The trope that almost every coming-of-age tale leans on is the protagonist's exertions to find one's voice. It's widely understood as a homogenous notion, even though finding your voice may not mean the same to everyone. As a writer, to formulate one's voice, you are likely to look for others' voices to harmonise your chords. Such is the individualised obsession with finding one's voice that one cannot readily replicate its meaning in the context of team sport either.
As we have seen before, the tension is very real when players do not sing from the same hymn sheet. Kevin Pietersen had to pick up that charge, rightly or wrongly. But then, you also want the individuals in your team to retain a sense of separation from their teammates.
It is a question every team must grapple with. It was a problem that was posed to Steve Smith and the Australian team management when the side collapsed in the second Test of the series against South Africa in Hobart last year. Five Test defeats in a row was not just a crisis of form. Smith needed to find an identity for the team under his leadership. The residue from the Michael Clarke era was large.
Over the past fortnight, there seems to be a strong evidence of Smith's Australia gaining a tangible shape. The team's abysmal record in Asia meant that the ongoing series in India was expected to produce another whitewash. But an unburdened Australia have welcomed the tag of underdogs. The defeat on Tuesday brought back the memory of past failures but the fight in this side is alive. It has made for the most compelling Test series of India's home season.
The seeds of the turnaround were probably sown in the aftermath of the Hobart defeat. Before Rodney Marsh left his position as the chairman of selectors, he engaged with fellow members on the panel, Mark Waugh and Trevor Hohns. Changes were made and one finally suspected that Smith had put his stamp on the team. But even he was surprised by how quickly everyone got along well, as revealed in an interview to ESPN Cricinfo.
"We probably didn't think they would perform as well as they did straight away, which has been very pleasing. I felt a shift in energy and enthusiasm and attitude around the group, and that was from the very first time we got together in Adelaide, before the Test match. Since then everything has gone pretty well," said Smith, weeks before leaving for India. The tour of India has been a continuation of the good feeling around the camp.
But the strength of the unity will be up for debate now that Australia have suffered their first blow on the tour. Despite matching India toe to toe and even holding advantage in the Bengaluru Test, familiar failings scuppered the visitors' chances. The failure to convert good situations marred Australia's prospects last year against Sri Lanka and South Africa. An overly exuberant bowling effort hurt Australia in the Bengaluru this time around. Once the target had crossed 150, Smith and his teammates were playing catch-up. The captain acknowledged the same in the post-match press conference.
"Today wasn't our day. We competed very hard, and we bowled very well, got the breakthroughs that we needed. But as far as batting is concerned, 188 was always going to be difficult and we probably just needed one or two batsmen to stand up a little bit more, to try and get us closer to the score. I am still proud of the way we played in these first two Test matches."
The pride is understandable. Smith is finally able to mould the team in his own image. The Australian players are not just doughty and talented, they also seem to be able to think on their feet and battle different challenges. It used to be the blueprint for Australia's success in the early 2000s. The way the Australian batsmen held their own against a resurgent India on day two was a case in point. After an eight-year long formbook which brought just a single Test win in Asia, Smith and coach Darren Lehmann may have finally awakened the side from its stupor.
After the 2008 tour of India which brought a 0-2 loss in Tests, Cricket Australia invested a considerable portion of their wealth towards engineering successful displays in the subcontinent which had historically posed unpalatable questions. Consultants ranged from the redoubtable Muttiah Muralitharan to the most recent appointee, Sridharan Sriram; meanwhile, wickets which replicated the spinner-friendly tracks of Asia were put in place at the National Cricket Centre.
But sometimes, you can provide the best infrastructure to your side but the psychological bulwark may still come apart. Australia approached every tour in Asia with trepidation. Time in the Indian Premier League (IPL) may have allowed them to learn more about the conditions here but playing on flat tracks was hardly the best preparation for Test cricket. Australia needed players who would not only accept the challenge but welcome it. The manner of defeat in previous years suggested a few players would rather be playing somewhere else.
This is where the preparatory tour in Dubai came in handy. After his eight-wicket haul on day one of the Bengaluru Test, Nathan Lyon revealed he bowled no less than 1,200 balls in the week he was there. With a variety of pitches on offer at the ICC Academy, the Australian team was able to prepare for the incredibly challenging tracks which have been laid out in this series.
Despite the defeat on Tuesday, it is a challenge they have met with equanimity. After the loss to the Proteas in Hobart last year, Smith was unequivocal about the kind of team he sought to mould. "I need players who are willing to get into the contest and get into the battle and pride in playing for Australia and pride in the baggy green - that's what I need."
The fight and pride have been on display in India but those words can sound empty unless articulated well. One needs to go further back in time to understand Smith's vision for his team clearly. The following words were uttered after the debacle in Sri Lanka.
"We've got some pretty quiet characters, so even if it's not making noise verbally, it might be just about having a bit more presence and the old Australian way of puffing your chest out and making your presence felt for the quieter guys. It's trying to do that, get into the game that way and try to provide some sort of energy that way."
Yet, all the noise and bluster works only if you're putting the performances to go with them. If anything, past Australian sides have been guilty of attempting to enforce the issue even when they are woefully short of control. The doggedness on display in the Bengaluru Test, though, was another example of a team which is aware of its limitations and is learning to live with them. Australia are finding its their voice again.
Yet, the optimism is likely to blow over if Smith is unable to rally the troops for the remaining Tests. With the team in its infancy, the confidence is still fragile. Smith's duties as a captain will bear considerable pressure over the next few weeks.
But Australia will continue to be regarded seriously. The series will be alive when the teams move to Dharamsala for the final Test. It would be difficult to find a person who had predicted that scenario before the series began. Despite the defeat in Bengaluru, there is glory in the competitive striving. Australia can take comfort in the warm glow of pride again.
Updated Date: Mar 08, 2017 12:15 PM