A measured knock from David Warner and some bloody-minded batting from Steve Smith has revived Australia and given them a chance of a comeback win in the first Test in Bangladesh.
Australia’s two most experienced batsmen came together with their side in peril at 2-28 and guided them to 2-109 at stumps, 156 runs shy of victory. In doing so, both altered the way in which they have normally played on the subcontinent.
Warner has perished time and again as a result of trying to force the pace and showing aggression to spin deliveries which deserved greater respect. This impatient approach had been a major factor in him averaging just 24 in his previous 15 innings in Asia – up to yesterday.
The Australian vice-captain remained assertive as he cantered to 75 not out from 96 balls. What was different was the way in which he carefully chose which deliveries to go after. This improvement in approach was summed up neatly by a graphic shown on the TV coverage just before stumps, which divided the pitch into three zones based on length – full, good and short – and displayed that he had attacked 21 of the 88 balls he had faced up to that point.
Those attacking shots were plotted out on the pitch map, showing he had only attacked three deliveries which had landed on a ‘good’ length. Warner had reserved his aggression for balls which were in the ‘full’ and ‘short’ zones, playing nine attacking shots in each area.
As I wrote yesterday Warner’s inability to properly judge the lengths of spinners in Asia has caused his downfall many times. If he can maintain his new approach it will determine not just whether he can become a consistently effective Test batsman, but also whether Australia can pull off what would be an unlikely win.
The Australian skipper is typically proactive against spin, seeking to disrupt the bowler before they can unsettle him. He does this to a large extent via his nimble footwork, skipping down the track to get to the pitch of the ball and drive it through or over the infield. This tactic earnt him countless runs in India.
It also contributed to his demise in the first innings here, when he came down and met a delivery from off spinner Mehedi Hasan on the half volley, only to miss it and be bowled. Perhaps with that dismissal looming large, Smith shackled his instincts yesterday. He barely left the crease during his knock of 25 from 58 balls.
The skipper pared back his game to its most basic elements, concentrating on presenting a watertight defence and looking for opportunities to rotate the strike. Not until he had faced 57 balls did he register his first boundary, a superbly timed drive which skimmed across the turf between cover and mid-off.
Batting like a man interested only in surviving until stumps, Smith achieved that objective and is now in a fine position to shepherd his team towards the difficult target of 265 on a pitch offering plenty of help to the spinners.
Smith can only have hoped that his first drop, Usman Khawaja, had put a similarly high price on his wicket.
He will be a pivotal player at number three for Australia in the Ashes, but Khawaja must be dropped for the second Test against Bangladesh if the tourists are to avoid losing this series.
Western Australian number three Hilton Cartwright should replace Khawaja, who now owns the horrendous batting average of 14 from his five Tests in Asia.
Khawaja has had two brain explosions in this Test, resulting in scores of one and one. In the first innings, he went for one of the most bizarre, suicidal singles in recent memory and ran himself out. Yesterday, he launched an ambitious sweep shot at a Shakib delivery which was not full enough for that stroke and lobbed the ball to backward square leg.
He looks mentally shot and I would expect Khawaja to again fail in both innings should he play the second Test, starting on Monday.
Australia have a great alternative in 25-year-old Cartwright, who averages 52 in first-class cricket and was impressive in Australia’s recent trial match in Darwin, making 81 on a spinning track in the first innings.
Cartwright is untested in these conditions, having never played a red-ball match on the subcontinent, but in Darwin he played spin the way he has in the Sheffield Shield – with calculated aggression.
This is just how Bangladesh opener Tamim Iqbal combated the touring tweakers yesterday en route to an invaluable knock of 78.
Tamim was the only Bangladesh batsman who looked at total ease against Nathan Lyon and Ashton Agar. The Australian spin pair bowled noticeably quicker than their Bangladeshi counterparts, but they also found testing lengths.
Lyon’s match haul of 9-161 was just reward for a consistent display across both innings. Agar, meanwhile, could not quite match Lyon’s accuracy but completed an encouraging return to bowling in Tests, taking 5-101 for the match.
They aren’t finished yet though, with both likely to be needed to contribute with the bat if Australia are to win. Agar, in particular, could have a major influence today if he can bat with the same composure he showed during his fantastic dig of 41 not out from 97 balls in the first innings.