It’s beginning to sound like a broken record. But once again when faced with quality spin bowling on a surface offering some assistance, Australia’s batsman have finished second best.
In the end not even the predicted rain could save them in Kandy. Despite being favorites for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy before the first Test match, Australia instead find themselves 1-0 down with just two Tests to play. The 106-run defeat at the Pallekele International Stadium adds another chapter to Australian cricket’s recent catalogue of struggles on the subcontinent.
Despite staunch resistance from Peter Nevill and the injured Steven O’Keefe, who added a painstaking stand of 4 runs from 178 deliveries, it wasn’t enough as the hosts wrapped up victory before tea on the fifth day. For Australia it was a seventh consecutive Test match loss in Asia.
Their shortcomings against the spin offerings provided by the Sri Lankan trio of Rangana Herath, Lakshan Sandakan and Dilruwan Perera are certainly no aberration. Such deficiencies have been going on for decades and they currently look no closer to being arrested than they were after the disastrous tour of India three years ago.
After dismissing the hosts for 117 on the first day of the Test, the Australians could only muster a first-innings lead of 86. Eventually set 268 to win after a masterful third innings 176 by rookie Kusal Mendis, they folded for 161 on day five with Herath and Sandakan sharing 16 wickets in the match.
On dry turning wickets, the Australians have struggled against all varieties of slow bowling. Be it the legspin of Yasir Shah and Devendra Bishoo, the left-arm orthodox of Herath and Ravindra Jadeja, the left-arm chinaman of Sandakan and Tabraiz Shamsi, or the offspinning showings of Ravichandran Ashwin and Sunil Narine. Against Australia no spin bowler is ever discriminated against.
It’s been almost five years since Australia last celebrated a Test or series victory on Asian shores. In fact it was on their last tour of Sri Lanka, where they claimed a 1-0 series victory, thanks largely to the excellent batting of a certain Mike Hussey. Since then they have struggled desperately, often faced with scoreboard pressure and several men hovering around the bat.
Since that 2011 series win there has been nothing but heartbreak in Asia. The early 2013 tour of India – which will forever be known as the homeworkgate series – was the beginning of a disastrous spell from the Australians. The likes of Ashwin, Jadeja, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha turned Australia ragged on that occasion during a 4-0 Indian whitewash. Further strife was endured during a 2-0 Pakistan series victory in the UAE in October 2014 where this time the legspin of Shah and the canny left-arm spin of Zulfiqar Babar proved to be the visitor’s downfall.
Other shortcomings against spin have also occurred outside of Asia too. A 2014 ODI loss to Zimbabwe was compounded by an inability to score off a quartet of modest spinners, while the likes of Bishoo and Narine have troubled the Australians on recent visits to the Caribbean.
Perhaps overconfidence or a lack of patience is often to blame for their careless batting. This was best epitomized in the first innings dismissal of Steve Smith. The Australian captain – who’s commonly renowned as the country’s best player of spin since his predecessor Michael Clarke – was well set on 30 before an ugly heave against Herath resulted in his departure at a crucial part of the match. Australia should have shut Sri Lanka out of the match thereafter, instead they only claimed a first innings lead of 86 when something over 200 would have made life extremely difficult for the hosts.
Despite being well aware of their struggles against spin bowling, what more can Australia do to conquer their fears over the turning ball?
By going to Sri Lanka two weeks prior to their current series, they gave themselves every chance to acclimatize to the humid weather and dry surfaces faced with on the island. While back home work is constantly being done to improve the way the Australians play on turning wickets. Last year a hybrid spin pitch was installed at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. The hope is that the next generation of young Australian batsmen will be able to spend plenty of time honing their skills on the subcontinent-like surface.
Technique wise, going forward they must find a pragmatic but purposeful way of playing the turning ball. A tendency to attack their way out of tough situations may be the Australian way but it’s rarely proved to be the correct way.
Currently faced with two must-win Tests in the coming weeks and then a four-Test series due to commence in India in February, there’s going to be no hiding places for the Australian batsmen. Right now they must find a quick fix before another series on the subcontinent is lost. Seven defeats and counting…