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Cricket news - Australia make quiet progress to their spin play
"It is funny how things change," Peter Handscomb remarked after the great Mohali chase two nights ago. The Victorian was obviously reflecting on his roller-coaster summer, one that has seen him pigeonholed as a red-ball specialist to being axed from the Test squad and then reconsidered for the ODIs against India in January.
But his quote holds firm even in the greater Australian ODI context. Handscomb's inclusion, following successful white-ball spells in the JLT Cup and the Big Bash League, has provided fresh perspectives to the team, particularly while having to deal with a spinning ball in the middle-overs of an ODI innings. Heading into a series decider, Australia haven't found themselves caught in the trappings of the wrist spin narrative.
It is not an indictment of the wrist-spinning duo's diminishing powers, but a growing sense of confidence in the Australian ranks that they can trust their methods honed over a period of time working alongside Sridharan Sriram, with Matthew Hayden and Brad Haddin also keeping a close eye on the net sessions.
"There's fair bit of media about Australia playing against spin in the past. We've worked really hard on playing spin bowling in the nets over the last probably 18-24 months. So, I guess it's no surprise to see the rewards," vice captain Alex Carey said on the eve of the series decider in Delhi.
"But the guys have been doing so much hard work off the field. We've got some local Indian bowlers that we train against in the nets. So that's really good experience. I guess guys standing up in the middle to have the confidence to run down the wicket, to take on the spinners... it's been a great contest. I guess, it's been really pleasing to see. We've worked hard on it."
Statistically, it would appear that the visitors haven't prospered significantly better against India's spinners than they had in the corresponding series 15 months ago. Kuldeep and Chahal accounted for 13 wickets from 4 games then. They have 10 now. Kuldeep, who has featured in each of the games this series, conceded his runs at an economy of 6.17 then but has gone at 5.7 runs this time around.
The difference, as evidenced in the last statistic, has been Australia's decision making. The middle-order, led by Handscomb - recently dubbed Australia's best player of spin after Steve Smith - is more methodical as opposed to a more one-dimensional charge. Something changed in October last year. During the tour of the UAE, Australia were forced into a serious introspection about their batting against spin after botching a fairly straight-forward chase of 150 in a T20I at Dubai. Chris Lynn premeditated a sweep off the first ball he faced off Shadab Khan and was out caught. Glenn Maxwell then swung hard from his crease, miscued and was taken at long off.
There are cultural misgivings to the way Australia have played spin. This 'Australian way' stems from playing on flat Australian wickets that offer little in terms of variable bounce or grip. Range hitting from the crease, even across the line, invariably works only for batsmen blessed with decent hand-eye co-ordination. Despite playing on significantly smaller boundaries in India, that class of 2017 found itself miscuing a lot of shots that would have sailed over in a Big Bash League game. It left a lot of them confused.
"You're quite often a product of the environment that you're brought up on," Michael Hussey said then. "Certainly in Australia, our pitches have been pretty flat and haven't really turned much and you can just basically stand and deliver particularly against the spinners because there's not a lot of spin there. But once we get to the subcontinent things are very different. You can't just stand and deliver, or you at least have to earn that right."
So Sriram's preparations for this tour have not been limited to offering like-for-like net bowlers in chinaman KK Jiyas and leggie Pardeep Sahu. A counter-intuitive approach to dealing with spin been employed. Batsmen are not itching to pick a boundary off the first ball of a spinner's over. Sweeping across the line is left to batsmen comfortable doing so, like Handscomb did in Mohali. The 27-year-old has also been adept at mixing his sweeps by skipping down the track and playing in the 'v'. His approach threw Kuldeep off twice - in Nagpur and Mohali - with the spinner resorting to bowling quicker and fuller every time he was hit for a boundary.
Yuzvendra Chahal, on the other hand, is not easily disheartened when copping punishment. Despite being handicapped by the dew, he stuck to his gun of bowling slow and teasing a mistake. When he was hit, he returned with an even slower ball and tossed it up wider outside the off-stump to bring the long square boundaries in play. It got him Handscomb but Turner saw through this little trap and went through the line and over the sight-screen.
It helps that Australia have moved away from the power-hitters like Lynn and D'Arcy Short to more natural stroke-makers like Handscomb, Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja. They're easier to mould into the kind of batting plans they are hoping to perfect. "If you look at our one-dayers in Australia, we made good progress there, we started to develop our own batting plan or batting signature," Handscomb said. "We keep getting better with each game and we started off nicely with two T20 wins here that gave us a bit of confidence and then we were close in the first two games and then we're starting to click come these two games and hopefully that builds momentum going forward.
"If you look back on the second T20 as well, where we chased down 189 at Bangalore, that was the start of a little bit of belief there and then to come out and do it again showed it's not a fluke, it's actually a bit of consistency starting to come into this team. And batting plans add a lot of confidence. We're going to execute those plans. Going forward this is a big moment and hopefully we can continue to build on this feeling we've got at the moment."
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