Australia’s supposed summer of improvement stutters against India | Geoff Lemon

In 1887 an England team sailed south to bowl out Australia for 119 and 97 in one Test match, then 84 and 150 in another. A few years later, starting in December 1901, England kept Australia to 168, 172, and 112.

Those were the only years when an Australian team started a home summer without being able to get past 200 in their first three all-out innings. Two occasions, over a century ago. But this season, Australia have sealed a third.

The team of 2020 were bowled out for 191 in the first innings at Adelaide, and while there was a winning run chase of 93 for two, they followed it up with 195 in the first dig at Melbourne, and an even 200 in the second to lose the Test by eight wickets.

For a time Cameron Green and Pat Cummins put on a rearguard that gave Australia hope of a match-winning lead, but their stand ended at 57 and the lead was held to 69. Regardless of whether they had gone bigger, the fact remains that Australia have put themselves in this position repeatedly against India in this series.

It is hard to compute that a team can bowl out their opposition for 36 in a Test series and still be the one under the pump. Yet here we are. Australia’s bowlers had a Lou Reed perfect day in Adelaide to smash through India, but they had to be that good to compensate for their teammates’ batting.

The other match-saving contribution came via the wicketkeeper’s runs from No 7. The specialists have been fragments and figments.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Marnus Labuschagne was the new Ricky Ponting, Steve Smith was the old Steve Smith. Travis Head had another year’s worth of tons under his belt for country and state.

The major difference compared to India’s series win in Australia two years ago was that Smith and David Warner were back, bridging the gap in batting class. Except in the end Warner isn’t back at all, he has been in Sydney and in airports and in quarantine and in the nets, always a promise on the way.

Smith meanwhile has been back without being back at all, more a haunting than a manifestation. On Monday he was named the ICC’s Test Player of the Decade, the same day that he was bowled by Jasprit Bumrah for eight to complete the worst four scores of his career.

The only other time he played India at home, in 2014-15, Smith made 162 not out, 52 not out, 133, 28, 192, 14, 117 and 71, a century in all four Tests and an average deep into triple figures.

So far this time he has made 1, 1 not out, 0 and 8, a total of 10 runs. His work across the decade has been extraordinary in the most literal sense, but it makes this current patch all the more bizarre. Only one other time has he sequenced four scores in single figures, and that was across the Trent Bridge and Edgbaston Tests that Australia lost in 2015 to concede the Ashes.

Since the subsequent Ashes of 2019, the high-water mark of a tidal career, he has averaged 26.4. Australia have only had seven Tests in that span, but 15 months since a century is starting to feel like a very long time. Even his mighty overall average has fallen from 64.8 to 61.3.

Steve Smith celebrates with the urn after Australia drew the series to retain the Ashes in 2019.

Steve Smith celebrates with the urn after Australia drew the series to retain the Ashes in 2019. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

It is all the more bewildering considering how he batted in the one-day series only weeks ago, with clearly his most dominant ball-striking in format. Nor is the problem that he’s come into Test matches in one-day mode. He has come out in none-day mode. He has looked hesitant, unsure.

In the second innings at Melbourne, before he was bowled by a ball that kissed leg stump, he turned one off his hip straight to the leg slip that has been ever-present since Stuart Broad had him caught him there at The Oval.

Every time, Smith has turned as though surprised to find someone standing there. The next time, he has carried right on with the shot. The problem has been repeating since Neil Wagner of New Zealand kept hitting that spot last summer, and for once the batting savant has not yet dug up an answer.

Labuschagne has been almost as much out of sorts, from peeling off hundreds to peeling spuds. It has looked like ego on display: the way he kept on hooking at Adelaide despite being dropped multiple times, or giving himself a Lleyton Hewitt charge-up in Melbourne when an lbw review went his way, or hanging around far too long after getting out, looking around as in disbelief at being dismissed. Perhaps those of us who write cannot blame a player for believing his own press, but a year ago Marnus was about doing nothing but the work.

As for Head, his specialty has been scores between about 15 and 40, ending when he flashes outside off stump for a catch behind point. This series has all been just a little bit of history repeating. Matthew Wade has done his job as a makeshift opener but has not gone on to something major. The whole set-up has been off kilter with Warner missing at the top and Joe Burns commuting from Struggle Town in an effort to deputise.

India’s batting has its own vulnerabilities, as was demonstrated so stunningly before Christmas. But in the Melbourne match they found a way to build a total of substance, making 326. Not dominant, not monolithic, but enough to fight. The home side have not and could not, and even the Adelaide win doesn’t belie this.

This is an Australian team whose players have talked about dominance and dynasties and the unending search for perfection, as is contractually mandated. It is also a team that is struggling against quality bowling, even though India’s senior ranks have dwindled by the day. Beating Pakistan and New Zealand a year ago was predictably an oasis. For now, it’s back to the hot sand.


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