Devil in their minds: Pre-occupied by pitch talks, Australia’s abject surrender was of their own making

IND vs AUS: Moments after Mohammed Shami had ended the gruesome ordeal of Australia’s batsmen, their feeble resistance consuming merely 139 minutes, the ground staff huddled beside the pitch, laughing and chatting under the balmy Nagpur sun. One of them pulled out a smartphone and captured a selfie with the strip on the back-drop, before they soon began to broom the surface, kicking up plumes of brown dust that swirled and whirled in the air.

Fay away stood Pat Cummins and his teammates, still peering painfully into the surface that would remain an emblem of not only their ineptitude at playing quality spin but also their uncharacteristic lack of fight, defeated not so much by the imagined devils on the surface as by their own fragilities, of technique and temperament, mind and body.

What would concern Australia as they pick up their shattered pieces of the defeat from the ripping dust as they look to bounce back from the series, more than their elaborate plans, detailed preparations, and how they could not implement them, would be the utter lack of resolve they demonstrated. Their second innings, and the third day overall, was a lament on the fabled virtues of indefatigability and tenacity that, in different eras, made them a touchstone of cricketing success. This day cannot be brushed aside as an aberration, or that one bad off day in the office kind, but one that requires earnest soul-searching if they are to make a comeback and not end up packing their bags in humiliation.

The moment they lumbered onto the field in the morning, they walked like no-hopers, as though the match was beyond them. The lines erred, the lengths faltered, catches slipped out of the hands, runs burst through the palms, they seemed like a flea market counterfeit of an unsold painting. There was no energy, belief or even hope, as they let Axar Patel and Mohammed Shami freewheel in the morning to an unsurpassable total.

The unravelling of their batting could be foretold from their body language on the field. It took Ravi Ashwin only five balls to trigger a harrowing evening. A simple but basic two-card trick. He floated a full ball that he drove emphatically through covers, before the masterful off-spinner just pulled back the length a fraction, purchased hypnotic inward drift into his body and coaxed him into step out, stretch forward and drive away from his body. The ball dropped further than Khawaja had judged, he was too committed to the stroke to readjust, then it spun away from him to graze the inside edge of a hideous swipe to Virat Kohli at first slip. The imprudence of the stroke would haunt him, more than the execution.

This would be the recurring theme of Australia’s meltdown. There was neither purpose nor plans, as though disillusioned by the rigorous pre-series planning. Even the usually organised Marnus Labuschagne could not work his way out of the mess. Ravindra Jadeja deliberately slowed himself down—he consumed more time than usual between deliveries, floated rather than fizzed the ball, pounded the good rather than the full-length zones, giving Labuschagne a false confidence that he could defend comfortably on the back-foot. How unusually naive of the Australian batsmen to not second-guess his intentions. He was baited into defending on the back-foot to a quicker and flatter ball that barely rose above the shin. He could pin the blame on the pitch, that it did not bounce, but he could have averted the dismissal had he played the ball forward.

Soon after, Warner too stooped to a similar folly. Ashwin foxed him with a three-card trick. Two full floated balls that Warner slapped boundaries, allaying his doubts against his regular tormentor, later came the under-cutter that slithered like a freed snake onto his pads. Warner preempted a half-prod, which in itself is a cardinal mistake in this neck of the woods and was caught on the pads. To think that this was Warner’s third tour to India, and yet he looked as clueless as a first-timer, baffles the mind.

This was no group of novices. All the top seven, barring Marnus Labuschagne and Alex Carey, had played Test cricket here. Of them, Labuschagne tops the ICC batting charts. Matthew Renshaw had knocked a brace of 60s in his previous tour to India, but he seemed a man that had just escaped a train wreck, lasting just seven balls in both innings combined. Both times he was trapped in front, and both times his leaden-footed defensive thrust was the culprit. The initial shuffle across forced him to play around the front pad. Peter Handscomb, one of the heroes of the Ranchi draw in 2017, aimlessly thrust his front-foot to thwart an Ashwin slider from around the stumps. A shot that was more a sign of tactical inflexibility than technical capability.

Alex Carey’s dismissal could be foreseen even before he strode to the middle. He would sweep and reverse-sweep to glory, some are bound to fetch him boundaries, but one ball would have his name scribbled on it. For Ashwin and Co are far craftier than to be spooked by a single shot. It was just a matter of time before Ashwin marinated him before barbecuing him. A full, fast ball did the trick. His ploy was suicidal, to say the least, as one-trick obsession hardly pays. As good a line-dishevelling tactic as the sweep and its variants are, one string in a bow does not suffice in the country. Some of the most successful overseas players in Asia have deployed the sweep to stinging effect, but all of them possessed robust defensive techniques as well.

Ten lbws and four bowled tell its own story, of the inflexibility of feet, the stiffness of hands and rigidity of tactics, exposing their false conquest of Asia. The Test series win in Pakistan arrived on mostly flat decks, and the drawn series in Sri Lanka came against a perennially transitioning team, their mind numbed by the larger economic crisis of the country. India were a different beast, and Australia’s inadequacies made the adversaries look even more fearsome.

To blame the pitch is churlish. In the end, Cummins admitted as much. But the batsmen couldn’t hide their fear of the pitch. Every time a wicket fell, they peered suspiciously at the wicket. There were no devils. Rather, they were bedevilled by the look of the pitch rather than how it eventually played out. The loose patch outside the left-hander’s off-stump that Steve Smith feared would crack open never did. The masters of the mind game were victims of the fears and doubts their own minds infested. Beneath the snarling, gnarling exteriors brood vulnerability.

Jadeja would later rub salt onto their gaping wounds. “I feel they were seeing the rough from the moment they sat on the flight. The atmosphere they created that it would spin; it didn’t spin that much. If we see, they got out more to straight balls. We also got out lbw on straight balls,” he told

Unless they shed the fear of turners and self-inflicted prejudices, it does not matter who their reinforcements would be in Delhi or after that. They could hope that Cameron Greene and the pace pair of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc win their race against fitness, but it would amount to nothing unless they summon back the old virtues of guts and grit in the remaining Tests. By the time they departed to the hotels, the groundsmen had begun exhuming the pitch. Australia too would need to exorcise the demons of this game and realise that the demons were not on the surface, but their minds. And from there they should start their journey of redemption.

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