Any concerns about Steve Smith’s form, fitness and ability to adapt to a new batting role have evaporated over the past three weeks as the former Australian skipper has made a sparkling return to high level cricket.
When the sun rose on the MCG on Boxing Day the talk among cricket connoisseurs was about how green the wicket looked. By lunch the experts were predicting a draw on a dull and lifeless pitch.
By Day 2 the curator was being slammed as incompetent, and by Day 3 many observed that only the team who won the toss had the opportunity to win this Test. Yet among the discussions about wickets, grass and drop-ins surely we have missed the most important point – with the often exception of Usman Khawaja, Australia’s top six simply cannot play Test match cricket.
Of all the dismissals in our first innings in Melbourne, only Khawaja was the victim of the condition of the pitch, a ball that spat out of the rough and took the inside edge. On the other hand, Aaron Finch, Marcus Harris, the Marsh brothers and Travis Head all fell victim to what I like to call Twenty20-itis, a condition contracted by the modern player whereby they are unable to stifle their natural urge to try and hit everything that is launched from 22 yards. The condition is curable; however, it requires enormous mental application.
Which is exactly what Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli demonstrated on days one and two. While they were being berated by the Channel 7 commentators for playing “boring cricket” or “playing for a draw”, they knew something that we didn’t. Batting was becoming increasingly difficult. Australia tried bowling wide to Virat Kohli to entice an edge and short to Pujara to bounce him out, but all they did was waste a relatively hard ball.
Pujara, who plays no white-ball cricket at all – he must hate wearing pyjamas to bed – was happy to play his natural leave-nudge game and outwait the Aussie tactics. Pujara did his best Bill Lawry or Geoffrey Boycott, impersonating a style of traditional Test cricket that is extinct by today’s standards.
Kohli too showed tremendous self-control and the Indians did what no Australian team has been able to do in recent years: they batted time and made the opposition bowl to them.
So when Kohli pulled the pin on 443, the commentary box thought it was a strange declaration. It wasn’t. Kohli knew he was playing against a bunch of Kaboom Kids who had no temperament and no restraint. A bunch of bucket heads, who were flat-track bullies but lacked solid techniques, the ability to shoulder arms and simply grind when to going got tough.
India bowled full and straight and let the dubious techniques of the Aussie top order do the rest. Finch fell victim to a simple trap, getting out in exactly the same fashion as he did in Adelaide. Harris had a brain snap. The Marsh boys did what they do best, letting us down when we needed them most, and Head, again, showed his shot selection is terrible.
But can you really blame Finch and Head? They are cut from the same Twenty20 cloth – strong, free strikers of the ball who would look more at home as lumberjacks than cricketers. It is preposterous that Finch, who 12 months ago wasn’t even playing for his state, and Head, who averages only 36 playing on one of the best decks in the world, even have a baggy green. It is a huge failing of a system that values one-day and Twenty20 runs over Shield consistency.
Australia will no doubt lose this Test, and in the wash-up there will be those who are quick to blame the cruel hand of fate and the toss of the coin; however, it is clear that our obsession with Twenty20 is one of the real reasons our boys can no longer cut the mustard.
How we would kill for a Simon Katich, Mark Taylor or Steve Smith in our top six. Alas, it appears the Indians, for the first time in history, have come over here and cut our grass, regardless of how green it was or wasn’t.