It’s about the space between the ears

Speaking at a sports-themed lit-fest in Pune earlier this week, VVS Laxman unlocked the mystery of cricket performance with one crisp comment.

“It is not about how difficult it looks from the outside, or even to others in the dressing room,” he said, referring to his iconic 281 against Australia in 2001. “It is the state of your own mind, your confidence. Everyone talks of that knock, but it wasn’t at all difficult for me because at that point in time, I was totally confident. There were other times, easier conditions, when I didn’t play as well because I wasn’t so confident then.”

Laxman that day pushed us into looking beyond the usual tropes of cricket analysis, and to see the performance in this Test of the likes of Renshaw, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe, Ravi Jadeja and Umesh Yadav in a whole new light.

Smith compiled his 10th Test century as captain, to go with 10 fifties, in a span of 22 Tests and 37 innings; it was also his fifth in succession against India in Tests to go with his four in four on the 2014 India tour of Oz. It was rarely pretty – Smith at the crease, with his hyper fidgets and the strokes that cause dyspepsia among the purists, never is. But it was smart batting organised around a simple principle.

Before the start of the Test, Smith said the Australian strategy was to give the Indian spinners only one edge to work at, and he walked that talk in the middle. Batting with bat in front of body and playing well inside the line of the ball, Smith allowed the telegenic turn and bounce to take the ball well past his outer edge, ensured that his inner edge was never in play, and used his bat only when the ball was coming in or straightening on line.

He hit hard (11 fours) when the bowler afforded him the slightest opening, he nudged the ball around (51 singles) to rotate strike, and he left with remarkable patience any ball that did not force him to play. He left 38 of the 67 deliveries he faced from Ashwin while still managing 45 runs (21 singles, four twos and four fours). Against Jadeja this was even more pronounced – 64 of 81 balls faced were left alone, and off the rest he scored 31 runs including 11 singles and four fours.

Smith was reprieved thrice on day two, then again once today India’s remarkable prodigality with their DRS reviews meant there was none available to take a Jadeja appeal for LBW up to cricket’s appellate court. That is more than half a cat’s lifespan, but what mattered was the calm assurance with which he shrugged, smiled, fiddled with his pads even more frenetically, and settled in to face the next ball.

Steven O’Keefe came into this game as everyone’s ‘why him’ choice and his bland opening spell on the second morning reinforced that view. But he did his homework during the lunch break, worked with consultant Sridharan Sriram to practise the fuller length, and ripped the guts out of India’s first innings in the second session en route to a remarkable six wicket haul, before returning in the second innings to reel in six more including the always vital scalp of the Indian captain.

He accomplished this by, like Smith, reducing his craft to its simplest essence. On a track where turn was measured in feet, O’Keefe focussed on a metronomic line around off, quickness through the air, length on the better side of good, turn measured in centimetres, and a smart use of the occasional big-turning ball to keep the batsman off balance.

Ravi Jadeja is another who is supposed to be in this Test team on sufferance, the one-trick bowler best deployed to bottle an end up while the stars did the job at the other. And yet, through this extended home season, he has wheeled away for a remarkable 561 overs for 51 wickets. In the Australian second innings, he kept it up for 33 overs, buying his three wickets at just over 21 apiece and going at 1.9 runs per over in an innings where the Aussies were scoring at 3.3. What was most remarkable about his performance was a buoyant confidence that contrasted remarkably against the drooping shoulders and general flatness of his mates.

On similar lines, you saw that sense of calm confidence in the batting of the tyro Renshaw on the Australian side, and the experienced Umesh Yadav for India — two players plainly confident in their craft and at ease in their skins, able to perform without reference to the nature of the wicket or the match situation. You also saw it in the catching and ground fielding of the Australians, who performed not as the underdogs hype suggested but as a team at home with their game and in the conditions.

The corollary is equally true. Virat Kohli, faced with the prospect of a first home defeat after a 17-Test streak, collected a zero and a 13 in his two knocks and never looked like he had his head in the game – a fact best exemplified in the horrific misjudgement of line, length and direction that saw him leave an O’Keefe delivery that straightened to hit off. Similarly with Ravi Ashwin, who in conditions he should have revelled in took seven wickets across two innings, but went strangely off the boil about halfway through that marathon opening spell of 16 overs in the Australian second innings.

The mechanics of India’s second innings collapse is unimportant, really – everything that could go wrong, did. Vijay played for turn that wasn’t there, as did KL Rahul, as did Kohli; Rahane skipped down the track and chipped a gentle catch to mid-off, Ashwin failed to pick the ball straightening in to him and, as in the case of his batting betters, played for non-existent turn, Pujara got tangled up playing around his front foot – it was, briefly, the story of inept batting against disciplined, thoughtful bowling by two spinners who, without the weight of starry expectation, buckled down to their job with rigorous professionalism.

The numbers underlying Australia’s totally unexpected 333-run win are eye-opening. A batting line-up that scored over 600 in its last three outings lasted a mere 76 overs across its two outings here; and they managed a combined 212 across both innings – 73 short of what Australia managed in its first innings alone. Five of India’s second innings wickets fell to the LBW and a further two were bowled – a remarkable statistic testifying to the efficacy of the straight ball on a track whose square turn was the most talked about feature.

With the story of sustained dominance fresh in memory, you have to excavate the record books sedulously to remember the last time the side has been so thoroughly outplayed across all three disciplines. We have seen and enjoyed the dominance; it’s going to be illuminating to see just how this team reacts to the unfamiliar position of having to play catch-up.