“Whose phone is that?” asked Tim Paine as a phone doubling up as voice recorder buzzed midway through the press conference. Before the embarrassed scribe could respond, he answered the call, “Tim Paine speaking. Who is it sorry? Who are you after?” Listening and keeping the speaker aside, he shrieked: “Casey from Hong Kong to Martin.” He then told Casey: “Martin is in a press conference, he’ will call you back.” He then cut the phone and conveyed the message to the journalist: “Casey wants you to check the email.”
By this time, the entire press conference room was in splits, including Paine. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine how Paine could keep his sense of humour intact on a tiring day when Australia all but threw in the towel, as if realising that their faintest hopes of series-levelling victory were quashed by India’s remorseless batting.
It told on the field, they let boundaries filter through their hands, they gave up chases without even attempting, they just looked around blankly and watched as Indian batsmen grounded, and then pillaged them. They lost not just the energy, but their collective voice and belief, and floated around like an untied kite.
No one mirrored their frustration as Nathan Lyon, who was uncharacteristically angsty. Generally, irrespective of the match situation, he will be the loudest, liveliest figure on the ground. But such was the toil—and the knowledge that all the labour will be futile—that he seemed knackered in the end. Not that he stopped trying, and did nab four wickets including that of Pujara—but the spark was missing.
He seemed tired, worn out and even a touch jaded. He seemed to struggle with the spinning finger, maybe the usual blisters had formed around it. After all, he has bowled 242.1 overs this series That is 1453 balls, which is three balls more than Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami have combined. Of course, Lyon is a spinner and the others are pacers. Nonetheless, it reflects Lyon’s labour—57.4 overs.
It was the longest he’d ever bowled in a Test match, and the last time he conceded these many runs was against South Africa in Johannesburg last year. After the first day’s play, he had waded into some of their tactics and the collective letdown of the fast bowlers in an interview with ABC.
“Pretty disappointing day to be honest. The bowlers, we weren’t at our best. We missed out on using the moisture in the wicket. We could have stuck there longer. But the captain and the bowlers came up with a decent plan and unfortunately it didn’t work,” he had said.
No one embodied that ordinariness of Australia as Mitchell Starc, the pre-series bowling chief, who has looked terribly out-of-depths. He was cranking the ball at good pace, but was bereft of direction, persistence and purpose. When he slanted the ball across, it was too wide, when he adjusted his line towards the stumps, he erred on the batsmen’s leg. Except the delivery that nailed Ajinkya Rahane, which by his overall shoddiness looks like a fluke, he scarcely emanated any threat. Among their frontline quartet, he was the most profligate—bleeding 4.73 runs an overs, that 123 in 26 overs. For a lead bowler, his worst figures in 32 outings, looks grotesque. It has been the story of his series, but his ineffectiveness stretches back to the Pakistan series, It has his captain concerned.
“He’s down in confidence a little bit and sometimes people forget he’s just a bloke who’s trying his best. Has he been at his best in this series? No he hasn’t. Has he been (at this best) for a little while? Probably not. Starcy knows that. He’s working on it.”
Tellingly, he makes his frustration evident, holding his hips and shaking his head in dismay. At times, when prowling the boundary ropes, he was so frazzled that his mind would drift, and on a couple of instances he had to be woken up by his nearest fielders. His once bullet-throws reached the bowler sometimes on third bounce. His new-ball partner Josh Hazlewood has been equally pathetic, unable to find the metronomic length that had him likened to the metronome Glenn McGrath.
Even the usually effervescent Pat Cummins tapered off after the first spell. Paine attributes it to the accumulated toil of the series. “Not so much the number of Tests but the number of balls that this Indian batting line-up has made us bowl. They made us bowl 170 overs in Melbourne, 160-odd again today. That takes its toll,” he observed.
But how much ever they blame the ineptness of their batsmen or the benignity of the pitches for that, but great bowling attacks don’t buckle too submissively. Even in the wake of the worst adversity, they find a way through. Paine doesn’t run away from criticism: “There’s no point shying away from it and making excuses. We know we’ve come up short with the ball the last two Test matches. We’ve copped criticism for it and we know we have to get better. We need to be honest before we can get better.” But they didn’t and they’ve been thrown off the path to greatness. Not even Paine’s spontaneous humour can gloss over this reality.