Australia v Sri Lanka Tests
Batsmen could learn from the Hayden way
The current Test team could look to an Aussie great as they try to manufacture a strategy to curb Sri Lanka's spinners
Before Australian cricket had invested significantly in preparing subcontinent-style pitches out of red clay, manufacturing spin-friendly surfaces from rubber-based compounds and sending development squads to India to gain experience, there was the Matthew Hayden backyard remedy.
Well, not quite backyard as such.
But Brisbane-boy Hayden famously organised for some dry, dusty pitches to be created in his home patch before Australia’s 2001 Test tour of India so that he could develop and relentlessly rehearse a strategy that would allow him to succeed in alien Asian conditions.
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Not just succeed, as it turned out, but dominate like few other Australian batters have managed before or since in conditions that, 15 years later, have once again proved utterly baffling to the world’s top-ranked Test team.
Hayden’s way – to decide that the sweep shot was his most reliable and effective weapon against the spin threat posed by India’s Harbhajan Singh – is relevant today because the current Test team is now looking to manufacture its own strategies to curb a similar menace posed by Sri Lanka’s spinners.
The main difference being that Hayden’s method was researched at a spin bowling camp in India two years before the 2001 series that launched him as a Test star, and was refined over weeks of intensive training with his brother Gary on the specially made pitch at Brisbane grade club, Valleys.
While the current Australian batters are looking to reshape their plans in the middle of an ongoing series.
Or, in the case of some frustrated players, during the course of a Test match.
It was at that camp in Chennai, under expert tutelage of former India Test spin bowling legends Bishen Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna, that Hayden honed not just his sweep shot, but three slightly different versions thereof to effectively nullify all variations of rival strategies.
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With his powerful lofted drive back down the ground as his other method for knocking the Indian spinners off their lengths, and ultimately their game.
By contrast, the Colombo Plan that Australia’s shell-shocked batters are looking to take into the final Test of three-game series that starts at the SSC Ground in the Sri Lankan capital on Saturday is being fashioned and fine-tuned with the outcome of this campaign already decided.
Australia coach Darren Lehmann, who was an integral part of the 2004 Test tour to India that became – and remains – the only Australia team to win a series in India since the 1960s, believes a key to that success was the adaptability of the players involved.
Who, like Hayden, were able to work out a mode of playing that was role specific for the vagaries a subcontinental series invariably produces – heat, humidity, hard-to-play spin bowling – and did not fall apart under the searching scrutiny of a Test match
And that, as Lehmann explained while his players enjoyed a couple of cricket-free days in Colombo before resuming their preparation for the dead-rubber Test on Thursday, is the challenge that has so far gone unmet in Sri Lanka.
"We had a pretty dynamic bowling attack to start with,” Lehmann said of the 2004 Australia team that included seam trio McGrath, Gillespie and Kasprowicz as well as legendary leg spinner Shane Warne and batters the calibre of Hayden, Langer, Katich, Clarke, Martyn and Gilchrist.
"We had guys that were prepared to change the way they played from Australia to the subcontinent - that was probably the key.
"(They were) happy to sweep, change, go forward, go back, probably the biggest thing was their decision making.
"They were confident in their decision making on the subcontinent.
"That's always the toughest thing. It's a tough tour, as we know, but decision making is going to be the biggest thing for anyone that plays here.
"You have got to make the right decisions because it (changes of momentum in a game) can happen so quickly."
And as much as the resources made at the Bupa National Cricket Centre and Brisbane and the opportunities for players and squads to gain experience on development and ‘A’ Series tours to the subcontinent, nothing can replicate the pressure of the scenarios or the quality of the opposition that a Test match.
The imperative to adapt or succumb was best illustrated by Adam Voges, Australia’s most prolific Test batsman over the past year, who began his second innings on Saturday as his team hurtled towards defeat with a reverse sweep that earned him a boundary.
"It's probably him going 'I have to change', thinking he can play a certain way and change in other ways," Lehmann said of Voges’ bold and blunt statement that netted him 28 runs during his 90-minute second innings at Galle.
"So, that's learning the game, and trying to adapt.
"Being proactive is the key to having good success in the subcontinent, not being reactive."
It was a shot the 36-year-old has rarely, if ever, unveiled in his 17-Test career to date and one that few Australian batsman had been seen rehearsing in the nets in the weeks leading into the start of this Test series.
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But which were suddenly were all the rage when the squad gathered for an optional training session on the worn centre wicket at Galle, on what should have been day four of the second Test.
And while the playing conditions the Australians encountered on that sweaty afternoon as they tried to fashion a method of dealing with Sri Lanka’s spinners, might have closely resembled what awaits them for the third Test in Colombo the external environment remained vastly different to the intensity of a bona fide international match.
As the tourists noted when their one and only warm-up game for the tour was scheduled against a low-calibre Sri Lanka Board XI – a handful of former and aspiring internationals interspersed with some club cricketers – on a pitch at Colombo’s P Sara that was one of the few on the island carrying green grass.
While Australia’s win in a touch over two days, by an innings and 162 runs, might have done good things for many of the tourists’ first-class statistics, it provided little meaningful preparation for the conditions or the opposition that awaited in Kandy and Galle.
"We didn't have the tour-game prep we would have liked, but that is probably the best way to do it," Lehmann said today when asked how realistically the challenges of the subcontinent and the pressure-testing of players’ game plans can be conducted outside of Test matches.
"But (with) men around the bat (because) you can't have people in the nets, someone will get hurt.
"So you have all those health and safety issues as well.
"Batting under fatigue, batting long periods of time in the nets, things like that.
"(But) really, there is still no consequence in the nets if you get out.
"You can make them come out of the nets (if dismissed while practising) and we have done that before but, at the end of the day, it's game time that will get you the consequence."