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Is this really Australia?
Skipper Michael Clarke is ploughing a lonely furrow during this ongoing series of India. It is clear that his team lacks the famed Aussie grit and stomach for a fight, and has a long way to go before it can manage a semblance of past glory.
September 22, 1986: The shadows over Chepauk were getting longer as Ravi Shastri stood tall. The target of 348 was looking smaller by the minute but Allan Border didn't give up. The rough, rugged captain fought on with his tired troops and by the end of the day, history was rewritten - the first of the three-Test match series had ended in a tie.
February 24, 2013: It is the same amphitheatre, just that the characters have changed. And with that, the outcome of the drama. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is beginning to open his shoulders and the suave Michael Clarke can only be a spectator. He doesn't lack in skill, but his men do. The famed Aussie grit that could stop a marauding Dhoni who is hitting sixes virtually at will, is nowhere to be seen. The capitulation is complete the next day. Australia are well and truly on the mat.
The two scenes that took place over a difference of 27 years in Chepauk had one thing in common - an Australian team in transition. While the batch of '86 were groping to find successors to Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee, Kim Hughes and Geoff Lawson, the current lot is desperately looking for back-ups for Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne.
It's not easy to recreate a golden generation but the Australians had always been known by their ability to fight. And it's the lack of this fighting spirit that's hurting the current lot which is touring India. Chennai and Hyderabad have been witness to two of the worst defeats of Australia in the subcontinent in recent times and there's every indication that it might get worse. Clarke, the articulate captain, has started to lose the plot as he is hounded by the media after every debacle. "Should I bat at No 4, should Watson go up the order, should there be an extra spinner?" Clarke doesn't have the answers to any of these questions as the Indian media is happily lapping up the plight of an honest visiting captain.
Clarke himself has tried to play his part. He scored a century in Chepauk and followed it up with a 90 in Hyderabad, but there was virtually no support at the other end. There might be a Moises Henriques or a Matthew Wade trying to lend a helping hand, but it's too little, too less.
"I might ask Warnie if he is ready to play again. " Clarke tried to see the lighter side of it but in these dark days of Australian cricket, there aren't too many takers for his smart one-liners. "I feel Clarke, too, has to take responsibility for this debacle. That 1986 side was a lot about that gentleman called Allan Border. I remember how proactive he was during that tied Test, Clarke seems to prefer adjusting his cap, standing at slips, " Maninder Singh, who was one of the main protagonists in that tied drama of 1986, says.
"I had one run to get off four balls in that game for us to win... But the way Border built up the pressure, it was quite outstanding. I don't see that energy in the current lot of Aussies, " remembers Maninder, who was the last man to be dismissed off Matthews.
The 1986 team, much like Clarke's army here, hardly had players with experience of playing in India. Border was the only one who had come to India a couple of times but it was the first tour of India for the likes of David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Steve Waugh or Craig Mc-Dermott.
"Let's not forget, they were playing on better tracks back then... But the likes of Boon, Marsh or Jones were far more skilful than this bunch of players. They seem to have come underprepared for a tour like this, " Maninder said.
The Australians knew this was coming and that's why they came two weeks ahead of the first Test, a rarity in the tight international calendar these days. But when the problem is deep-rooted, it's difficult to eradicate it in a matter of 14 days. The very fact that most of the Aussie top-order batsmen don't know how to play with soft hands against the turning ball is making them look like school boys against R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Back in Australia too, the lack of fight has alarmed the old-timers. Damien Martyn has been a vocal critic. "Batting in India, or batting on any wicket, the harder the wicket is the longer you bat and it becomes easier because you're used to the conditions, you're used to the ball coming on, " he said during an online debate.
Only a couple of months back, England took a similar battering in the first Test but they had something in their line-up which the Indians didn't factor in. The indigenous talent of Monty Panesar and the craft of Graeme Swann caught the Indians off-guard while Alastair Cook's bat looked like a door in front of the stumps that would never open. In addition to that, there was some sprinkling of genius from Kevin Pietersen which made England look the best touring side in India in more than a decade.
But the Aussies lack in all those departments where England excelled. "We are not like England, we want to play our cricket, " Clarke had proudly proclaimed, but he should have known that Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc have a very long way to go before they can be compared to Glenn Mcgrath and Jason Gillespie. The lone offie playing the first Test - Nathan Lyon - didn't do a bad job till Dhoni launched into him, and that was enough to scare off the Aussies. The hardworking pro, who was shaping up well, got dropped for a half-baked allrounder Glenn Maxwell in Hyderabad and the results were there for all to see.
Even Rahul Dravid, who is not known to make statements that could make headlines, had a go at the Aussie team management saying that it was wrong on the part of the touring party to drop Lyon. He was uncharacteristically vocal in his criticism of the Aussie tactic, when he wrote on a cricket webswite. "The biggest tactical blunder that Michael Clarke has to take some responsibility for is the decision not to play Nathan Lyon (in Hyderabad ). They are being too clever with their team selections. Lyon didn't run through the Indian side in Chennai but he bowled particularly well there, especially in the second innings where he looked like he was getting some confidence... It's never easy to come to India and bowl to some of the Indian batsmen on these kinds of wickets they are so used to, " wrote Dravid. "By dropping Lyon, it shocked whatever confidence he gained in that Test. "
Martyn concurred. "What is Steve Smith there for anyway?" he said during the debate. "We have a squad here of players who do bits and pieces. Nothing personal against them. Yes, they might be great One-day players and Twenty20 players, but in that line-up the (Glenn) Maxwells and all these guys, what's their main thing? That's what I want to know. Is Maxwell going to be our main off-spinner in England? Because if he's not, then don't worry about him, get (Nathan) Lyon back in, " Martyn added.
The Australians must have learnt from that mistake as Lyon was back in full swing in practice after the Hyderabad Test got over with a day to spare. But the horse might just have bolted and the Australian media is not going to be kind on Clarke, especially with the Ashes coming up. The Aussies are constantly downplaying the Ashes-factor at the moment, but at every press conference, Clarke is being asked whether this Australian team will be able to fight back during the 10-Test (home and away) Ashes after an India debacle.
"This series, by all means, is as important as anything else... We will have to find a way to come back, " Clarke said, trying his best to cheer up his troops. Border, 27 years back, could do that and in a year went on to win the World Cup. It's up to Clarke to take a cue and script a turnaround for Australian cricket, but with the resources he has at his disposal, it's easier said than done.
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