India can still take the series

The India v Australia Test series has been set up for the remainder of the rubber quite beautifully thanks to Australia’s comprehensive win in the Pune opener.

India began by losing the toss on a dry, excessively spin-friendly surface, but after bowling Australia out for 260, the hosts’ WinViz moved up to just shy of 80%. This looked reasonably justifiable given the Indian batsmen’s renowned prowess in their home conditions and, it appeared, no obvious match-winning spinner in the Aussie ranks.

But the extraordinary events of day two: India all out for 105, Australia 143-4 for a lead approaching 300, turned the match unexpectedly and decisively. WinViz had moved in one way only during that second day, and by the end of it Australia were 88%.

There was to be no twist in the tale on Saturday as the slow left-armer Steve O’Keefe once again proved Australia’s hero. He took his second six-wicket haul of the match and Australia won by 333 runs without recourse to days four or five. O’Keefe had cobbled together 14 wickets from his first four Tests. Now he has 26 from five and presumably heads to the Bengaluru Test this coming Saturday with a rare old spring in his step.

For every bit as brilliant as Australia were in Pune, India were very, very poor. The first thing they got wrong was the wicket, for this was a virtual dustbowl, full of cracks and loose clods of earth being dislodged from the opening exchanges. It is detrimental rather than helpful for India’s chance to play on tracks like this, and after the events of last week we surely won’t see another one like it for a long time.

The pitch held out for about an hour before the first signs of excessive turn and bounce emerged, but when the opportunity came, India did not bowl or catch as well as Australia did when it was their turn in the field.

Of the 40 wickets that fell in the match, 30 went to the spinners, of which all but three were to good-length deliveries. In other words, 67.5% of wickets were off good-length balls bowled by spinners. But, how often were the five spinners in the match finding a good length?

Interestingly, all of them radically improved their lengths in the second innings. But it is notable how poor Jayant Yadav’s control was in the first innings, while the most dramatic improver was Nathan Lyon (56.0%-87.6%, reflected in figures of 1-21 and 4-53 respectively).

This table shows the % of each spinner’s deliveries on a good length, in the first innings (first row) and second innings:

Ashwin
65.1%
78.6%

J Yadav
51.8%
70.5%

Jadeja
63.2%
79.1%

—————

O’Keefe
64.6%
74.4%

Lyon
56.o%
87.6%

Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are skilful enough to regularly bowl well over 70% of deliveries on a good length but it was a clear failing that they didn’t manage that until the second innings.

Incidentally, perhaps the reason why good-length deliveries were so much more effective for the spinners is that batsmen were pretty much looking to play back all the time and read the turn off the wicket. To do so against good-length spin bowling as opposed to back-of-a-length bowling is that much tougher.

Though the game was ebbing away from them by the time India started dropping catches in the second innings (Steve Smith three times, Matt Renshaw once), these failings served to drain the last vestiges of hope for the Virat Kohli’s men.

Australia’s players celebrate the crucial wicket of India’s captain Virat Kohli on the third and final day in India

One thing I want to look at in this match is the issue of luck. Some Indian fans were most insistent that Australia’s batsmen were more fortunate than India’s, and when covering day one for CricViz I did find myself looking up how many times players were missing or edging the ball without being dismissed.

So here is another simple table showing the percentage of balls edged or missed by the batsman in each innings who survived the most balls.

Renshaw
16.0%

Rahul
8.2%

Smith
16.3%

Pujara
8.6%

Perhaps there is some credence then in the theory that the cricketing gods did not look particularly favourably on India. However the old adage of “making your own luck” rings true to some extent. Notably, there were those dropped catches by India already detailed; in addition Yadav contrived to bowl David Warner on the first morning with a massive no-ball and there were plenty of questionable tactical decisions made by Kohli, not least the decision to take the new ball on the first evening against the free-hitting Mitchell Starc.

I would be reasonably confident that India can do the minimum required to come back and win the series now. It won’t be easy. They can do no worse than draw one and win two of the remaining Tests so pitch preparation will be vital. It would clearly be dangerous to replicate Pune again and lose the toss, while any wickets that are too flat and bring the draw strongly into the equation must also be avoided.

Whatever they say in public, Australia will certainly be unusually bullish about their chances. But Steven Smith’s leadership skills will surely be tested if India mount a strong response in Bengaluru this coming weekend. India need to improve sharply in all departments of their game – but they certainly have the capability to do so, and WinViz is sure to start in favour of the the home team on Saturday.

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