of the host. In the early realization of the fact lies their imminent chance to defend the title that they had won three years ago.

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