The Australian cricketers are back in office. The prospect of going unpaid for many months might have been terrifying, but they now have to face up to something ever scarier – their appalling record in the subcontinent, as they get ready for the Bangladesh challenge.
Over the years, Australia have been beaten like a snare drum in the subcontinent. Apart from the India series last year, they have looked so lost that even an Englishman would have offered them a bear hug along with a sympathy drink and a free lift back home.
Australia are back in Bangladesh. It seems like an eternity but well, it has been 11 years since they visited the nation. The 2006 series is and will always be remembered for Jason Gillespie's fairy tale double century. Since that 2-0 series win, Australia have won just one series in the subcontinent – the 2011 Warne-Muralithran trophy in Sri Lanka. Since 2006, they possess the worst win-loss ratio for a team to have played more than five matches in that part of the world – 0.133. They have lost 15 matches out of 22 and won just two. They have lost the most number of Tests in Asia among non-Asian teams.
The Australian team put on a doughty performance in their last tour to the subcontinent but it wasn’t enough to get them past the finish line as they lost 1-2 to India. Sometimes, continuously losing can create a mental block. Yes, Australian batsmen's ineptitude against spin is well known but there seems to be a psychological impact and the failures have been continually playing at the back of their mind. It was evident from captain Steve Smith's comments.
"Now it is an opportunity for us to change (our record in the subcontinent)," Smith said at a press conference. "I thought we did some things really well in India. We just needed to do it for little bit longer, and consistently. This is another opportunity to showcase our skills, show what we learned over there and hopefully give our best foot forward," Smith added.
Entire squads have been refurbished since the last time these two sides played each other. There are no survivors, though, in either team from that series.
The Australian captain might have exuded confidence and there is a feeling in some quarters that this is Australia's best chance to break the subcontinent voodoo. However, the task at hand is far from easy. None of the Australian squad members have visited the nation and added to that is the gradual rise of Bangladesh cricket which makes it even more arduous.
Improvement in every department is the need of the hour. Factor in this, that Australia's average runs per wicket of 28.43 in Tests in Asia since that 2006 Bangladesh tour is the second lowest among all teams. Not a single Australian batsman has hit a double century in the subcontinent since Gillespie. Apart from the Zimbabweans, at least one batsman from each country has achieved that feat.
It doesn't take an Einstein to know that the Australian batsmen have perennially struggled against the spinners. They have lost an average of 12.95 (13) wickets to spinners per match in Asia since 2006, which is the second most among all teams. It's a no-brainer that Bangladesh will try to prepare spin-friendly pitches and they have some decent spinners in their armoury in the form of Shakib Al Hasan, Mehedi Hasan and Taijul Islam.
Australia had warmed up for the India tour by preparing doctored practice pitches to simulate match scenarios in Dubai. Ahead of the Bangladesh tour, they carried out a week-long camp in tropical Darwin. "We put extreme conditions in Darwin with the wickets where we made them ridiculously tough to bat on, and guys tested themselves really well during that week," Glenn Maxwell said. In the build-up to the series, Australia have even gone on to employ one-pad strategy practice to counter Bangladesh's spin accuracy and test their defence. Australian batsmen have been batting in the nets without their front pads, a technique which the team employed back in 2012 when Justin Langer was the batting coach. "I think the main thing is to basically use your bat," Maxwell said. "If you don't have the safety of your front pad, it makes you get your leg out of the way and actually use your bat. I think it is more about refining your defence and making sure you trust the fact that you can hit the ball and not hoping that your pads are there just to save you. "It's more for the guys that are hitting the stumps repeatedly, and Bangladesh do that really well. They bowl the ball stump-to-stump and they put pressure on your defence." The other area of improvement is sustained acceleration and building big partnerships. They possess the second-lowest run rate per over after England in the subcontinent – 2.92 since 2006, which is strangely very un-Australian. Also, occupation of the crease is something which needs to be looked into as Australia's average century stand per match of 0.772 in Asia since they last toured Bangladesh in 2006 is the lowest among all teams.
Smith is the only batsman who looked confident and assured on Indian soil in the earlier part of this year. Apart from the captain (71.28), no batsman averaged more than 40. This is where Smith's support system will need to step up big time.
David Warner suffered a torrid time in India (averaged 24.12) and averages just 30.38 in Asia. Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Maxwell showed promise, but the consistency went missing. Australia have strengthened their all-round department by recalling a once famous debutant and now rejuvenated Ashton Agar and adding Hilton Cartwright, who averages 58.13 in First Class cricket and was the second-highest run-getter in the Sheffield Shield last season with 861 runs at 53.81.
The batting department is a bit inexperienced and with Shaun Marsh dropped, it will be interesting to see how they get attuned to subcontinent conditions and respond to Bangladesh's spin challenge.
It's not just the batsmen; the spinners too need get their act right. They haven’t been setting the stage on fire in the subcontinent. The fact that they have averaged better in Australia (39.75) than Asia (42.22) says a lot. Somewhere down the line it seems that they have struggled to build pressure and maintain a choke hold – they have given away runs at 3.56 an over, more than any team in the subcontinent since 2006.
Their struggle is further highlighted by the fact that they have picked up just six wickets per Test in Asia. Only the West Indies and South Africa have been poorer. Australia have dropped their highest wicket-taker against India, Steve O'Keefe, for the Bangladesh tour as it is "time to try and get someone new into the group". Agar has been blooded in. The 23-year-old Victorian will be under a lot of pressure making a comeback after four years and with a lot riding on him. "Ashton has been around for quite a while now. He has worked on his art and become consistent," Smith said. "It will be fantastic to see him get an opportunity. It is obviously four years till we travel to India. It is always a tough tour for us. It is the series that I want to win in my tenure as captain, so it is an opportunity for Ashton to get some experience in this condition with an eye on the next time we go to India." Agar's improvement over the years has impressed coach Darren Lehmann. "His lengths are a lot better. He has had a good Sheffield Shield season last year," Lehmann said. "Young (Mitchell) Swepson is a good prospect as a leg-spinner. Ashton batted really well and he is a gun fielder. We are really pleased for him. "We are hoping for Ashton to reproduce that sort of form. Steve O'Keefe was excellent in India but we have decided to go with Ashton. He has got an all-round game that he hopefully can take to the next level. For example when we play three quicks, he can play up the order. He gives us a lot of flexibility in that way," the Australia coach added.
However, Lyon, the spearhead of the spin attack, will be the key. Though he is the highest Australian wicket-taking spinner in Asia since 2006, bettering a mediocre average of 37.18 will be his primary objective. It will be a good learning curve for Mitchell Swepson if he gets a game.
Bangladesh look more confident than ever before. Victories over Sri Lanka and England provided a glimpse of their improvement in the longer format of the game. Shakib has already sounded a warning saying they are “pretty much unbeatable at home”. It's been six years since Australia won a series in the subcontinent. There will be desperation and the India series would have made them battle-hardened.
And perhaps, for a change, a voice in Australian heads could be whispering, "It's time to finally exorcise the subcontinent ghosts."
Note: All the stats in the article are since 25 April 2006.
With stat inputs from Umang Pabari.