CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde previews a hugely important Test series between Australia and India.
The bigger the opportunity, the steeper the fall. India’s upcoming four match Test series against Australia—shorn of two of their greatest batsmen and shaken by scandal—is a monumental opportunity for the number one ranked team in the world to win their first ever Test series on Australian shores. So too though were India’s series away to South Africa and England earlier this year and despite India playing well in unfamiliar conditions they have left those series with just two wins in eight Tests and are still without the precious away series victory in a SENA country (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) that many believe this Indian team capable of and that has the potential to define Virat Kohli’s captaincy. It is this history and expectation that weighs heavy on this Indian team and now, after defeats in South Africa and England, a year which started with so much promise and expectation is in danger of becoming a paradise lost.
Even before the ball tampering saga eyes were trained on this series as one where an unusually well-balanced Indian team—possessing a battery of pace bowlers to match their batting firepower—could potentially end their Australian hoodoo: they have won none of eleven away series. The absence of Steve Smith and David Warner has turned what would have been a monumental challenge for India into a once in a generation chance. Between the start of 2014 and that fateful Newlands Test match in April Smith and Warner scored 35% of Australia’s runs in Test cricket, comfortably the most by any team’s leading run-scorers in that timeframe. Australia have been heavily reliant on Smith and Warner for a number of years now and their bans have thrown a generation of unfulfilled talent and young pretenders under the spotlight. In Australia’s first Test since Smith and Warner’s bans against Pakistan in October, they fielded a top seven with a total of 106 Test matches between them—Australia’s least experienced top seven in any of the 421 Tests since World Series Cricket. With debutant Marcus Harris expected to replace Marnus Labuschagne in that top seven for the first Test (and possibly Peter Handscomb for Travis Head) Australia’s batting remains alarmingly short of experience and pedigree. Runs—and where on earth they are going to come from—has defined Australia’s build-up and is one of the major themes that will shape the series.
Yet, as vulnerable as Australia appear to be, the fact remains that winning Down Under is one of the toughest tasks in cricket. Since 1990 Australia’s home win percentage of 68% and win-loss ratio of 5.45 wins per loss are comfortably the highest of any home team in this period. The strength of Australia in modern-times is of course a significant factor in this record but conditions also play a big role. Ostensibly conditions in Australia are unremarkable: the ball swings (0.65°) and spins (3.59°) less than the global averages (0.93° and 3.88°) but hot weather and hard pitches mean the ball also bounces a lot (86 cm from a good length compared to the global average of 80 cm), and bounce—unlike swing and spin—requires an adjustment in length from bowlers (the average length in Australia is 7.11 metres from the stumps compared to the global average of 7.30 metres) and forces batsmen to re-calibrate footwork and start leaving balls on length rather than line. These are unusual changes to make for players more attuned to lateral than longitudinal tweaks. In Australian Tests home pace bowlers typically bowl 35% in the full length range compared to 30% for away bowlers who opt instead for a more traditional good length. It is a small, but telling, difference.
For Indian players these changes are particularly extreme. In almost every regard conditions in Australia are the opposite of those in India where the bounce is low, the ball spins and batsmen very rarely play off the back foot. A ball on a traditional good length passes the stumps at a height of 86 cm in Australia—the highest in the world—but in India it passes the stumps at just 69 cm—the lowest in the world.
India will be taken out of their comfort zone in this series and their success will likely be measured by how well and how fast they can adapt. Since the start of 2014 only Pakistan and Sri Lanka have bowled a shorter average length than India (7.39 metres from the stumps) – they will need to push their natural length up; and in the same period only Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and West Indies average less with back foot shots against pace than India (36.03) – they will be tested with the short ball. The role of India’s spinner—especially in the absence of Hardik Pandya’s balance—will be hugely significant. Pitches in Australia are flat enough that the stabilising presence of a spinner to help rest the quicks is vital, but the pitches provide so little assistance to the spinner that succeeding in the role is immensely difficult. For spinners the emphasis is on fuller lengths and overspin rather than sidespin, to utilise the extra bounce rather than look for spin that is rarely there. Nathan Lyon is an immensely valuable cog in Australia’s four man attack; Ravichandran Ashwin will need to improve on his dismal record in Australia.
Adapting to increasingly extreme conditions is arguably the greatest challenge in modern Test cricket. England’s stunning recent victory in Sri Lanka showed what is possible when teams adapt quickly and completely. In South Africa and in England, India’s batsmen and bowlers adapted but Kohli-aside, they were slow to do so and it cost them dearly, losing the first two Tests on both occasions and regular team changes only complicated the learning process. India cannot afford to make the same mistakes again because this time, for this team, there will be no more second chances: it is now or never.
Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz. @fwildecricket