The First Test between Australia and New Zealand at Optus Stadium showcased some fine short-pitched bowling. Patrick Noone analyses the role the bouncer played throughout the contest.
Short-pitched bowling in Perth is nothing new. The old WACA ground had a well-earned reputation for being one of the fastest, bounciest pitches in world cricket. It was a haven for fearsome quicks – Dennis Lillee in one era, Mitchell Johnson in another – the scene of many a batsman ducking and weaving to take evasive action as ball after ball reared up off the unforgiving surface.
Optus Stadium, Perth’s new venue, does not yet have the same storied history as its predecessor across the Swan River, but this week’s First Test between Australia and New Zealand was perhaps the first chapter of what will become the second part of Perth’s love affair with the bouncer. In all, 21 of the 31 wickets to fall to seam in the match were from short balls. Since 2005, when our ball-tracking records began, the 2013 Ashes Test in Brisbane is the only Test on Australian soil in which as many wickets have fallen to seam with a higher percentage coming from bouncers.
Neil Wagner is no stranger to the short ball and is arguably the world’s pre-eminent exponent of the craft. Since the start of 2016, he has taken 75 Test wickets with the bouncer, more than any other fast bowler in that time. The conditions at Optus Stadium were made for him and he delivered, sending down an eye-watering 60 overs in heat close to 40°C, picking up seven wickets, five of which came from short deliveries. In total, Wagner bowled 193 short balls throughout the match, more than any bowler has ever bowled in a single match in Australia since records began.
That said, Wagner’s performance was not merely a bouncer barrage; he is a smarter bowler than that. The left-armer opted for a more conventional strategy on Day 1 when the pink ball was hard and new, pitching just 14% of his deliveries short in the first session of the match and picking up the wicket of David Warner with one of the fullest balls he bowled. As the match progressed and cracks began to open up on the Optus Stadium pitch, Wagner dragged his length back further and further until he was bowling short 86% of the time during his final spell on the fourth morning.
Wagner also turned to the bouncer more often during the night sessions, bowling short 72% of the time under lights, compared to 61% during the first sessions of the day. It was a trend that was followed by the seamers on both teams throughout the match as the overall short ball percentage shot up to 61% during the final sessions, having been consistently around 48% for the first two sessions across each of the four days.
That trend was something of a surprise, with the conventional wisdom being that the pink ball is more likely to swing and seam under lights and therefore pitching it up would be the logical tactic in order to exploit that extra lateral movement. The short ball tactic was perhaps driven by the match situation – only on Day 2 did a team have the new ball at the start of the night session, meaning that each side had an older, softer ball with which to attack during the ‘witching hour’.
Despite ultimately suffering a heavy defeat, New Zealand will be encouraged by the fact that their plans to Steve Smith were effective. Smith was dismissed in both innings by a Wagner short ball, on each occasion picking out a fielder with a pull shot. It’s not a shot that usually causes the former captain much strife – his first innings dismissal was the first time he’d got out on the pull since March 2017 and even now he still averages 72.66 when playing the shot, but Wagner was twice able to hurry him into playing the false stroke.
It’s too early to say whether the Black Caps have unearthed a true weakness in Smith’s game, but there are signs that he is playing the short ball less effectively than he used to. Up until the point he was struck on the neck by Jofra Archer at Lord’s, Smith averaged 93.66 against short-pitched bowling. Since then, that figure has dropped to 40.00 and three of his five dismissals against seam have come from short balls.
Conditions at the MCG for the Second Test will likely be very different to those seen at Perth. The temperature will surely be lower, the pitch will almost certainly be slower while batting under lights will not be a factor in Melbourne. It could all mean that the short ball tactics seen in the first Test were a one-off in terms of the series, but they will surely be a key feature in future Test matches at Optus Stadium, as the new ground begins to a build a similarly daunting reputation to that of its predecessor on the other side of the river.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.