Another poor showing with the bat on Day 3 of the Boxing Day Test further underlined that Australia’s No. 1 Test ranking is largely held up by its bowlers.
There were few excuses for Australia yesterday.
They weren’t sporting an inexperienced XI.
They weren’t playing on a pitch with demons.
They weren’t facing a pink ball under lights.
In fact the sun was shining and the opposition, already without three frontline quicks this tour, were down a fourth in just the eighth over.
This was a day Australia’s batsmen had to fight back and deliver a performance, gritty or otherwise, that would give their bowlers something to bowl at in the fourth innings in Melbourne – bowlers who for the most part have driven the side to become the world’s No. 1 Test side.
Yet they didn’t, and in being reduced to 6-99 they have all but surrendered a series lead.
Murmurs of a whitewash have quickly shifted to whether the home side will actually regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Credit must first go to India and captain Ajinkya Rahane, who have fought back superbly from an Adelaide nightmare and are on the cusp of one of their most famous overseas wins.
But an analysis of the home side’s top six is required.
Tim Paine’s side are now staring down the barrel of a third-straight sub-200 total on home turf, a stat that appears absurd against even the world’s best bowling attack.
After Monday’s capitulation Australia’s highest individual score in the last six home Tests against India is 79.
Six Tests, no centurions.
There was a sense pre-series that with Dave Warner and Steve Smith back – after missing the 2018-19 home series – Australia’s batting would take care of itself.
But Warner is injured and Smith is experiencing a slump we haven’t seen for some time.
He currently looks a mere mortal, one who is nervous early on and seemingly unsure of himself, especially against Ravichandran Ashwin.
With those two stalwarts not impacting proceedings, plus the other key anchor in Marnus Labuschagne yet to properly fire, Australia’s top six all of a sudden looks very, very skinny.
Warner is likely to return for the third Test, but entering a high-pressure series halfway through means he too is no guaranteed success. Day 3 proved that the Australian selectors need to make two changes for the next Test starting 7 January.
The first and most obvious is Joe Burns for the aforementioned Warner.
It’s hard not to feel for Burns, whose future prospects may too be hurt by the last fortnight.
It was both reckless and unfair of the selectors to expect a player who failed to make runs in the early rounds of the Sheffield Shield to somehow find touch against some of the world’s best bowlers.
It was a gamble that has backfired.
Second, it’s become clear that Travis Head needs some time away from the Test XI.
This call is far less obvious than that of Burns, but it’s one that needs to be made.
Head was dismissed yet again in pull-your-hair-out fashion on Monday at the MCG. His backfoot waft, caught in the slips, was not too dissimilar to a first innings dismissal where his feet were also stuck in the crease.
Head’s talent is not in question, but his temperament to be a Test player absolutely is.
His dismissal is in stark contrast to Labuschagne, who, it should be noted, is a player younger than Head. Labuschagne was caught at leg gully in the first innings and made noticeable adjustments to working balls onto the leg side yesterday, playing the ball squarer rather than risking a low catch via a finer flick off the pads.
It was a batsman that recognised an issue and then rectified it. Head, on the other hand, continues to get out in a similar fashion over, and over again.
For some time Head’s case has been bolstered by strong numbers, but even those are starting to betray him. His average is now below 40.
For the last two Tests he should be replaced either in a straight swap with Moises Henriques or by Marcus Harris, which would then push makeshift opener Matthew Wade back down to a more familiar spot at No. 5.
Ricky Ponting didn’t skirt around Australia’s batting issues late yesterday on commentary for Channel Seven.
“It’s just been very, very poor batting,” Ponting said, lamenting an inability to score that saw Australia finish the day with a measly run rate of just two per over.
“It’s one of the reasons they’ve lost wickets on a regular basis. They haven’t been able to turn over the strike. The pressure has built and built …
“Yes they’ve bowled well and set good fields, but the scoring rate for Australia throughout this match has been so incredibly low. When you’re sitting there waiting for the bowlers to make mistakes, you’re basically a sitting duck.”
Ponting said the low run rate underlined how important changes at the top would be after this Test.
“I think it just highlights how importance Warner is to this side. His presence in the top order and ability to put pressure back on the opposition,” he said.
“They can’t get him back in there quick enough.”