Aaron Finch had a befuddling start to his ODI series in India, right at the press conference room in Hyderabad on the eve of the first fixture. He was met with a verbal beamer from a reporter, who quizzed him with a straight face: “Are you the real captain or a stop-gap arrangement before the Pakistan series?”
The uncertainty around this situation – when a lot of focus is on the returning duo of Steven Smith and David Warner – is not new for Finch. Back in 2016, he was six T20Is into the leadership role in the shortest format when he was dumped from the post in favour of making Smith the all-format skipper.
Smith taking over at the 2019 World Cup isn’t possible, with Cricket Australia having barred him from a leadership role for another 12 months after the completion of his ban. In that light, Finch’s recent failures with the bat has garnered more focus, when a lot of questions have been asked regarding his place in the side. But, Finch, who’d shown signs of improvement in Nagpur, saw the next available opportunity – and the bare brown strip at the JSCA International Sports Complex in Ranchi – and made a bonfire of any speculations.
Just a day after throwing its weight behind the squad by not making a change for the Pakistan ODIs in UAE, Cricket Australia found two of its top-order batsmen highly receptive to the support.
Usman Khawaja‘s year since Australia’s forgettable tour of South Africa has been topsy-turvy. The 31-year-old invested in a gym at his residence to literally train the house down, lost seven kilos and worked hard to impress new head coach Justin Langer in the aftermath of the ball-tampering saga. And yet, he found himself out of the reckoning in Langer’s first ODI assignment – a tour of England in June 2018.
But Australia indulged in wholesale changes to the make-up of the team in the home series against India in January this year, where Khawaja returned and batted well enough to retain his place for the reverse fixtures.
With the clock winding down on the multi-team event, Khawaja still seemed to be a big knock away from fully convincing the selectors to put their faith in him, while Finch too needed one fine outing to put a lid on the rut.
The pressure, though, was on from the outset. India came armed with homework and funky field placements for Finch, alternating between having a short mid-wicket and a silly mid on a la Mohammad Abbas during the second Test in Dubai last October. Finch got two early fours to calm some nerves, but India kept hitting hard lengths to keep him on his toes for the next two overs.
The form that Finch has been in, made it tougher for him to break away or even keep turning the strike over as he looked set to be tumbling towards another disappointing outing. But, his confidence took a dramatic upturn once Shami limped off after being hit on his right shin off a Finch straight drive. The result was Virat Kohli having to turn to his spinners early – a move that also benefitted Finch’s opening partner.
Khawaja adopted the reverse-sweep approach against Ravindra Jadeja and came away with good results, while Finch took aerial aggression to Kuldeep Yadav. And suddenly, after a groggy start, Finch and Khawaja found a plan to work with. Or ‘instincts’, as Khawaja puts it.
“There was no set plan. It was just the feeling out in the middle. Instincts. When a bowler comes on – you feel like he can take him. When Kuldeep came on, I knew he [Finch] knew he was hitting to the short side with the spin. When he took him on that first over, it was obvious he could clear the rope pretty easily with that short boundary.
“So as soon as I got any strike, I was just trying to get a single and give him as much strike as possible. That’s just a partnership – it’s how you work as batsmen, you sort of understand what the other guy is trying to do. I think Finchy was the same with Jadeja, probably a bit harder for him to go harder at Jadeja at the start – and I probably took a few more risks then. It’s just working at that together,” Khawaja said.
One of those risks could’ve easily ended Khawaja’s innings at just 17 runs, if Shikhar Dhawan could’ve held onto a regulation catch at point. Dhawan blinked, and Khawaja continued to hit – his control only getting better with every attempt of a reverse sweep. For Finch, the favour came from Kuldeep’s decision to bowl too full to him, negating any bit of turn that he would get on the lifeless pitch.
More bowling changes were sought, perhaps to stem the sudden flow of runs. But the move an had exact opposite effect. By the time Kedar Jadhav was on in the 15th over to confuse and frustrate with his low-arm action, Finch was in the mood to force India’s sixth bowler out of the attack straight away. The Australian captain faced eight of the 12 balls that Jadhav would bowl in the day, smashing him for a four and three sixes and crippling India’s bowling options going forward.
Vijay Shankar was relatively successful in keeping the runs down, and yet brought no wicket-taking threat as such as Finch and Khawaja paced along at more than six-an-over. Kohli’s hope for a bit of order with Shami’s return from the injury, in the 20th over, too didn’t materialise. As Kohli was forced to play Russian Roulette with his bowling options in a desperate search for a breakthrough, Finch and Khawaja coolly walked past the highest partnership for Australia since the start of 2018 (130 runs).
“We weren’t thinking too far ahead. We were just going with the flow. The runs were coming in patches and we were just enjoying being out there. Finchy was batting beautifully. He’s obviously had a lot of talk about him and he showed his class out there. When Aaron Finch is firing, Australian one-day cricket is usually going pretty well,” Khawaja said.
“He sort of got his freedom back a little bit, he hit a big six – which you’re used to seeing Grinchy do against the spinners. Especially [in] that cow corner sort of area, that’s hit spot and he did the same thing again today. You know when he’s playing shots like that he’s feeling confident, taking the calculated risk that he needs to perform. You see that in batsmen, when they’re playing a bit more free,” Khawaja said.
The insouciance of Finch lasted until the 32nd over, when Kuldeep had him trapped leg-before. A three-digit number would’ve looked good as a shackles-breaking knock after scores of 22, 5, 41,11, 6, 6, 14,0 and 37 since his century in June 2018, but he had to settle for a 99-ball 93. India would’ve hoped to crank up the pressure and catch Khawaja short of his maiden ton once again, but there was no such luck in store. Khawaja treaded cautiously through the nineties and saw through it to get to a 107-ball 100.
“It was satisfying because I’ve worked really hard over the past year to get back into the one-day side. With my fitness… day in, day out I’ve put in the extra yards. And it was really satisfying just coming back into the one-day side after all that hard work I’d put in. It’s even nicer now to get that first 100 and get that win,” Khawaja said.
For now, the pair can sleep well knowing that they’ve got a monkey off their backs. But with a World Cup title to defend in less than three months’ time, they’ve only just taken a step in the right direction.