Domain Tests v India

Border sees shades of past in batting ranks

The absence of prolific, senior batsmen is having a huge impact on Tim Paine's side

Andrew Ramsey at the Adelaide Oval

8 December 2018, 08:57 PM AEST

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If anyone can fully empathise with the current trials being endured by Australia's re-cast Test batting line-up, it is the nation's most-capped skipper, Allan Border.

Not since the traumatic fall-out from the World Series Cricket split in the late 1970s – that brought Border both benefits and scars - has Australia fielded a Test team bereft of at least one batter with 2,500 Test runs to his credit.

Yet that's the brutal reality Australia's current outfit has faced in the aftermath of the sandpaper scandal that cost their two most experienced, productive and charismatic batters a year on the sidelines.

It also helps to vindicate coach Justin Langer's claim, in the face of observations by ex-India great Sachin Tendulkar, that the lack of Test experience among the current crop of his batters manifests itself as an absence of certainty at the crease.

Midway through the opening Domain Series Test against top-ranked Test team India, the hosts' best-performed batters at Test level are Usman Khawaja (2483 runs from 36 matches) and Shaun Marsh (2084 from 35) in a top-order as inexperienced as it is proving inconsistent.

And while those batting around them, including captain Tim Paine, are scarcely novices it is prudent to note that every Australia team for the past 40 years has featured at least one batter to have passed that nominal benchmark at the elite level.

The most successful of those throughout an extended golden era for Australian cricket have been blessed with three, or occasionally more.

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Even in the immediate aftermath of the World Series split, when Australia's men's players defected en masse to Kerry Packer's breakaway league, the 'establishment' outfit was buttressed by ex-Test captain Bob Simpson who emerged from retirement, aged 41.

But when Simpson finally walked away from the game six months later, Australia was forced to field a greenhorn group led by Graham Yallop whose top seven boasted less than 3,000 Test runs between them.

As the number of hefty defeats mounted and selectors searched for a combination that might be more combative if not immediately competitive, a 23-year-old Border was handed his Baggy Green Cap despite having only two Sheffield Shield hundreds to his name.

Border sees several similarities in the make-up and mindset of Langer's new-look team to the one that he would eventually lead back to Test supremacy, albeit after years in the wilderness.

"It's a genuine issue to look at, as to why these guys have struggled over the last little period," Border, who is part of ABC Radio's commentary team at the Adelaide Test, told today.

"What price do you put on a couple of thousand Test runs from at least one or two players, which most countries would surely have?

"I don't think many people have considered what that actually means.

"Certainly in the last couple of years, we've relied so heavily on Warner and Smith that once you take them out, it's no wonder that we've had our struggles."

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In Border's case, the vacuum of experience and expertise was eventually back-filled when former captain Greg Chappell returned from World Series Cricket at the end of 1979.

By which time the teams overseen by Yallop, and then his successor Kim Hughes, had managed only two wins from 14 Tests.

But from there sprung a lineage throughout which Australia's batting was galvanised by established performers who took the heat from, and showed the ropes to, a series of apprentices who invariably assumed their proud place in the succession planning.

From Chappell, Hughes and then Border, the baton was on-passed to David Boon, Mark Taylor, Steve and Mark Waugh, Langer, Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and – most recently – Smith and Warner.

When injury, retirement and fleeting issues of form removed any of those foundation pillars, the burden would shift to others able to bear the load.

Among them Ian Healy, Michael Slater, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Simon Katich and Shane Watson.

Now, however, if Khawaja and Marsh miss out – as was the case in Australia's first innings against India on Friday – the responsibility falls to debutant opener Marcus Harris, Aaron Finch and Travis Head (both in their third Test), Peter Handscomb and Paine (in their 14th and 16th respectively).

It's for that reason Border recognises similarities with the outfit that he ultimately fashioned into a hard-nosed, uncompromising collective, so sick and tired did he become of losing.

And he sounds a note of caution as to the residual effects such an environment can bring.

"We had a lot of blokes looking over their shoulders, it was one of those scenarios when the selectors were dropping blokes and changing teams, trying to find the right formula to win games," Border recalled today.

"It was a dressing room where everyone was waiting for the selectors' knife, so it was a difficult dressing room to be in.

"I didn't consider how many Test runs I had compiled overall, but it's when you get that first Test hundred that you start to think 'I can make it at this level'.

"So Travis Head will get an enormous lift out of his innings (of 72) today.

"Yes, he'll be disappointed that he didn't go on for a bigger score, but he knows he batted well in the circumstances that he found himself in, and that he can play at this level."

Another crucial benefit that hardened Test performers can bring to a newly formed group is sharing the match knowledge forged in the heat of high-level battle, the absence of which Border believes was a contributing factor to Australia's batting struggles on day two.

The veteran of 156 Tests – 93 of which he captained – thought Australia's inexperienced top-order might have paid too much attention to the manner in which India's first-innings century-maker Cheteshwar Pujara focused on defence until the final phase of his knock.

Which, in turn, might have convinced his impressionable opponents that occupation rather than domination held the secret to success on a most challenging Adelaide pitch.

"They watched Pujara play an innings of grit and determination, when he just dropped anchor and occupied the crease," Border said.

"And because they're still learning, they might have thought 'I'm going to bat time, and if I stay in long enough eventually the runs will come'.

"Most times, that will happen, but you also have to change gears as you're going through your innings.

"Our guys were getting to 20-odd having batted the best part of three hours, by which time you tend to think 'gee, if I get out here it's going to be so frustrating because I've done all the hard yards'.

"But they just haven't learned that they need to shift through the gears a little bit, or pick a bowler they can go after a bit more, or assess what options are available given the way the pitch is playing.

"As well as that time when the ball gets a bit older, and you need to up the ante a bit more.

"It's not easy because they're all playing for their spots a little bit, so there's so many factors that come into it when you're new to it all.

"That's when it's really important to be able to have that bit of experience in your side, to share that sort of wisdom with newer players because you can still be inexperienced at Test level when you're 30.

"And at the moment, we just haven't got that."

Domain Test Series v India

Dec 6-10: First Test, Adelaide Oval

Dec 14-18: Second Test, Perth Stadium

Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG

Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG

Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Chris Tremain

India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar