Freddie Wilde examines the detail behind Australia’s innings and 80 run defeat in Hobart.
Cause and effect
Attention will understandably focus on Australia in the aftermath of their staggering defeat in Hobart but history should not allow the narrative of this match to be dominated by Australia’s incompetence because South Africa’s bowling was nothing short of outstanding. In helpful conditions South Africa’s seam bowlers produced one of the standout Test performances in recent times and were backed up brilliantly in the field – their PlayViz fielding score of +100 is the second best we have recorded at CricViz since launching last October.
The conditions in Hobart – a green pitch, cloudy skies and intermittent rain – were perfectly suited to South Africa’s seam attack of Vernon Philander, Kyle Abbott and Kagiso Rabada, but the bowlers still had to exploit those conditions and they did so in remarkable fashion.
Foundational to South Africa’s success in both innings was the accuracy in length of their three seamers. They bowled marginally fuller in the first innings—average length 6.79 metres from the batsman’s stumps—compared to the second innings—average length 6.97—but in both innings they bowled a large majority of deliveries in a three metre range, understood as a ‘good’ length, between five and eight metres from the batsman’s stumps and crucially they did so despite rarely over-pitching and releasing pressure.
In the first innings they landed 76% of their deliveries in this five to eight metre range and in the second 70% – the proportion of deliveries they over-pitched in each innings was 7% and 8% respectively. Australia almost matched South Africa’s ‘good’ length delivery proportion, landing 69% there but over-pitched 14% of the time.
The three horsemen
While in both innings South Africa bowled the majority of their deliveries full, giving the ball a chance to swing and tempting the batsmen to play forward, each of the three seamers adopted subtly different lengths. Philander and Abbott both assumed similar strategies, namely looking to bowl a consistently full line and length, but Philander, a slightly shorter man than Abbott, hit a shorter length in both innings, 7.49m and 7.42m, compared to Abbott’s 6.41m and 6.83m. Rabada meanwhile assumed the traditional role of the enforcer, coming on after the two metronomes and bowling with a hint of extra pace—85.57mph and 88.02mph compared to the high 70s and low 80s of Abbott and Philander—and mixing his length more regularly.
First Innings: The perfect storm
South Africa’s general strategy in the first innings was beautifully simple. The conditions were so perfectly suited to seam and swing bowling that—and this takes nothing away from the skill they displayed in exploiting those conditions—they had to bowl full, tempt the batsmen forward, and let the pitch do the rest. In the first innings Philander found, on average, 0.65° of swing and 0.98° of seam movement, Abbott 0.90° and 0.72° and Rabada 0.71° and 0.65°.
There was of course more to South Africa’s bowling than just bowling full: they made subtle adjustments in line, length and angle within their specific batsmen-specific plans, but as broad plans go, this was chillingly straighforward. The brilliance of South Africa’s bowling, and indeed the ineptitude of the Australian’s at playing it, meant that no adjustments or alternatives were required. Australia played and missed, edged, gloved or were hit on the pad to 19% of the deliveries they faced.
Comparing Australia’s bowling performance to South Africa’s in the first innings is instructive. Australia’s seamers actually induced a higher proportion of false shots—20%—than South Africa, but, as the graph below illustrates, despite finding as much movement they bowled slightly too full to cause the same damage.
Second Innings: Turning to Plan B
In the second innings there was slightly less lateral movement on offer, with only Rabada finding more seam and none of them finding more swing than in the first innings. As a result of this all three of them pulled their length back slightly on the first innings and Rabada and Abbott turned to the short ball more often which worked brilliantly, illustrated by the pitch maps below.
Adam Voges was enticed into a pull shot to a ball too wide to pull after consistently being dragged onto the front foot and Peter Nevill was unable to get on top of a climbing bouncer. Two balls prior to uncharacteristically following a moving delivery outside off stump Steve Smith was roughed up by a well-directed short ball while Callum Ferguson erroneously ducked into a full ball, expecting something shorter.
While the ball was still seaming and swinging, and a number of wickets were taken thanks to this—Australia actually played and missed, edged, gloved or were hit on the pad to 27% of deliveries in this innings—that South Africa also took wickets with short deliveries showed the versatility and intelligence of their attack and rounded off a quite phenomenal performance.
Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz, follow him on Twitter @fwildecricket.