As per Australia’s supposed strategy – Hazlewood is a better fit than Starc ©Getty
In 2004, Australia landed in India having not won a Test series there in 35 years. They made no premature bold statements or predictions. They didn’t call it the Final Frontier. They were led by an understated captain who kept wickets – apart from being one of the most destructive batsmen of his generation – and not the man originally in-charge or their best player – Ricky Ponting was injured for the first three Tests.
They arrived with an equally conservative strategy based on squeezing the Indians and denying the home team’s naturally free-flowing batsmen their desired dose of boundaries. Led by Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie, they executed the plan cerebrally and to perfection. It did help that they had the best spinner in the world taking wickets at the other end. And they’d ended their lengthy drought in India before the last Test of the series.
In 2019, Australia have landed in England having not won a Test series here in 19 years. They have made no premature bold statements or predictions. They haven’t dubbed this visit with any catchy phrase. They are being led by an understated captain who keeps wickets – even if Tim Paine is not in the same league as Adam Gilchrist in terms of batting – and not the man who’d originally been in-charge or the best player – Steve Smith is still serving his captaincy ban.
They too have arrived with a plan based on squeezing the naturally-aggressive English batsmen and deny them their much sought-after dose of boundaries. And led by Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle, they executed the plan cerebrally and to great effect at Edgbaston. It does help that they have the best spinner in the world taking wickets at the other end.
It’s a comparison that coach Justin Langer has drawn a lot over the last two weeks. He brought it up the day Australia won the first Test in Birmingham, and then invoked the spirit of India 2004 again a few days out from the Lord’s Test that starts on Wednesday (August 14).
“We’ve got a pretty clear view on how we think we can beat England in this series. I go back to 2004, India, when we finally beat India in India, we had a very, very clear [plan],” he’d said at Edgbaston. On Tuesday (August 13), when asked about it, captain Tim Paine too admitted that his team was trying to emulate the style and brand of cricket that had helped Gilchrist lead Australia to a historic series win 15 years ago.
“I remember watching it , not all that much, but yeah we’ve spoken about how we want to play our cricket, we’ve spoken about teams in the past that we want to try and emulate. We’re no different, you look to take things from great teams that you see, and try and take those bits that fit with your current group.
“We’ve got 17 guys here who are completely different people to those who were on that tour but there’s some things we can take from what that team did and what we think is important for Australian cricket teams. To have people like Steve Waugh around us is really helpful when you want to bounce ideas or talk about the past or what it means,” he said.
It wasn’t only with what they did right on that tour where the similarities end. You can see them even in how the Aussies got it wrong in the India tour of 2001, and in a more current context, on the previous few tours of England. They just went too hard at the hosts and though it led to brief periods of success, they eventually ended up playing into their hands. Peter Siddle had brought up the change in attitude too in an interview to Cricbuzz a few days back.
A look at the economy rates of the Australian fast bowlers three years apart on their visits to India are quite revealing. While McGrath, that champion scrooge of thrift with the ball, was at his economical best in both series, the support cast didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Gillespie, Michael Kasprowicz and Damien Fleming all went at over 3 an over and couldn’t stop the boundary count from burgeoning routinely. In contrast, Gillespie and Kasprowicz went at 2.43 and 2.35 respectively in 2004 and ensured that there was absolutely no leeway for the Indians.
It meant that Brett Lee sat out the entire series. And though he has been named in the final 12 for Lord’s, it’s possible that Mitchell Starc too doesn’t feature too prominently in this Ashes, especially if things go to Australia’s plan – even if Paine did reveal that the left-arm paceman was working “really hard” on his control. Starc was expensive in his early spells in the tour match against Worcester and despite a couple of fiery spells wasn’t able to dislodge the county side’s lower order. And it looks quite likely that it’s Hazlewood who gets the nod in place of the rested James Pattinson on Wednesday.
Like on the 2001 tour of India, the modern-day Aussies went in with their gung-ho bowling plans during their last two tours here, in 2013 and 2015, and rarely managed to control periods of the games where they weren’t taking wickets. It was a key positive that a number of the Aussies – from Paine to Pattinson – had noted in Birmingham, where they blocked out the boundaries and made the English batsmen really earn their runs on Day Two, when it seemed the hosts were dominating proceedings. It kept them in the game and made sure that England never inched too far ahead. And with Hazlewood in the mix, they’ll get a lot more of the same at Lord’s and for the rest of the summer.
“I think going back to 2004 in India, our strategy was so disciplined. And that was the difference in the end,” as Langer put it.
Whether it is the difference in the end here or not, Australia look better-prepared than they have in many years to end their drought in England, perhaps even before the last Test of the series.