The only time Steve Smith really smiled during the whole press conference was when he was incidentally asked about Virat Kohli. Even here it was more a sheepish grin, the Australia captain’s lips widening but with enough cautious restraint to ensure they didn’t part even slightly. The question was about whether his team had figured a way out to stop Virat Kohli.
It was a cue for Smith to fire the first shot of the trademark mind-war that Australian teams indulge in before every tour, which traditionally involves throwing the gauntlet to the opposition captain.
To let him know in no uncertain terms that they were coming for him with unbridled aggression, that he was their ultimate target. In years gone by, an Australian captain would have revealed to have a foolproof master-plan for Kohli, which was sure to derail both him and his team. But instead, Smith chose to go with a sheepish quip, saying, “Yes, we’re trying to form a game plan, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.” And the smile only got wider, if anything.
He then went on to reiterate that his counterpart was a world-class batsman with four double-centuries in his last four series and a strong batting core alongside him before adding, “..hopefully we can formulate some game plans to get on top of them.”
It wasn’t the only time Smith would rely on the word “hope” while describing his team’s chances over the next few weeks in the four-Test series against the No.1 team in the world. It wasn’t the only time he and coach Darren Lehmann, sporting a swollen left eye, sounded un-Australian during their first interaction with the media after arriving in Mumbai late on Monday. This was an Australian team speaking in a different tone.
Historically Australian teams would approach an Indian tour with bluster and a sense of brash confidence, bordering on cockiness. Their captains would talk about their desire to win and trounce the hosts, even at times calling it their ‘final frontier’. But here was an Australian captain and his coach, who incidentally has tasted series victory as a player in India before, sounding hopeful rather than brazenly confident.
Smith’s answer to the first two questions thrown at him in fact, one about the preparatory camp in Dubai and the second about what he learnt from the tour of Sri Lanka last year, included the same line where he said, “The boys have been working hard and finding some good game plans and hopefully they can be successful in this series.” And his response to how his team planned to tackle the threat of R Ashwin was once again focused around hope. “He’s a world-class bowler, and we know he’s going to be difficult to face on this tour. But guys are going to formulate plans to hopefully be able to play him and get him out of the game as much as possible,” said Smith. The only time he did mention “winning the series” he preceded it by saying “pulling something off”.
Even coach Lehmann kind of echoed the same sentiments about his team’s chances. As a player, the South Australian southpaw was known for his take-no-prisoners attitude, and approached each game with his unique technique and a typically Aussie combativeness. But when asked about whether this would be the toughest challenge of his coaching career, Lehmann responded with, ”We’re not focussing too much on results. We just want to play as well as we can.”
What?! An Australian team not focusing on results and not here to win at any cost? An Australian team content to compete and be happy about it?
It’s safe to say that Australia lost their indomitable aura a long time ago, in the subcontinent anyway. They haven’t won a Test in India since clinching a historic series win in 2004 at Nagpur. In fact, their record in the subcontinent ever since has been nothing short of abysmal. Only West Indies have done worse than them among teams from outside the subcontinent. Since that win in Nagpur, Australia have won only three Tests out of 20, which includes two wins in Bangladesh back in 2006 and a solitary win in Galle in 2011. New Zealand have won the same number of matches but those included one each in Sri Lanka and the UAE against Pakistan. Australia were blanked and whitewashed in their last outings to the Middle East and Sri Lanka.
And on the basis of the Indian team’s form over the last eighteen months, those blips seem more like mere tips of the iceberg. In Kohli & Co, the Aussies will be on a head-on collision with the proverbial iceberg. No wonder, Lehmann and Smith sounded wary of making any statements, bombastic or otherwise. In fact there’s little of note in terms of confidence in this team coming from back home. Even Glenn McGrath hasn’t stuck his naturally long neck out and predicted Australia winning a 4-0 verdict in favour of his team. The general talk has surrounded ‘hope’ that Smith and his team manage to draw at least one Test, which in itself would be a great result, considering that Australia have lost their last six straight Tests on Indian soil.
Just over three months ago, it was an England captain addressing the media at the CCI, even if Alastair Cook with Trevor Bayliss for company had sat near the archaic pavilion instead of the CK Nayudu Hall. The series ended with Cook’s captaincy, which seemed to be hanging by a thread, ending on a sour note. Smith is still a young captain whose career is on the rise. A series loss here is unlikely to call for the axe to fall on his reign. But it will still be a body blow, that he’s “hopeful” if anything of avoiding.
Warm-up match: India A versus Australia (February 17 to 19), Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai; 1st Test (Feb 23-27), MCA Stadium, Pune; 2nd Test (March 4-8) M Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore; 3rd Test (March 16-20), JSCA International Stadium, Ranchi; 4th Test (March 25-29) Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association, Dharmasala)