CHENNAI: The architect of Australia’s era-defining win in 2004 believes Michael Clarke’s side should not feature an abundance of spin “for the sake of it”.
Former head coach John Buchanan says instead, the fast bowlers’ success with reverse swing would likely be their trump-card in the quest for only a second series victory in India in more than 40 years.
Buchanan was head coach almost nine years ago when Adam Gilchrist, standing in for the injured Ricky Ponting, led Australia to an historic 2-1 triumph on the subcontinent, described as the “final frontier” by the previous captain Steve Waugh.
Stung by defeat there three years earlier, Buchanan had planned meticulously a smarter way to approach India, placing primary faith in his pacemen and imploring them not simply to bowl with outright aggression, but more full and straight to split fields to temper the scoring of Sachin Tendulkar and the hosts’ all-star batting line-up.
The results were glowing: Jason Gillespie took 20 wickets at an average 16, Glenn McGrath 14 at 25 and Michael Kasprowicz nine at 28, with Shane Warne a support player in the master plan.
“One of the things that was obvious to us was the Indians tended to bat in boundaries. In other words, they’ve got to occupy the crease for a long period of time and they were able always to get a boundary away. That kept the score ticking along and reduced the risks that they needed to take,” said Buchanan, now New Zealand’s director of cricket.
“Basically, we designed a three-step strategy. One was how we were going to attack each batsman – that was always Plan A. Plan B was how do we reduce the boundaries, how do we stop them scoring? And Plan C, which we never really wanted to get to, was when they’re actually taking us apart. For example, the Kolkata experience (in 2001, where Australia was beaten by 171 runs) – what do we do then?
“The key was just sticking with it. Adam Gilchrist was captain that tour and he certainly made sure that all bowlers just stuck to a plan, whether it was Plan A, or Plan B. Very rarely did we get to Plan C because it seemed like we were able to make impact, or gradually contain them and then make impact.
“With the fast bowlers, if we could do that, it meant Warnie could basically bowl when and how we wanted him to.”
Fast-forward nearly a decade and Clarke’s Australian team has five fast-bowlers on tour – Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and Jackson Bird – and in all likelihood will use three in combination in the first Test at Chennai’s Chidambaram Stadium starting on Friday.
There are several key differences between the series Buchanan planned and the one Australia are about to begin. India, flopping latterly, are not who they were. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are gone, Tendulkar has not had a Test ton in two years and the other member of the old guard, Virender Sehwag, is having his future questioned.
Australia, despite losing only one Test in 14 months, does not have the same quality of personnel either, and are contemplating a first road-trip post Ponting and Mike Hussey.
Finally, there is the timing. Gilchrist’s team clinched victory in more mild November; Clarke’s side are here in less forgiving February and March.
Even so, Buchanan said the Australian team should be wary of loading up on spin-bowlers (there are four in the squad: Nathan Lyon, Xavier Doherty, all-rounder Glenn Maxwell and young West Australian Ashton Agar) just because it’s in India.
“I do think it’s a good pace attack; it depends how it adapts to the conditions it’s about to face,” Buchanan said. “They’re going into India now in February/March. That makes a difference as well because some of the wickets still provide a little bit of bounce and pace at the start of the summer, whereas potentially by this time of their season wickets have been subjected to plenty of heat and plenty of wear and possibly the ability for pace bowlers to extract good pace and bounce are limited.
“It really means that the pace bowlers have really got to look at their strategies with an old bowl and what they can do with that.
“You don’t take spinners just for the sake of taking a spinner. Indians are so used to playing spin bowling, there is no guarantee they are going to make an impact in a series.”
Another potential shortcoming for Australia is lack of experience in India, but Buchanan argues that can be overcome. He uses the example in 2004 of Clarke, who scored 151 on Test debut in Bangalore and piled on 400 for the series – second only to an outstanding Damien Martyn – as well as a brilliant 6-9 with the ball in Mumbai.
“He was a young tyro, just keen to play Test cricket, keen to experience India from a playing perspective,” Buchanan said. “He had some other people around him who had been there before and they could give him a little bit of background, but ultimately he worked out what he needed to do to embrace the conditions and he did that very well.”
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