Daniel Brettig, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, 17 August 2016, where the title is “Clueless Australia need a cultural shift”
In 1969, when choosing the Australian touring team for India, the selectors omitted a young Greg Chappell to the surprise of many. When pressed for a reason why, the selection chairman Sir Donald Bradman is said to have replied: “We don’t want him going to India and getting sick.” Though Bill Lawry’s team went on to win a fractious and tightly contested series, Bradman’s comment endured as a summation of Australian attitudes to Asia for years afterwards. It was the place you went to to get sick, to have your batting average halved by wily spinners and trigger-happy umpires, and to have your back broken by pitches designed to break fast bowlers’ hearts. Tim May, the former Test spin bowler, penned a satirical book called Mayhem, that focused on digestive misadventures as the hallmark of trips to the subcontinent.
It was not until a more enlightened generation of players made visits, led with perseverance and forbearance by Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh in turn, that this attitude began to change. Asia went from being a place to be endured to a challenge to be enjoyed, and a land to be embraced. Others helped too – notably the writer Mike Coward’s unstinting efforts to encourage Australian understanding of the region, and to find beauty in the disparate brands of cricket played here.
Coward’s last Test tour was to India in 2008, coinciding with the start of the barren run that has only got worse over time. The trip ended in a 2-0 defeat over four Tests, followed by another 2-0 loss in two matches in 2010. A 1-0 victory in Sri Lanka on Michael Clarke’s first Test tour as captain looks increasingly like an outlier, followed as it has been by the 4-0 drubbing in India in 2013, a 2-0 caning by Pakistan in the UAE, and now the ignominy of a 3-0 sweep by Sri Lanka, the team that Australia have historically known better how to beat than anyone else. The ledger over eight years now reads 18 Tests for one win, and the last nine lost in a row. The gains of the preceding generation or two have been utterly and irrevocably lost.
Whether watching the Australians slide from 100 for 1 to 160 all out or listening to the captain Steven Smith’s befuddled comments after his first series defeat, the incomprehension of the tour party was clear. This team has now spent comfortably more than a month in Sri Lanka, but they are no wiser as to how to succeed in this part of the world than they were on arrival. Not so much in terms of rhetoric, plans or intentions, but critically in terms of putting the best ideas into action when faced by hot days, dry wickets and doughty opponents.
Why is this so? Certainly prevailing conditions in Australia do not give players much of an opportunity to show themselves capable against spin bowling, or capable of delivering it for that matter. The coach Darren Lehmann has pined for a return to the former contrasts between pitches in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. The team performance manager Pat Howard has tried to aid the players by having spin wickets installed at the National Cricket Centre, and Australia A and national performance squads have spent considerable time in India over the past 12 months.
Equally, the IPL experience has not added much to the knowledge base of Australian players despite the fact they have now spent nine editions of the tournament traipsing across India and playing at most of the nation’s major grounds. Truly spinning pitches are an IPL rarity, while batsmen and bowlers do not hone skills of patience and judgment in the most truncated format. This has led to a fundamental disconnect between Australian displays in the IPL and those seen in Asian Test matches: never in history have Australian cricketers spent more time playing cricket in Asia, yet never have they looked less equipped to deal with conditions presented in Asian Tests.
Another factor that has arisen in recent times, harking back to the days of barren subcontinental trips without much hope or expectation of victory. This is the perceived preparation of pitches in Asia with the express purpose of aiding the home team. A guided tour of the SSC pitch in Colombo for the touring press by the selection chairman Rod Marsh was indeed a throwback to days of greater distrust between tourists and hosts, accompanied as it was by predictions of an early finish.
There is a sense, too, about this team that success at home is what really matters. For all the well-intentioned homilies about the best teams winning away and the need to be more adaptable – Smith has spoken often of it as the buzzword for his captaincy – no jobs would appear to be under threat based on results in Asian Tests. After all, Lehmann has just been reappointed until the 2019 Ashes series. While Smith was able to notch a first Asian Test hundred in the first innings of this match, his deputy David Warner has now gone 12 away Tests without reaching three figures. That statistic will only come to affect his standing and bank balance if he experiences a similar dry spell in Australia, broadcast around the country on Channel Nine.
An attitude of impatience with this part of the world has also been evident in the dealings of Howard and the team manager Gavin Dovey, two appointments from the more hermetically sealed world of rugby. While undoubtedly professional, businesslike and efficient, these men have struggled at times to bridge the gap in understanding between the highly regimented, budgeted and corporatised world of Cricket Australia and the far more ad hoc ways of the cricketing subcontinent. Both are committed to getting things “just right” for the national team. But it is arguable that in Asia, “just right” simply isn’t possible, whether in terms of training facilities, travel arrangements or match schedules.
As it was, the SSC pitch held together much better than any member of the visiting team thought, even as they were comprehensively out-batted and out-bowled on it. That fact served only to heighten focus upon the performance of the Australian players themselves, as a pair of horrendous batting collapses delivered Sri Lanka victory on a plate, even when the home captain Angelo Mathews declined to declare overnight on what turned out to be a more than match-winning lead.
The recurring nature of so many Australian dismissals, from Smith being bowled trying to cut off the stumps for a second time in the series to Adam Voges being pinned lbw by a Herath slider, left the distinct impression that the match and series had been decided as much between the ears as between wickets. From the moment the tourists failed to take advantage of Sri Lanka’s swift dismissal for 117 on the opening day of the series this was no longer a contest between the world’s No. 1 ranked side and a modest No. 7. Instead, it was Australia against Asian climes, complete with all the attendant mental baggage that now comes with that billing.
Each batsman wore a slightly dazed look on his face that earlier touring teams will be familiar with. Their mystified, frustrated countenance betrayed a desire to get home to more comfortable conditions and speedier pitches, just as their forebears once felt. Next time Australia come to Asia, for Tests against India next year, they are likely to form a more radically selected squad. But regardless of the personnel involved, attitude and understanding will be the most important qualities of all.
“To lose patience is to lose the battle” is a proverb the former Test legspinner and later selector Jim Higgs adopted after seeing the sign on a wall in India in 1979. This Australian side must find a way to grasp how matches are won and lost in Asia. The first step to finding it will be to accept the challenge as Border, Taylor and Waugh once did, rather than echoing the skeptical sentiment of Bradman.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig