Australia: Focussing on Sydney with an eye on Nagpur
"Come on, get moving."
"Come on, get out of it."
Steve Smith was speaking to his right index finger. Quite literally. The premier Test batter had copped a painful blow to it very early on during his hit in the net on the eve of the third Test. It was a length delivery courtesy head coach Andrew McDonald's sidearm that had reared off the pitch and smashed into his glove. It had resulted in Smith taking his glove off and chucking them away and wincing in agony for a brief while. He would then jump right back in and powered on through the discomfort. Even if the vital finger on the bottom hand of his grip was throbbing every time he had to try and force a length delivery, at least for the following 15-20 minutes.
By the time he'd moved to the corner net and started to will his index finger back out of its numbness, Smith had changed tact in terms of what he was looking to achieve from the nets session. It was no longer simply about preparing for the first Test of the year at the SCG. Even if at one point he was squared up completely by Michael Di Venuto and his off-stump knocked back, leading to him going, "that'll mean an extra 20 minutes now".
Smith's attention and focus had shifted entirely by now to the challenges that potentially lie ahead beyond the next five days, especially those in India starting next month. All around him the other top-order batters in the Test team, including one who's returned to the setup and is likely to play a key role in India, were doing the same. While Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne were busy exchanging notes on how best to execute a sweep shot from outside off-stump, Matt Renshaw was busy negotiating spin with a new-ball. It seemed pretty obvious that Australia were using the Sydney Test as the perfect dress rehearsal of sorts for the four-Test series that starts in Nagpur a month and a day after this is scheduled to end.
After a few deliveries to get his finger moving again, Smith had walked down to the other end of the pitch, scratched the surface with his spikes and created a virtual 'rough' area for McDonald to then chuck some off-breaks at. This was ironically the same net at the SCG that India had used two years prior to prepare for Nathan Lyon. On that occasion, playing McDonald's role was Washington Sundar, who'd incredibly go on to play the final Test of that dramatic series at the Gabba.
Much like what Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara had done back in 2020, this was Smith beginning to work out ways to not just potentially counter R Ashwin bowling into similar spots once they get to India. But also the possibility of having to do so against Simon Harmer in Sydney over the next five days. Especially considering the belief in the Australian camp that the pitch here will start breaking up in the early going with the spinners expected to have quite a say for a change during an SCG Test. It's been the case through the Sheffield Shield season and as even Pat Cummins put it during the press conference, it works out perfectly for an Australian team on the cusp of a subcontinental challenge.
"It's a huge connection to India. Fast bowling and reverse swing is going to come into it, which we can expect in India. Probably get more spin overs here, our batters are probably going to face more spin here as well. So it's a really good connection. Even personally captaining here might be a little different to the last few Test matches. So, it's a really good prep," is how the Australian Test captain put it.
"Whatever you do there's going to be strong connection to india, which is nice. it's not by purpose, it's just worked out that way," he added.
Smith would have spent close to 20 minutes battling away against deliveries that behaved and misbehaved in interesting fashions off the rough area. There were some that jumped at him, which he tried to pull his gloves away from. There were some that skid through which he tried to contend with by keeping his bat and pads very close to each other. There were a couple of inside-edges that popped up where a virtual short-leg would have been, much to Labuschagne's excitement in the adjoining net.
The No 3 was himself in the middle of a prep session against an oldish ball and would be the last to leave as per norm. There also seemed to be an obvious keenness to start staying lower in the stance, even while facing Di Venuto or McDonald with the sidearm. The kind of adjustments you are expected to make as you move from the bouncier pitches of Australia to the ones on offer in the subcontinent.
Khawaja meanwhile was spotted spending quite a bit of time facing a semi-old ball and a lot of off-spin. Including a period when he spent 10 minutes or so practicing only the sweep shot. Sweeping off different lengths and off different lines. He also ended up having a lengthy chat with Di Venuto about what seemed like his footwork against spin, especially when going back in his crease.
There were others signs too that the Australians are focused on Sydney but have their eyes set on India even a day prior, during their first training session of the year at the SCG. Starting with the fast bowlers in particular running in with older and more scuffed up balls.
Cummins and Lance Morris in particular steamed in relentlessly for nearly 45 minutes with a reverse-swinging ball that poor Travis Head and Labuschagne had to somehow find a way to contend with. It wasn't easy or straightforward and it's safe to say that the fast bowlers ended up with a majority of the bragging rights. Cummins though was constantly in Labuschagne's ear about the extent of late movement he was able to generate but also the exact timing of the reverse swing. He also seemed chuffed with how the ones he was getting to go away from the right-hander in the direction of the shiny side did a lot more than the one that was dipping back in.
Scott Boland and Josh Hazlewood had had a go with it prior to them. Boland in particular was unplayable at times as he got the ball to repeatedly land on those really challenging lengths and while getting the ball to go reverse. Imagine having to face Boland when he's getting the ball to move late and then getting it to seam off a length. Alex Carey tried but after a point just resigned to being beaten repeatedly. And he seemed rather chuffed with himself when Smith replaced him and was beaten all ends up. "Look, even the best in the world can't play that," Carey chimed in with a chuckle as Smith looked on in awe.
Reverse swing will after all play a big role during the Indian tour, especially in a couple of the venues, starting with Nagpur. And Cummins spoke about the impetus on getting better at it as well, considering the impact they had with reverse swing in Karachi and Lahore last year.
"I think we're decent. It's something that does take a bit of practice. Mitchell Starc is really good, it's something that comes really natural with his action. for me and Joshy (Hazlewood) it just takes slightly different mechanics. It takes a bit of practice but we've been practicing this week and we've got a fair lead in to India so we'll get plenty of practice before there too," he said. There was also a hint that Lance Morris might be on the flight to India, not just as the Wild Thing but as someone who could potentially cause wild havoc with the reverse-swinging ball owing to his extra pace through the air.
"Think everyone is pretty capable of it. Scotty and Joshy are fantastic reverse swing bowlers. Lance has that point of difference in speed. Whichever way we go they'll be great at it. If Lance plays, 150kph whether the pitch is flat or the ball is swinging he'll be a handful," said Cummins.
There's also been talk in the Australian camp about the strategic element to playing and winning in India. And how the conditions in Sydney this time around could help them plan around it, whether it's how they set up a Test or if it's about trying to play catch-up.
And while winning in Sydney will guarantee Australia a spot in the World Test Championship final, ticking a few boxes designed for India along the way would make it a perfect start to the year for Cummins & Co.