A Tale of Two Captains

It seemed like a classic contest:  India’s batting monuments facing Australia’s rejuvenated pace attack,  with one last chance to claim a series victory in this country at stake for some. It has only taken eight days of cricket for conversation to turn to consideration of a whitewash.

Instead of a great confrontation, we’re left reminded that time leaves most monuments exposed to the not-so-tender mercies of pigeons. Whilst Pigeon – the former bowling great – is more concerned with fundraising nowadays, some very capable successors have shown no more respect for the reputations of India’s batting icons.

Australia’s loss in Hobart, capping a string of preceding performances that could only be described as schizophrenic, had left local fans preoccupied with the home team’s fallibilities. What should have been focusing minds was India’s lead-up test form. Some great reputations had served to deflect from performances that had been abysmal in England and barely passable against the wobbly Windies.

Two tests into this series, we have been given an perfect illustration of the value of quality fast bowling in Australian conditions. It has also reinforced that genuine pace and bouncy wickets will never be kind to ageing batsmen. Most strikingly of all, it has again been demonstrated that positive, purposeful leadership will always get the better of passive opposition.

The tale of the diverging fortunes of these two  teams is told in the contrast between their respective captains. Though Michael Clarke’s character seems a matter of ongoing analysis, there can now be little argument over his captaincy or batting. In ten tests at the helm he has proven himself an imaginative leader, one with a feel for the game and a willingness to experiment when stalemate threatens. Not everything he has tried has worked, but if cricket were so readily predictable it wouldn’t be half as interesting. At least he won’t die wondering.

The contrast in his batting pre and post captaincy is instructive. Averaging 22 in the ten tests prior to assuming leadership, he has averaged near 60 since. If his character or suitability for the role are still to be questioned, those raising the doubts need a convincing response to such numbers.

More importantly, his team is winning, and so soon after the debacle of last summer. He’s done all that could have been expected of him to date. If he maintains his current rate he can stop worrying about respect, it will find him soon enough.

His Indian counterpart wishes he could say similar. MS Dohni gets plenty of respect in India as a leader, but he’s done nothing for his credentials as a test captain so far on this tour. Whilst Clarke’s side has built and sustained pressure in the field, Dohni’s has rarely failed to allow pressure to dissipate. The Indian skipper’s defensive, almost invariably reactive, mindset must take its share of responsibility for this. What you might get away with in one-day cricket will rarely suffice over five.

At almost every crucial point in these two tests India has fallen away. With Australia precariously placed at lunch on the first day of the series, India produced a slack, directionless 80 minutes of cricket in the middle session. The bowling lost its direction, not assisted by field placements that only seemed to anticipate poor deliveries. A couple of dubious umpiring decisions helped India retrieve that situation, and they found themselves apparently well placed after two days. On the third morning their batting revealed a substantial glass jaw when the Aussie quicks got stuck in. Thereafter, only a promising burst from young Yadav helped them stay in the game. Dhoni subsequently lamented an inability to bowl out Australia’s tail. For the reason why, he need look no further than his own tactics.

Dohni should bear no blame for the first innings collapse in Sydney. It was a reasonable decision to bat. Though the ball swung, the pitch offered no assistance unusual for a first day wicket. With a big total there for the taking, 191 was a dismal return. At least the Indian skipper backed up his own decision with runs.

When Australia’s fragile top order was breached, a contest still seemed likely. Once again, pressure was inexplicably allowed to evaporate. Clarke and Ponting were able to pick off easy runs at day’s end against spinners bowling to deep-set fields.

With the game on the line next morning, Zaheer Khan commenced Day 2 by ambling in and delivering two leg stump half volleys. When he then swapped to bowl around the wicket, it seemed less a statement of deliberate intent than a vague hope inspiration would fall from the sky. This summed up India’s effort for the remainder of the day. Fielders were lumbering and disinterested. Dhoni waited for batsman to get themselves out. It seemed as if India’s coach might be Samuel Beckett, not Duncan Fletcher. Like Godot, the wickets never arrived.

As well as Clarke, Ponting and Hussey batted, and they batted superbly, they were given a substantial leg up by their opposition. Ponting has been more than happy to feast on Indian lapses in both matches.

By the end of Day 2 the contest was as good as dead. Despite a perfect batting wicket it was finished inside four days.

Whilst Australia has improved in some key areas, it is not as if all their weaknesses have suddenly disappeared. Nothing gives a team more heart than the suspicion their opponents aren’t up for the fight. Australian conditions rarely reward a faint-hearted approach. So far, that’s all India has offered.

Is Perth a likely venue for India to come back?

On the face of it, a bouncy WACA wicket would be the last thing they need. However, it should be remembered that India won here four years ago against expectations. And the absence of James Pattinson will make a difference. Ryan Harris may prove a handy replacement, but a T20-only preparation must cast some doubt on his already questionable physical endurance. Mitchell Starc may replace Lyon as much to cover Harris as any particular conviction about an all pace attack.

If India is to rally, you suspect it will require more honest soul searching in the dressing room than can be found from some of their commentators. Up until Sydney, more irrelevant excuses were offered for their efforts than are produced by the average economic think-tank when its latest forecasts prove sadly awry (again). If Sachin’s hundredth hundred is a distraction, then why isn’t the man himself suffering? So far, he’s the only one of their party to live up to his reputation. Why do some of their youngsters look as creaky in the field as their veterans? Why can’t they maintain a line and length under pressure?

As is the way of things, a backlash now seems imminent. In truth, Indian cricket seems to have shirked some of the hard questions about reconstruction that Australia has belatedly tackled. How long to maintain the veterans? Do the old-guard still have the taste for a real scrap? Are they backing the right youngsters? They can expect plenty of advice from  now on.

To save this series, India must produce something that proved beyond them in England. Their opposition may still assist them in that regard. Though Australia have received a considerable boost in confidence, they’re yet to prove they consistently match the standard of the current English team. Chinks are still available to be exploited. The absence of Watson, Pattinson and Cummings may yet become an issue.

But Australia now have a leader increasing in confidence and authority. To allow a home team to get their tails up rarely bodes well for a visiting side. If India really want to gain anything from this tour, they need to back reputations with resolve. And they badly need their skipper to seize the initiative, rather than hope it will be handed to him. If some of India’s veterans are looking for inspiration, they could do worse than look at Ricky Ponting’s tenacious hunger to cling to his test career.

Perhaps some injudicious Australian taunts might provide a spur…

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Peter Baulderstone says

    Well argued as always JB. Hot (36) and a bit muggy for Perth with the tail end of a cyclone. You would not want to be in the field for too long, as energy will quickly flag unlesss wickets can be found. IF India can find some heart and early momentum I still think Australia are vulnerable. Sharma, Yadav, Zaheer could do some damage if they bowl first. India could make some runs once the pitch flattens out. On ability its line ball, on attitude its a one horse race. India at the value for mine.

  2. John Butler says

    PB, and interesting local variation on rolling the pitch on the Age website today.

    Some sort of local custom?

  3. JB
    I am not so sure that Australia has yet tackled all the reconstruction
    questions. But, as always, time will tell.

  4. John Butler says

    Smokie, neither am I.

    But at least we’ve started (finally).

    India look like having to make a lot of big decisions in the very near future.

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