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Anatomy of an Indian Collapse

Ben Jones analyses India’s lowest ever Test total.

Cheteshwar Pujara went first. In retrospect, a canary in the coalmine – at the time, it was just a good ball.

Pat Cummins, honing in on the top of the stumps and drawing the outside edge, squared Pujara up. The key to breaking down that infamous defence is to nip in before he’s had chance to lay the groundwork, to build the wall, and Cummins did just that, finding 0.5 degrees of movement off the pitch and away from the batsman. As well as that sideways movement, the delivery skipped low a touch, bouncing about 25cm less than a ball pitching on the same spot moments before. Early in an innings, you can excuse this, and few would suggest Pujara was guilty of anything other than bad luck. A prod on the wrong line, trying to keep a good one out – this happens. You move on.

Mayank Agarwal had, up until this point, been rather fortunate. Mitchell Starc had bowled the vast majority of Agarwal’s deliveries, and had been wayward. Plenty too wide, plenty too straight, had allowed him to leave 15 of the 35 deliveries from Australia’s left-arm quick. Four play and misses suggests it wasn’t all plain sailing, but largely avoiding the Cummins-onslaught was a big win for the opener, quietly stood in the corner of the bar while a fight erupted around him.

Then Hazlewood arrived, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged Agarwal into the thick of things. To fall first ball from Hazlewood represented a waste of that start, a privilege which few would be afforded across the afternoon. Yet getting ‘in’ against Starc may have contributed to the dismissal; the bounce brought by Hazlewood’s high release (one of his more underrated weapons) seemed to catch Agarwal off guard, such was the difference from what he’d grown used to facing. 40cm extra bounce from a good length, accompanied by serious movement – 1.1 degrees of swing in, then 0.7 degrees of seam away – saw Agarwal unable to get out of the way. For the first time since Marnus Labuschagne had been batting with Travis Head on the previous afternoon, Australia moved ahead in the match according to WinViz.

That same shape from Hazlewood did for Ajinkya Rahane. This, perhaps, was the finest of the dismissals, peak-Hazlewood, a machine purring at maximum efficiency. All four of the deliveries he bowled to Rahane swung and seamed substantially, all were on a good length or fuller, but with varied pace and angle of release. The first swung in sharply, then seamed away. The second, shorter and wider, pulled Rahane wider, moving away both through the air and off the pitch. The third was shorter again, but back to the original template shaping in then moving away. Finally, the sucker ball, pitched up fuller than the previous three, that swung in before seaming 1.4 degrees away from the bamboozled batsman, all while threatening the lacquer of the off stump, all at 139kph. Rahane is a seasoned, top class batsman, and one renowned for his work against pace bowling; Hazlewood made him look like a competition winner.

From here, that unmistakable feeling began to grow. Players talk about how a collapse invades the dressing room, growing stronger and more pervasive with every returning batsman, the game being played at a fatalistic tempo. These are the moments when fear and panic starts to place their hands over batsmen’s eyes, to assert themselves as unwelcome guests, to draw the elite of the game away from what has brought them success.

Virat Kohli knows how to counter-attack. ODI cricket may not bring the pressures of a slip cordon, or the moving ball to the same extent, but the mentality – controlled aggression, when possible, and the patience to wait for the moment to attack – is the same. Perhaps that was the thought process that saw India’s captain go after two consecutive wide deliveries from Cummins, looking to punish a rare error. The first narrowly evaded the man at gully, and squirted away for four, but the second found him, Cameron Green taking a sharp, low catch. Good captaincy from Tim Paine, and bowling to a plan perhaps, but this was not a batsman’s resolve dislodged by a quality delivery. This was a rash shot, by a captain on the brink of departing the tour, in the middle of a collapse.

At this point, India’s lead stood at just above 70, and for all the onslaught Australia had delivered, the visitors were not out of the contest. Wriddaman Saha and Hanuma Vihari are solid lower order players, and more than capable of resisting, of scrabbling back up the ledge. Even a fifty-partnership would have left within tail-end swipes of a workable; memories of Sam Curran at Edgbaston could have acted as inspiration, not simply another example of dominance given up. India’s attack is excellent. Hope should not have been lost.

However, with the collapse swirling around them, clear thinking seemed beyond the men at the crease, as Saha followed Kohli, sprinting head first into a trap. Hazlewood and Cummins had continued to dig a trench on a good line, but had also been gently holding their lengths back, before Hazlewood pushed one up and invited the attacking shot. Saha duly obliged, and lobbed it to short midwicket. In fairness, India’s keeper does not have a workable record against good length bowling in Test cricket, an average of just 10 suggesting he would not have had the defensive technique to survive long, and so attacking the pitch-up ball has a coherent internal logic. But also, when your side are 26-6, taking a breath, and hanging on in there, is no bad idea.

A loose, attacking shot from India’s keeper, when India needed resolve; remind you of anyone?

Ashwin’s shot – he only needed one – was limp. Most things can be excused on your first ball, but on a day where Australia honed in on off stump so expertly, to nick off against a delivery almost 30cm away is a frustration. Vihari was the last hope, a barely present straw to clutch at, but a hope nonetheless. As it was, this was the moment things switched from farce, back to masterclass, as Hazlewood found that template once again. Swing back into the right-handers? 0.5 degrees, check. Seam away? 0.7 degrees, check again. That last recognised batsman swatted aside with a final piece of magic.

31-9. Game, set, match.

The fact that the innings ended not with a wicket, but an injury to India’s best bowler in the match, was an undignified ribbon around a gift of a performance. When India had Australia 111-7 in the first innings, they did not need excellence to win the Test. Competence, with bat and ball, was likely to be enough to convert their outstanding early work. They were unable to provide that competence.

To flip the camera around for a second – Australia truly were superb. On the first day, faced with a pink ball that would not swing, they switched to accuracy as their primary weapon; today, they took that strategy, and perfected it. Across the innings, 48% of the deliveries bowled were on a good line and length, the fourth highest figure Australia have recorded since 2006, when such data became available. Hazlewood in particular was a man in his element, his own percentage up to 60%. No Australian seamer in our database has ever matched this level of accuracy with Hazlewood’s pace.

Of course, to bowl any Test side out for under 100, you have to be good, and you have to be lucky. Australia were both. India edged the ball 13 times; six of them led to wickets. Only three times since 2006 has that ratio been more skewed in the direction of the bowlers, and away from Indian batsmen. In essence, their edges have almost never gone to hand as often as they did today.

But these are quirks dressed up as explanations. In the face of good bowling, but reasonable conditions, India collapsed far, far more easily than is justifiable. There was an average of 0.6 degrees swing this afternoon during the collapse, and the same amount of seam movement. Both were well below the match average, and while the bowlers exploiting the movement happened to be among the most skilful in the world at doing so, this was not Lord’s 2018. There was no hooping swing, no jagged seam, just quality bowlers sitting on a good line and length, with subtle variation. That can be enough to dismiss any batsman, on their day – but not every batsman, inside half an hour.

India have now won just five of their last 36 Tests in ‘SENA’ countries. That’s a record stretching back nearly a decade, a period when their financial dominance of the cricketing world has fully established itself. If that is excusable due to an initial lack of quality seamers, then the current frustrations should be even greater. India’s pace attack is among the best in the world. That won’t be the case forever. India should be in a rush.

Repeatedly, India have made errors in selection early on in overseas tours. The selection of Kuldeep Yadav at Lord’s in 2018 still stands as the nadir, but they are littered through the recent overseas failures. The selection of an out of form Prithvi Shaw is questionable, but may be vindicated over the coming weeks; ditto the selection of Saha over Rishabh Pant, perhaps more concerning given the likelihood of a low scoring Test made lower order runs more likely to influence proceedings than usual. India have enough inherent quality that they will compete in these matches, both with bat and with ball, but the sense of a truly great side in waiting has dissipated, and too often that’s a result of odd selection errors which place them on the back foot before they’re up and running in a series.

They will have chance to recover in the series. Three more Tests which should operate at a slightly calmer tempo may get the best out of their batsmen, but right now that seems far-fetched. Without their leader, and with Amazing Adelaide II ringing in their ears, India’s batsmen need one of the great collective turnarounds in mentality and performance.

They’ve got a week.

***

Ben Jones is analyst at CricViz.

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