Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Final Frontier: Not as elusive as it seems

35 years without a win is a long time in sport. After Bill Lawry’s team conquered India 3-1 in 1969-70, Australia had to wait until late-2004 when Adam Gilchrist’s men broke the drought and conquered what Steve Waugh termed the “Final Frontier” with a 2-1 win.

These two statistics are well known to most watchers of Australian cricket, and are often cited to illustrate the difficulty of conquering the subcontinent. From the sheer magnitude of the timescale, it’s easy to feel that some kind of Herculean team and performance is required to win. After all, it’s unfathomable to comprehend Australia or England not winning an Ashes series on foreign soil for over three decades.

However, the irregular scheduling of Test matches in yesteryear has caused a statistical imbalance of matches that has falsely magnified Australia’s inability to win in India. Whereas the Future Tours Programme now stipulates that every country should play a home and away series against every other team in a cycle of five years, this has not always been the case.

In the 35 years between Lawry and Gilchrist, Australia played only 16 Tests in India. In the last 36 years, Australia have played 55 Tests on English soil, yielding four times as many opportunities withing the same timespan. Going 18 Tests without a series win is what happened on the Australian campaigns of England in 1977, 1980, 1981 and 1985. When Allan Border’s men won in 1989, 14 years after Australia’s last series win in the Old Dart, the triumph was not regarded as one that had transcended generations of struggle, unlike the Final Frontier of India. The Final Frontier defied Australia for two fewer Tests, but the fact that the 16 Tests were spread over an extra 21 years made the drought appear rather paleolithic.

The statistical count of Australia’s performances in the 16 Tests-two wins and seven losses-paints a misleadingly poor picture of Australia’s ability in India. Since Lawry’s conquest, Australia toured India five times until it won again, in 1979-80, 1986-87, 1996 (a one-off Test), 1997-98 and 2000-01. Only in the last decade has Australia toured regularly. Prior to that, they toured twice in 27 years, and those two sides were in no way representative of that period of Australian cricket.

From January 1971, when Ian Chappell became captain, until 1984-85, when Allan Border was thrust into the top job amid Kim Hughes’ tearful resignation, Australian cricket was generally in two disparate modes. Under the leadership of the Chappell brothers, Australia was successful, but when they were absent, the green and gold were regularly blown away.

After suffering a loss in his first Test as captain-the last match of the 1970-71 Ashes-Ian Chappell ensured that Australia never lost a series under his watch. After five years at the helm, Chappell handed the reins to his younger brother, having recorded three wins for every defeat and re-established Australia as the premier team in world cricket.

Greg Chappell continued where his elder brother left off, crushing the West Indies 5-1 on home soil in 1975-76. Australia continued to win more than it lost, before the wheels came off amid the most dramatic upheaval in the history of modern cricket. Long-simmering resentment over meagre renumerations resulted in the majority of the Australian team signing with Kerry Packer’s rebel World Series Cricket. The news broke during the 1977 tour of England, breaking the team into loyalist and rebel factions. Clashes between the players and management reportedly bordered on violence and it was announced that the WSC players would be banned.

With almost all of their first-choice players gone, Australia drafted the 41-year-old and retired Bob Simpson to lead the team against an Indian touring side untouched by WSC. India had previously played nine Tests on Australia soil, losing eight and never tasting victory. The depleted Australians managed only to scrape home 3-2, an ample demonstration of how badly the defections had bitten. The hosts were lucky to avoid a 5-0 whitewash, winning their matches by two wickets and 16 and 47 runs respectively, while India’s wins comprehensively secured by 222 runs and an innings respectively.

The Australians were soon exposed, however, losing eight of their next 13 Tests. During this time, Simpson was replaced by Graham Yallop and then Kim Hughes. Hughes then took Australia on a six-Test tour of India, their first since Lawry’s triumph ten years earlier. Australia rarely troubled the hosts and were flattered by a 2-0 loss, cushioned by rain-affected draws. It was part of a 19-Test run that yielded only three wins.

Immediately afterwards, the WSC players resumed their places in a reunified Test team following a rapprochement. Highlighting the weakness of the establishment team, only four of Hughes’ Indian tourists pulled on the baggy green during the summer. Under the younger Chappell, Australia again won more Tests than it lost, but when Hughes led the team during Chappell’s self-imposed breaks, the situation was reversed. Hughes had the worst winning percentage among Australian captains who have led for more than six matches, winning only four from 28.

At the end of the 1983-84 season, Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh all retired. Australia had lost the world-record holders for most Test wickets and wicket-keeping dismissals, and its finest batsman. Thereafter, Australia went on a unprecedented barren run, playing eight series without success, totalling 33 Tests with only three wins and 14 losses. Nine of the defeats were dreadful maulings by an innings or ten wickets. It was without doubt the weakest side in Australian history.

In 1985-86, amidst the calamitous run, Australia were exceedingly lucky to deny India a maiden series win in Australia. The tourists took first innings leads of over 130 in each of the three Tests; in the Second Test, rain curtailed the final day’s play with India 67 runs from victory. In the Third Test, Australia were six down and still in the red when time ran out, having being forced to follow on.

The following year, the much-maligned Australians toured India. Border’s nondescript men took an 147-run first innings lead in Madras, but were unable to ram home the advantage, and the match ended with the second tie in Test history. The series remained deadlocked 0-0 after a washout and a dead pitch in the last two Tests.

After this, Australia did not play another Test in India for ten years, when Mark Taylor’s side lost a one-off match in late-1996 to inaugurate the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. During this period, Simpson became Australia’s coach and they broke through to win the 1987 World Cup. The Test team gradually improved, and after winning 4-0 in England in 1989, they became consistently successful once more, vying with the West Indies for supremacy before regaining the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1995.

Thus, in the 27 years after Lawry, Australia were usually in the top two or three countries except the two years of WSC, and roughly six years following the triple retirements of Chappell, Marsh and Lillee, when they were shambolic amid extreme circumstances. But the two tours of India during this time coincided with these two dark periods, being entirely unrepresentative of Australian cricket over this period. From 1970 until the mid-1980s, Australia’s most prominent players were the Chappells, Marsh, Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Allan Border. All bar Thomson are inductees of the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. However, due to the WSC interregnum and the mass retirements in the early 1980s, only Border toured India at all from 1970 to 1987. Imagine a team without its two best pacemen, two best batsmen and wicket-keeper. Imagine how Australia would have done in India without McGrath, Gillespie, Gilchrist, Hayden and Steve Waugh. As this year’s comprehensive 0-2 defeat showed, they would probably have been beaten comprehensively.

Since then, Australia has played in India with teams more representative of its general strength. In 1998, Taylor’s men returned to India as the world’s leading team. However, they were met by Sachin Tendulkar, who was at the peak of his powers and comprehensively dismantled Warne.

Australia took a 71-run first innings lead in the First Test in Chennai, before Tendulkar bludgeoned an unbeaten 155 in the second innings to leave the tourists looking to survive on the final day. Hindered by several umpiring decisions that prompted Wisden to say “three decisions were harsh and the fourth dubious”, Australia fell to a 179-run defeat. The hosts then sealed the series by slaughtering Australia by an innings at Eden Gardens. They amassed 5/633 while Australia managed only 414 in two innings. Australia then took the final Test by eight wickets. Tendulkar scored 446 runs at 111.50 in leading the way for the hosts. The loss was Australia’s only series defeat under the five years of Mark Taylor’s captaincy, aside from a 1-0 defeat in Pakistan when Australia lost by a single wicket.

Australia returned in 2001, confident that it could conquer the Final Frontier. Steve Waugh had developed Taylor’s world-leading team into a ruthless unit that had secured 15 consecutive Test victories. Anticipation was rife that this would be Australia’s breakthrough. They extended their run to 16 with a crushing 10-wicket win in the First Test in Mumbai. When they took a 274-run first innings lead and enforced the follow-on after India had insipidly folded for 171, it appeared that the Final Frontier would collapse in a landslide. However, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid batted for the entirety of the fourth day in a legendary partnership of 376, before Harbhajan Singh bowled India to a dramatic final-day win. It was only the third time that a team had won a Test after being forced to follow-on. Heading into the Third Test in Chennai, Australia were in a good position at 3/340 before Harbhajan terminated the innings at 391. India then took a 110-run lead and required 155 for victory in the final chase. After a late collapse, they stumbled home by two wickets, with Harbhajan striking the winning runs.

Victory was so close yet felt so far away. Taylor and Waugh presided over times of plenty for Australia, but were never to win in India. That the loss in India stood out among their multitude of wins elsewhere magnified the aura of elusiveness. When juxtaposed with Australia’s other victories, it had everyone concluding that to win in India required performances that transcended generations.

But they were highly competitive and had their chances in all but the Calcutta slaughter of 1998. In 1998, Tendulkar played a dominant role, and in 2001, Harbhajan took 32 wickets at 17, series-winning performances that can rarely be repeated. Coupled with Laxman and Dravid’s once-in-a-generation partnership, Harbhajan ensured that Australia lost a match that was seemingly unloseable. Without it, Australia could conceivably have swept the series 3-0. How many other times has a team won a Test series when their second most successful bowler has collected only three wickets? How many times can a team score in such a manner on a fourth day Calcutta turner? It was a truly remarkable Indian performance that denied Australia for three more years.

Yet Australia had won 3-0 at home just over a year earlier. This disparity between the scorelines exacerbated the impression that winning in India was like a sprinter trying to win on Alpe d’Huez or Asafa Powell running in a marathon. However, had Australia scored just 20 more runs in Chennai in 2001, it could have been 2-1 and the perception would be vividly different.

The breakthrough finally came in 2004-05. After easily winning the First Test by 217 runs, Australia were on the back foot in the Second Test in Chennai. India needed 229 to level the series, but a monsoonal downpour washed out the final day. After Sourav Ganguly mysteriously withdrew prior to the Third Test, the leaderless Indians were crushed by 342 runs and Gilchrist had conquered the Final Frontier.

Although 35 years appears an eternity, the breakthrough came after four series defeats, which in regular scheduling would occur across a 16 year period. Of these failures, the first was primarily due to the decimation of WSC, while the second was during a genuinely bleak period following a generational changeover. A quarter century of players never had a meaningful chance to conquer India. It was only 28 years after Lawry that Australia had their next real chance in a full series, and after two narrow series losses, they broke through. Under Ian or Greg Chappell, or Allan Border in the early 1990s, Australia would have mounted a strong challenge, but these men never had an opportunity. Given the amount invested into computer analysis in modern cricket, it’s astounding that so many people imagine an Australian victory in India as an Everest. While the players have a motivation to do this in order to colour their performance in a brighter light, it is hard to comprehend how independent commentators can come to the same conclusion.

And so to this year’s tour, which Australia lost 0-2. After appearing set for substantial lead in the First Test in Bangalore, some stubborn rearguard batting saw India to safety with relative ease. Apart from that, Australia rarely looked like getting the necessary 20 wickets for any reasonable cost needed for victory. This has led to substantial fears about Australia’s future prospects.

In the aftermath, many have optimistically pointed to the fact that Australia went 35 years without winning in India, so therefore it is no disgrace for Ponting’s men. These people point to the case of Steve Waugh, who otherwise reigned over a period of domination that was unprecedented in the history of cricket. The loss in India was a mere interruption in this domination, so they argue that other losses will be similarly anomalous. The observation about Waugh is correct, but his team was highly competitive. Australia only had four series in India during the winless period. Taylor’s men were competitive, and Waugh was not far from whitewashing India had things gone his way, before Gilchrist broke through. Ponting’s campaign resembled 1979-80 and 1986-87 in that Australia struggled to find any openings. As Hughes’ team were depleted by defections, the only time Australia looked so placid in India was during the nadir of the mid-1980s.

It’s incorrect to disregard the result as anomaly due to the disparity in playing conditions, as during this period, Australia struggled to beat touring Indian sides notorious for their utter impotence on foreign soil. The WSC-depleted team won 3-2 in Australia, but all three wins were nailbiters, while the two Indian triumphs were comprehensive. The two series in the 1980s were both drawn, with India having substantially the better of the play in the latter.

This doesn’t mean that Australia will hit rock bottom like the mid-1980s, as India are a lot stronger than they were in the 1980s and beating them is more difficult. But it does show that results in India aren’t as much of an outlier as is commonly presumed. Being competitive and winning in India has been a real prospect for any good Australian team, and had every good Australian team had a chance to play in India, the Final Frontier would not have lasted 35 years.


Anonymous said...

One of the best pieces of analysis i've read about australia's performance in india. It's more fun for the journalists to adopt a sensational stance towards everything, keeping perspective out of the equation.
Having said that, a lot of india's home victories can be attribted to dubious umpiring and ridiculous surfaces

YellowMonkey said...

Yes, in years past, home umpiring has been pretty abominable form all reports. It just goes to show how good the 1980s West Indies were to conquer all countries regularly, even with umpires that may be biased towards the local team.

straight point said...

i laugh at the cricketing wisdom of man who says ridiculous surfaces when obviously referring to spin...

BTW good post YM some times the stretch of time makes it bit hard to look at obvious facts...

Anonymous said...

It was a solid analysis YM and dispelled some pretty popular cricketing myths. As detailed as it was, you could have put the icing on the cake by comparing India's home Test series results with other teams of the 1970's and 80's.

I also second Straigh Point's comment that it is silly to equate spinning pitches with bad surfaces. I would be hard pressed to find anybody who can objectively explain why a bouncy Perth or swinging Headingly is "better" than a turning Calcutta pitch.

In fact, former England cricketers and writers always go on about how during the uncovered pitches period, 10 fielders around the bat while Laker was bowling his offies made for some of the most fascinating cricket they have ever seen.

By the sake token, I have never heard the Aussies ever say that the SCG or Adelaide Oval have "worse" surfaces than the GABBA or WACA, particularly the New South Welshmen and South Australians.

Anonymous said...

Straight Point and Gizza, your point is taken that a spinning track is not automatically a bad track. An underprepared track that breaks up in the middle of the 1st session is though. The difference between that a quick Perth wicket is that the latter still affords attractive stroke-play letting attacking batsmen with good technique score big, the former turns the game into a lottery with deliveries shooting along at ankle height. The Mumbai track in the 2004 tour where India won the last game to end the series 1-2 is exhibit A.

Damith S. said...

oh ok, no worries then.

btw a very good analysis, never thought of the 'final frontier' in this light.

the 35 yr thing certainly has been misleading.

Anonymous said...

What is puzzling is why the BCCI and CA did not schedule more tours by Australia between 1970 and 1996. Hughes did well to only lose 0-2 and Border did well to draw in 1986. Very good article, well written and includes all pertinent points. Why don't you write with this type of fluency and succinctness on WP? Phanto

Anonymous said...

You make a fair enough point donthaveaclue. Pitches like Mumbai 04-05 are stretching it. But I still think non-Asians most of the time unjustifiably blame the pitches on the subcontinent.

I guess that the media and other commentators have improved in recent years though. I didn't notice anybody complaining about Mohali or Nagpur. In fact, they were more often than not called extremely flat pitches and yet India managed to capture 20 wickets on both! Winning the toss may have helped, but the Mohali win was so huge that India would have won that one regardless. Nagpur could have been drawn.

Also maybe statsguru can prove me wrong, but I believe subcontinental have historically tended to be batting paradises first and a spinner's paradise second. Pace bowlers, with the exception of skilled reverse swing bowlers, come a distant third.

Anonymous said...

On Mumbai 2004, Sachin still got a splendind 50 and Laxman made a sublime 70 on the same pitch. That's called skill. Something which the Aussies lacked in that pitch. So they lost. Lets not pretend that the pitch took all wickets. A champion team has to face all situations and come out winning - as you noted, the WI teams of the 80's did that. They whipped India in India in 1983. Now thats a champion team - not a bunch of pretenders like the Aussies in 90's and 2000's, miserably flopping in alien conditions.

Whats that about umpiring, eh? How come you didnt m ention it in the context of the 1986 oz series. Some dubious umpiring and Rain helped australia in that seris to draw. But you will only talk about home umpiring being bad in the case of India. Double standards, eh? I dont blame you, though - it is probably the genes.

Anonymous said...

Ponting is rarely out lbw in home series. Sachin was given buttock-before-wicket in Australia. You may say it was a West Indian who did that. But the point is Oz got many favourable decisions when they were dominating. shane Warne used to bluff umpires and that was hailed as a great quality by oz supporters - yeah, if he does it, it is a skill but if others do it, it is bad behaviour.
Should the oz cricket team and fans have DOuble Standards as the tag line?

Anonymous said...

Seems like Raj misunderstood the point of the post, which was not meant to be apologist for Australia but to say that Australia like to moan too much about India