Nine consecutive Test match losses in Asia. One series win in India in 48 years. Opponents boasting 19 Tests without defeat, and six consecutive series wins. Few Australian captains have faced a contract as tough as this, but Steven Smith prefers to look at the satisfaction to be derived from what could be one of the most unexpected triumphs in all Test history.
Three years and 20 Test matches into his Australian captaincy, Smith has enjoyed numerous highs at home but also the humiliation of a series sweep at the hands of an unfancied Sri Lanka and a ruinous loss down under to South Africa. That last result forced a change in Australia’s selection philosophy, and Smith’s squad arrived in India featuring a notably younger combination than the one so outsmarted by Rangana Herath and company last year.
“You probably learn more from losing games than you do from winning, so I guess the last year has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride in regards to results,” Smith said in Mumbai. “I think this team has come a long way. We are learning a lot, we are willing to put in the hard work to try and get the best out of ourselves and the best out of the team. I am happy with where everything is at the moment.
“Obviously this is going to be a very difficult tour and I am excited by that challenge. All of the guys are really excited about what’s to come in the next six weeks. It’s a great challenge to play here in India. We know that if we can pull something off and win a series here, we will look back in 10-20 years and it will be some of the best times of our lives.”
Australia’s two most recent Asian efforts, in Sri Lanka and also in the UAE against Pakistan in 2014, were characterised by an apparent lack of understanding for the right tempo required to excel in such climes. Smith said that as a captain he needed to show an ability to attack and defend at the right times. Similarly, his batsmen and bowlers had to know the right moments to hold their ground, or alternatively put the pressure on India.
“For me, it is about understanding the different times of the games,” Smith said. “I think there are times in the game when you can attack a lot more and times when you need to defend a little bit and just let the game sort of take its course for a little while and try to keep things quite tight. When you get a sniff really go for it.
“I think that’s an important aspect of the captaincy here in India. It is about knowing the right periods and timing the periods right – when to sort of take the foot off the pedal and to really go hard as well. I think I learnt a little about that in Sri Lanka. You don’t want people to change their natural games. It is always important to be positive and look to score. I think the moment you just start defending then you are probably in trouble.
“You have to have that mindset to look to score, but ultimately your defence is what helps you out when you are in trouble. It is going to be important that our defences are strong against not only the spin bowlers of India, but they have also got some good fast bowlers as well that present a good seam, can swing the new ball and very good reverse as well. Defence is going to be incredibly important for us in this series with the bat.”
Steven Smith has said Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon have been working on adapting their bowling to Indian conditions, focusing more on accuracy and maximising natural variation rather than beating batsmen in the air with topspin © Getty Images.
While India have lately been an intimidating proposition for any bowling line-up, Smith expressed confidence that in Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon – plus other spin options including Ashton Agar and Mitch Swepson – he had a combination capable of taking 20 wickets. All have the benefit of knowledge gained on previous trips to Asia, and Starc’s destructive efforts in Sri Lanka, where he lacked support, have not been forgotten.
“I am confident, I think we have got a good mix of bowlers,” Smith said. “Guys that are working hard and learning to adapt to the way you need to bowl in these conditions. I think it is totally different to back home in Australia where you need to get up and over the ball and do guys in the air rather than off the wicket.
“It’s important here to make sure you are bowling consistent areas and letting the wicket do the work and getting the natural variation out of the wickets. Guys have worked hard on that and I think we are in for a big series. Hopefully the guys can build enough pressure and get the ball in the right areas enough and hopefully we get the right rewards.
“I think reverse-swing is going to be incredibly important in this series as well. Our two big quicks – Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc – are very good reverse-swing bowlers. They relish the challenge of playing against the best players in the world, and India have some incredibly good batters. So they are excited by the challenges of playing here as well.”
No series between Australia and India seems to pass without some sort of verbal confrontation, and on this front Smith stated he would allow his players to decide what works best for them. There can be little doubt that the wicketkeeper Matthew Wade will have plenty to say, though the approach taken by Smith’s deputy David Warner will intrigue.
“I think each of our individuals play the way that they play,” Smith said. “If they want to get into a battle verbally, if that gets the best out of them, then go for it. It’s all about us making sure as individuals we are in the right mindset to go out there and succeed. In the end it’s about us playing on skill and making sure that our skills are in the best place for us to succeed.”
Smith’s tourists have one warm-up match against India A in Mumbai from Thursday, before the first Test in Pune.