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Australia’s Christmas Go-Slow

Ben Jones looks at how India have choked Australia’s run rate and ‘bowled dry’.

This isn’t how Boxing Day Tests are supposed to go. This is meant to be Australian pageantry, dominant home sides stomping over the opposition, pulling sides apart with 130-ball tons. It’s meant to be Bay 13 crowing, baying for blood, teams going 3-0, 4-0 down, careers ending and spirits breaking. 

It isn’t supposed to be this. It isn’t supposed to be the hosts, stuck to their crease, stumbling along at 2.4rpo, hoping to crawl past 200.

India have absolutely choked Australia with the ball throughout the entirety of this Test. Australia’s run rate in this game, has been anything but festive. Indeed, you have to go back to 1988 for Australia to score slower in an MCG Test, when the West Indies arrived and rolled the hosts for 242, 114. Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall, Patterson. Decent company. 

And yet, this isn’t new. In fact, this is exactly what happened on India’s visit to Australia. The series run rate for Australia so far this summer – 2.64rpo – is exactly the same as the 2018/19 tour, two series which stand as the slowest scoring home summers for Australia this century. Nobody has limited modern Australia quite like this Indian attack.

The leader of that attack is, without question, Jasprit Bumrah. We talk a lot about pace and fire as prerequisites for success in Australian conditions, and while speed is important, it isn’t alone enough. Unless you’re Mitchell Johnson or Mitchell Starc, controlling line and length is still key, even in Australia. Bumrah has arguably achieved that control better than any visiting quick in Australia in a generation. 55% of his deliveries in Australia have been in the channel outside off, more than the vast majority of touring seamers since such data was first recorded in 2006. The handful of guys ahead of him, placing more deliveries on this line, are all slower than him. Matching that pace with that control is not easy. Plenty of greats have tried.

For all Bumrah’s obvious dominance on both this tour and the last, the supporting cast have been superb. Mohammed Shami was magnificent on the last tourl as was Ishant Sharma, and their absence here could have been a hammer blow to India’s chances – but the backups have stepped up. Mohammed Siraj has grown into the Test wonderfully, finding his spot with greater precision and getting up to speed with Test cricket far quicker than may have been reasonably expected. His first spell on Day 1 was a touch wild, never quite settling on the right zone, only 44% of his deliveries on that good, inbetween length, but the next time he bowled that rose to 55%, stayed at 52% in his following spell, before rising to 71% in the next. That final burst saw just 6 runs in 24 balls off Siraj’s bowling, the newcomer learning his lines, and slotting into place. No let up.

The spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, have more than done their bit. The sight of Australia being swamped by quality spin and unable to get the ball off the square is nothing new, but it tends to be a sight saved for Asia, not home soil. 45% of India’s deliveries in this Test have been from the two spinners, a figure larger than you’d imagine was initially planned, boosted by the injury to Umesh Yadav on Day 3 afternoon. Being stranded with only two seamers in Australia could have left many captains at panic stations, but Ajinkya Rahane rarely looked bothered. In the absence of Umesh, Ashwin and Jadeja sent down 33 overs for just 71 runs, economy rates of 2.00 and 2.5rpo respectively. Nine of the 25 runs Jadeja conceded came from his last over of the day, Pat Cummins and Cameron Green popping him over the top for a flurry of boundaries, but until that point he had kept things perfectly tight. 30% of his deliveries across this Test would have hit or clipped the stumps, a figure which on some Australian wickets would invite concern, but on an MCG pitch which has taken spin from Day 1, it’s been highly effective.

The nature of pressure in cricket is we rarely remember it building, but we always remember it telling. When England won in Australia in 2010/11, they bowled superbly throughout the series, the oft-mentioned replacement of Steven Finn by Tim Bresnan the ultimate testament to their strategy. England ground Australia down through persistent, dogged control of the run rate. At the time, Australia’s 3.08rpo run rate in the 2010/11 Ashes was their lowest in a home series this century. 

Yet the moment which sticks in the memory most, understandably, is that Boxing Day collapse, when England stormed the castle and Australia fell to 98 all out, a decade ago this week. Check social media and England players continually laud that day as the peak of their careers – of course they do. You can bowl as many restrictive spells as you like, but ultimately, there’s nothing quite like rolling them out.

What’s been so impressive about India’s recent bowling record on these shores is that they have never really had their Boxing Day 2010/11. Last time was outstanding, when they bowled Australia out for 151 in the corresponding Test, on a dead MCG wicket, but in that instance the damage had already been done by the batsmen; 169 Australian overs in the dirt, Pujara’s 106 (319), was the defining image of the game, India grinding a world class bowling attack into the ground. Outstanding bowling from Bumrah, taking 6-33 in just 16 overs, and a spell which shouldn’t be underestimated anywhere, least of all here. But it was different.

No, India’s greatest achievement is not a single day of celebration, but the application of constant, heightened pressure every time they go out to bowl. Not once, on these two most recent tours, have they let Australia bat them out of a game in the last two tours. Across six Tests, Australia’s highest score is just 326, the only time they have passed 300; consistently, through injuries and fatigue, India’s bowlers have kept a lid on Australia. Only two of their bowlers have averaged over 30 in these last six Tests on Australian soil: the part-timer Hanuma Vihari, and Umesh Yadav, who has at least played a handy role with the old ball. Everyone has contributed in this collective pressure.

Last time, India’s competitiveness with the ball was more than partially blamed on the absence of Steve Smith, but we’re halfway through this tour and he’s yet to reach double-figures. Perhaps now it’ll be blamed on the absence of David Warner, perhaps rightly so, but we’re rapidly running out of explanations other than India’s excellence with the ball. Perhaps it’ll take the return of Warner, and for him to struggle equally alongside his teammates, for the asterisk to be totally erased from these Indian bowling performances. Not that it should.

India have, out of nowhere in the aftermath of the 36 all out, found a foothold in this series. It is not inconceivable that they come back and leave Australia as winners, and it’s even more believable that they leave with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy regardless. The reason for that is that India, in the absence of days where they scythe through Australia’s batting order, have found a template of control, economy, and patience,

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Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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