Striking a stoic face, Tim Paine quoted footie legend Alastair Clarkson’s famous line in the press conference, “It’s never as bad as you think, and it’s never as good as you think.” You could empathise with Paine and his beleaguered troops, because they tried as hard as possible, expending the last drop of sweat and energy under the muggy clouds of Gabba.
But they lost not because they did not fight or try, but chose the wrong paths. The road not taken will spook Paine, or rather the futility of the wrong turns that he and his team took. The paths he chose were not as bad, but it was not good either, to tweak the Clarkson quote. There were several instances when he let the game drift, when he waited for fate to intervene and things to happen, despite the ascendancy his team wielded for the most part of the game. He was not like the stern-faced Australian leaders of the yore, who would disdainfully stub out the embers of a resistance. Worse, he didn’t learn from the failings of Sydney.
For instance, when wickets were not forthcoming in the middle of the partnership between Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara, he not only resorted to defensive field placements but turned to short-pitch bowling. Of course, it’s harsh to pin all the blame on Paine, not when he has a group of established bowlers at his disposal, but a lack of leadership and planning was blatantly evident. Not possessing ingenuity is one thing, not all captains could be as remarkable as Mark Taylor, but resorting to counter-intuitive ploys is another.
He entrusted the bouncing-out duties to Mitchell Starc. It was his first mistake. The left-armer has a deceptive bouncer no doubt, but he is not a Neil Wagner-like enforcer who could keep bowling short relentlessly. He’s more comfortable, and dangerous when he hits the full length. Again, there was no shortage of effort. Starc would bend his back and blast the balls short. He just kept doing that and the batsmen just kept swaying and ducking. After a point, he started bowling so short that Gill just hung back and picked his spots. The ploy not only misfired but gave India the impetus to mount the chase. He gave Gill the width and space to unleash his pulls.
Bizarrely, Starc barely mixed up his lengths, which he does so seamlessly in white-ball cricket, or even changed his angle by switching from around to over the stumps. More so as Starc could not make the ball hold the line after pitching. It just went on with the angle. Maybe, Paine was carried away by the variable bounce on offer but it only served the purpose of landing bruises on Pujara’s body. Having ruffled him with blows on the body, the follow-up, full ball at the stumps never arrived. And when it arrived it was so bereft of energy. The only purpose it served was shattering Starc’s energy and morale.
Thereon, he fumbled from one strategic faux pas to another. A tragedy of errors, if ever there was one. Without much provocation, he would slip into an infectious defensive mindset. Defensive fields would only beget defensive bowling. So with half a dozen boundary-prowlers, Nathan Lyon expectedly sought defensive lines against Rishabh Pant. He began with two slips and a gully, but he did not persist with a silly point or short leg for too long on a track that was throwing tantrums.
There was no one around him to make him feel that he was batting on a minefield. Just chatter from stumps would not suffice. Not anyway against someone as feisty as Pant. Even when the pacers were operating, there were not enough catchers. Had there been a third slip, Pant’s edge off Pat Cummins would have nestled in his hands. A packed slip-cordon is essential for someone like Pant, who is prone to driving and defending with an open bat face. It was as if Paine was shaken by Pant’s presence.
Even later in the innings, when the required rate had been reduced to less than 10 runs, he set an in-and-out field. There was a time when the Australian captains of the past would have stationed every man on the ground right under Pant’s nose or in his eye-line. So there was no fielder at backward point to take a miscued hoick that looped in the air for an eternity, just two deliveries before Pant hit the winning runs. With the brittle lower-order, Australia could have still engineered a famous win. How many times in the past have you seen them bounce back from the brink.
But Paine’s Australia seems to lack not only ambition but also self-belief. He conceded defeat all too easily. There was no running away from the reality that his tactics on Friday “were as bad as everyone thought”.
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