Australia fight to perfect aggression levels against India as first Test slips away
“I just don’t like his body language.”
“He hasn’t given a bit of a glare or puffed his chest out with a good follow through. Let the batsman know he’s in the contest, that he’s going to rip the pegs out.”
The words of Mitchell Johnson, a bloke who knows a thing or two about intimidatory bowling, and directed at Mitchell Starc, whose Sunday was characterised by the sight of Tim Paine starfishing himself down the leg side in feeble attempts to recover wild deliveries.
It was a question that was always going to pop up at some stage this summer, and it’s not really a surprise that it has come in the first Test — is Australia’s lack of agro coming at a cost?
The answer probably has a number of layers to it, and perhaps the best time to ponder it isn’t as Australia heads into day five in a Test that Alex Turner would describe as “one of those games you’re gonna lose, but you want to play just in case”.
Firstly, Johnson was completely correct in his assessment that something was up with Starc. Some pondered on day three whether injury was at play, as he went nearly two hours without bowling and lacked his trademark pace when he did.
But on Sunday, Starc was more than laboured. He bowled with a waywardness not seen from an Australian quick since Johnson himself famously lost his radar against England at the beginning of this decade.
Figures of 3-40 mask what was a worrying day for Australia’s spearhead, and came at the expense of poor old Paine’s byes column — as the last of a cavalcade of shanks flew past the keeper to the fence, Paine stood with his back to his bowler like an exasperated parent. Not angry, just disappointed.
With the ball not moving, Starc offered little threat. He tried coming around the wicket but with his sights so badly askew, batsmen could comfortably wait for the inevitable opportunities take them with confidence.
Perhaps in months and years gone by, he would have responded to this evaporation of ideas by — as Johnson suggested — getting in the face of a batsman and throwing around some choice words.
Or maybe it was just one of those days for a fast bowler, when the body isn’t quite right, the conditions aren’t really offering anything, and the ball feels strangely uncomfortable in your hand.
Only Starc will really know what was really up, but in the context that this summer is being played, there will always be the inkling that maybe a bit of that old school Aussie “good, hard cricket” is the one ingredient that has been stripped from the recipe.
Aaron Finch didn’t think he hit it, but still didn’t review. He probably should have. (AP: James Elsby)
Lending further credence to Johnson’s argument is the general feeling that this Australian team is still a little unsure of itself, betwixt and between wanting to repent for the sins of the past and wanting to properly utilise the mental advantages that playing at home can offer.
It’s been on show in the way the Australians have used DRS, taking conservative options more often than not. It’s hard to fathom what would have led Aaron Finch to make the decision not to review a delivery all evidence suggests did not hit his glove, but his entire demeanour after the finger went up screamed trepidation.
He immediately told batting partner Marcus Harris he didn’t think he was out, then seemingly talked himself out of it, as if believing his natural instincts were bluffing him. Put it this way — David Warner would have reviewed it.
Then there’s the matter of intent and assertion while batting, something that was used as a stick to beat Usman Khawaja with after his long, slow and ultimately unsuccessful first innings. People, including former coach Darren Lehmann, questioned whether the Australians batted with the right mindset on day two — that is, an attacking one.
In response, Khawaja’s second innings was a muddled mess. When he batted at his own pace, as he did to great effect in the UAE and with a level of promise in the first innings, Khawaja looked completely comfortable.
But clearly concerned with keeping his score ticking over and “putting pressure on the bowlers”, Khawaja played two ludicrous shots off the ever-probing Ravi Ashwin. He got away with the first one, but the second, which ended with him looking like he was trying to swat a football out of a tree with his bat, ended his innings.
It spoke of a team correctly concerned with perception but possibly too eager to please. There’s a happy medium to be found, but at present it’s still buried under a pile of opinions and shouts from the outer, and as a result moments of confusion are inevitable.
There will be a lot to talk about after this first Test, and not a whole lot of time to do it with the Perth Test commencing on Friday.
But this question of body language, of aggression and attacking intent, is unlikely to go away.