If there was a way to lose the first Test of the home summer and still exceed expectations, Tim Paine’s side did so in Adelaide. Sure, had they got over the line in their stoic final day run chase, they would be the toast of the nation. This isn’t that. But they do travel to Perth enhanced in belief and reputation, in no small part due to the way they conducted themselves throughout.
“It was played in good spirits,” the Australian captain said of the 31-run defeat, that for about half an hour on the final afternoon was building to an epic conclusion before the last wicket fell. “Today was a nice snapshot of the way we want to go about it. We fought really hard and never gave in, you don’t have to talk rubbish and carry on like a pork chop to prove that.”
After the year that has been for Australian cricket, they are words that ring true. Paine is ever mindful that the team he has inherited are far from the finished product and there is no glossing over the inexperience of the top six and their shortcomings in Adelaide. However, the path to becoming a serious contender is one that he can increasingly identify.
“If you want to be a good team you have got to be hard to beat,” he said. “Today we were hard to beat. We made India work really hard. I think we made them work harder than they thought they were going to have to work. But sitting back now it is a huge opportunity because we didn’t cash in in the first innings.”
Reducing the No 1-ranked team in the world to 41 for four on the opening morning, after being asked to field in blisteringly hot conditions, is evidence of that. Just as it was in Abu Dhabi in October, early gains from the bowling staff were not capitalised on. “We didn’t have batters out there when they were tiring,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to take.”
As has often been the case over the last 12 months, Australia’s lower-order excelled with the bat, not least Nathan Lyon who finished the match with an unbeaten 38 to go with his 24 not out in the first innings. The off-spinner doubled down on his preparation with the blade over the winter months in Sydney with his brother Brendan, a professional batting coach. It paid off here just as it did in Dubai where he was instrumental to that impressive drawn effort.
“Those four together you can see how much playing for Australia means to them,” Paine said of his bowlers. “Whether they’ve got the bat, ball, in the field, you can’t question the four guys’ commitment. They have a red hot crack for every single ball. That’s what we’re building to. That’s the style of cricket we want to play. They’re some of our more experienced players, I think the more they do that, the more it will rub off on the rest of this group.”
Casting forward, concerns about Paine’s battered right index finger, which has been operated on seven times in the past and was struck again on the final day when batting, were assuaged. “It’s fine,” he replied succinctly when asked if it was going to prevent him from playing on Thursday. The squad, he reiterated, remains as named with no changes under consideration.
Where a tweak could be made, however, is to the batting order. Before play, coach Justin Langer opened the door to Aaron Finch shuffling down to a position in the middle order with Usman Khawaja promoted back to the opening position where he excelled in Dubai. “We haven’t spoken about that just yet but Justin is the coach and he’s got a fair say so I imagine if he wants to talk about it it will be on the agenda when we get to Perth,” Paine noted.
As for Shaun Marsh, his second-innings 60 may have been undone by a superb piece of bowling by Jasprit Bumrah not long before lunch – ending an innings that looked destined for three figures – but it didn’t detract from Paine’s pride in the maligned 35-year-old. “I just love the way that he keeps coming when everyone writes him off,” he said. “We spoke about it last night, he just keeps coming back and turning up and battling as hard as he possibly can and that can be really hard to do when you are always under the pump from you guys and always under the pump from the public and it just shows who strong a character he is.”
Another man under the spotlight during the Test was Mitchell Starc after a ropey spell with the ball on Sunday. But there is no sign from Paine that his attack-leader will be demoted to first-change duties. “He didn’t set the world on fire but I think for a long time there’s been a really big gap between Starcy’s best and his worst and from what I’m seeing that is getting closer and closer every day,” he said. “So yeah was he at his best? Probably not, but I still thought he played his role really well.” He added: “In Perth, the conditions will suit him down to the ground. It will be swing and from what I’m hearing the wicket is going to be really fast.”
In signing off, Paine forecast a tight overall result: “We’re in for a really tough four-match series and we expect it to be a real arm wrestle.” What’s certain is if they can find a way to keep this alive to Melbourne on Boxing Day or even Sydney, it will contribute a considerable amount to the healing of Cape Town.