CricViz analyst Ben Jones profiles Australia’s pace attack.
The left-armer Mitchell Starc is the leader of the attack for Australia. Starc’s 148 Test wickets are bettered only by Nathan Lyon among current Australian bowlers. Starc is the fastest bowler in the CricViz database (minimum 10 Tests), which extends back to the start of 2006, with an average speed of 142.27 kph. Starc exploits his terrific speed by bowling an aggressive, full length. Indeed, 36% of his Test deliveries are full of a good length, the most on either side. Not only does Starc bowl full and fast but he swings the ball as well, finding 1.05° of movement in the air (global average 0.95°). By pushing his length right up, he targets the stumps with astounding accuracy which make his pace and movement even more deadly – giving him an average of 23.12 from full deliveries and bringing him 46% of his wickets bowled or lbw. This toe-crushing method of attack has meant that his record is superior against left-handers averaging 24.61 compared to 29.71 against right-handers – typically for left-arm quicks, this is the other way around. Interestingly for a bowler of such high pace, Starc’s averages 60.94 with balls pitched shorter than 8 metres from the batsman’s stumps.
Arguably the most pivotal member of Australia’s likely seam trio is Josh Hazlewood. A classical stock bowler, Hazlewood bowls an astonishing 43.70% of his deliveries on a good line and length (global average 32.70%). Hazlewood gets the ball to swing 0.91° (global average 0.95°) and seam 0.55° (global average 0.61°) – both less than the global average which shows accuracy to be his main weapon. The vital function he performs is one of controlled attack, taking wickets at an average of 25.85 runs per dismissal, whilst still bowling the vast bulk of the overs. Since he made his debut against India at the end of 2014, Hazelwood has bowled 33% of Australia’s pace deliveries, 10% more than anyone else. On top of this, he maintains the attack throughout the innings, with only Bird averaging less with the old ball (overs 65-80). Hazlewood’s versatility allows Australia’s four-man bowling attack to function without the need for a genuine fifth bowler. Since the start of 2016, Australia’s “fifth” bowler has delivered an average of 84 balls per match, the third fewest of any Test team – this strategy largely works because of Hazlewood’s endeavour.
Pat Cummins made his debut for Australia in 2011 but a terrible injury record meant he had to wait until March this year for his second Test and as such is yet to play a Test in Australia. Cummins is a tearaway fast bowler whose reputation as being one of the quickest bowlers in the world precedes him – only Starc averages more than his 138.32 kph in 2017. However, while Starc pitches the ball up, Cummins bangs it in, pitching 45% of his deliveries short (global average 32.5%). The combination of high pace and short bowling make Cummins a classic enforcer bowler who looks to take wickets rather than pressure the batsmen into mistakes.
Cummins has taken the new ball in all five of his Tests and with an average of 18.83 in the first 15 overs of the innings it is likely he will share it with Starc, who forms a neat counter-balance to Cummins’ method of attack. No player on either side takes a higher percentage of their wickets LBW or bowled than Starc, while no one takes a lower proportion than Cummins.
With James Pattinson ruled out of the series with injury Australia’s main reserve pace bowlers are the metronomic Jackson Bird and uncapped swing bowler Chadd Sayers. Sayers, who was the leading wicket-taker in the 2016/17 Sheffield Shield plays for South Australia at the Adelaide Oval and is thought to be a possible selection for the pink ball Test in Adelaide. Elsewhere Bird is Australia’s premier replacement bowler and provides good cover for Hazlewood as a tireless and probing bowler with a Test average of 27.57 from eight matches.
Injury problems notwithstanding, Australia’s attack has all the makings of the perfect pace unit. Starc bowls full and quick, Hazlewood nags away on a length, and Cummins batters you with bouncers. In principle, it’s ideal. The issue for Australia is keeping those four together.
On average in 2017, Australia have only needed to bowl 86 overs in an innings, while the average England batting innings has been 82 overs. Australia should be able to sustain that kind of workload, but if England keep them out in the field for prolonged periods, then the four-man attack without even a part-time bowler of note to call upon, may start to struggle.
Bird is clearly a solid Test performer, but within this bowling unit his skillset is only really suited to replacing Hazlewood – the loss of Cummins or Starc would make a substantial difference to the balance of the attack.
Of course, many are touting this as the best Australian pace attack in a decade, and they may win enough Tests before Christmas to be too worried about workloads. Nevertheless, the fact that durability is their key weakness, rather than the bowling itself, is a bad sign for England.