If Australia are going to compete against India in this Test series, they need to stop their captain. Ben Jones looks at the data to find out how they can do it.
In 2011, a 23-year-old Virat Kohli toured Australia. He made 300 runs, scored his debut Test century, and announced himself as a player to keep an eye on. It was clear from the way he carried himself, from the technical skill on display while he was at the crease, that India had a prodigy on their hands.
In 2014, Virat Kohli toured Australia again. He made 692 runs, notched up four centuries, and announced himself as one of the finest batsmen in the world. The spectacle of those twin centuries at Adelaide, the pervasive sense of a genius in the ascendancy – that series marked the arrival of Kohli the superstar. He had just taken the first step on a journey to batting greatness.
Four years later, and Virat Kohli is preparing for another Australian Test tour, and another marker in his career. Succeeding in England was presented as the final frontier for the Indian captain, the final question he had to answer before reaching true Test supremacy; he answered that question with aplomb. Whilst the series ended in defeat for his team, not one person watching was left in any doubt over the captain’s excellence with the bat in hand. As his challengers have fallen away, Kohli has moved further and further away from the pack. This time, Kohli arrives in Australia as the greatest batsman in the world.
There are a few moments, in the careers of a few players, when they reach a different level. The bat seems wider, the ball seems bigger, the challenge of bowling to them implausibly hard.
Last winter, during the Ashes, Australia had the benefit of Steve Smith reaching that semi-deific status. They watched as England toiled and toiled, trying everything they could possibly think of to dislodge him. Every new strategy proved only one thing – in that form, the Australian was a class apart. Yet this summer, the tables are about to turn.
The question is on everyone’s lips, from Melbourne to Mumbai. How can Australia get Kohli out?
Because you can’t bowl normally to him. Away from home since that last tour of Australia, he has faced 99 deliveries from seamers on a good length, in the channel outside off-stump. That’s where you’re told to bowl to everyone, good or bad, from the age of 10 till the day you retire. Not one of those 99 deliveries has dismissed him. That kind of record scares bowlers.
Equally, you can’t just bowl fast. Since he last walked out to bat in a Test in Australia, Kohli has faced plenty of quick bowling, bowlers going above and beyond that 140kph mark that is typically acknowledged as truly rapid. But he’s still averaged 57.25 against those deliveries, and scored at over 4rpo while doing so. Bowl like fire, get your fingers burned.
So in the face of that fearsome brilliance, let’s take a logical approach, and try to construct a plan. In 2018, Kohli has played eight Tests away from home. In those matches, he’s had a very similar record against both pace and spin. His dominance hasn’t been skewed in any direction, boosted by pilfering runs against one bowling type whilst struggling against another. In this regard, there is no immediate pattern for Australia to latch onto.
However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. His record against pace and spin may be similar, but he has faced significantly more of the former. In England and South Africa, 84% of the bowling Kohli faced was from seam bowlers, and that is reflected in the frequency of his dismissals. 13 of his 16 dismissals on those tours were from seam bowlers, and within those 13 wickets, there is a discernible pattern. When seam bowlers have pitched the ball full, they have dismissed Kohli every 43 deliveries – all other bowling from the seamers has dismissed him every 159 deliveries.
Of course, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Pitching the ball up has always been a more aggressive tactic. The standard reason that bowlers don’t do it more often is that whilst that length brings wickets, it also brings runs – sure enough, this has been the case for the seamers facing the Indian captain. Even though he’s been vulnerable against that fuller length, Kohli has cashed in when the bowling has been pitched up.
We’re able to reconcile these two figures (the rate of scoring and the rate of dismissal) into a traditional statistic, a straightforward batting average, which gives us an indicator of the risk-reward for each length. What this shows is that regardless of the rapid scoring rate for those full deliveries, they have still been a better overall option when bowling to Kohli. Even to an outlier like the Indian captain, bowling full remains a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
Now, the matches we’re looking at took place in England and South Africa. Those countries are renowned for offering more lateral movement than elsewhere, and some of you may be sceptical that consistently pitching it up is a wise idea in Australian conditions, where the ball generally moves less. It is fair to ask whether the hard Australian pitches, as well as the notoriously ambivalent Kookaburra ball, increase the risk associated with bowling full to Kohli, without increasing the chance of reward.
Well, let’s try and answer that. This year, when the English and South African pace bowlers pitched the ball up to Kohli, the average swing that they found was 1.5°, and the average seam deviation 0.6°. That is substantial movement, testament to the challenge India’s batsmen have faced on their last two tours. However, our data suggests that their torment may not be over; during Australia’s last home series, the three frontline quicks were not far from matching these levels. They found slightly less swing than we’ve seen in South Africa and England, but they actually found more seam movement.
From this we can extrapolate that Australia will be able to be match the threat Kohli has faced from seam movement this year, but not the threat he’s faced from swing. This is important, because whilst the average for all the full deliveries bowled to Kohli was 1.54° swing and 0.61° seam, the average for the wicket-deliveries was rather different.
In other words, the full balls which dismissed Kohli are the ones which seamed more than normal, rather than the ones which swung more than normal. Movement off the pitch, the weapon still available in Australian conditions, has been the primary threat to Kohli. If they bowl full, they can hurt him.
Whilst the length is key, the angle of the delivery is equally important. It’s only a small chink in the armour, but Kohli’s vulnerability to the nip-backer remains clear. He may be imperious through mid-wicket, making bowlers reluctant to drift too straight, but he struggles significantly more against balls coming back into him, than against balls going away.
Broadly, Australia need to pitch the ball up, and get it angling back into Kohli’s pads, a strategy which may leak runs, but one that gives them a chance. Kohli in his current guise has all but mastered classic Test match batting; the greatest chance Australia have, in trying to limit his effectiveness, is to force him into playing differently. Force him to be a dasher, a counter-attacker, and don’t allow him to exhibit that tantric discipline against good length deliveries.
Because for all the talk in Australian cricket over the past few days, this is what aggressive cricket actually looks like. It doesn’t look like a short-leg fielder hiding behind muted stump mics. It doesn’t look like bouncer after bouncer designed to inflict actual bodily harm. It doesn’t actually have to make a sound. Putting the game on the line and asking your opponent to respond; looking the best batsman in the world in the eye, time after time, and asking him to keep attacking; going all in on red, while he goes in on black. That’s ‘hard’ cricket.
In casinos, you’ll find what are known as ‘lurkers’, people who hover around slot machines waiting to take the place of disgruntled gamblers who abandon their losing machines, before taking the winnings that inevitably follow. Australia’s bowlers need to imagine themselves sat at the slot machine, and resist the urge to cut their losses and abandon the plan, because Kohli’s good fortune is finite. In five Tests, James Anderson drew an edge or a miss from Kohli on 48 occasions, with none leading to a wicket. Perhaps on the odd shot he was drawing the bat inside the line; perhaps some of those edges were played with soft hands wide of the cordon. But on numerous occasions, Kohli’s luck came through, and that luck will run out at some point. Australia need to ensure that when it does they’re still sat at the machine, ready to take the winnings.
Paine may not use numbers to convince his bowlers that bowling full is a gamble worth taking, to reassure them that they are onto a good thing as the ball disappears to the fence once again. He may appeal to his players’ egos, to their natural competitive spirit, or use any of the other psychological tricks that the best captains have up their sleeve. The crucial thing is that he has to win this argument, to persuade his men that the normal tricks won’t work, that they need to play aggressive cricket. Hard, but fair. Then they have a chance.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.