A lot has been said about the new Perth Stadium. It’s been criticised for being soulless, a homogeneous bowl as far removed from the romance of the WACA as one can imagine. In some respects, it’s a fair assessment – the sheer size of the place makes it almost impossible to fill – but today it played host to a stunning day of Test cricket. For a day at least, the Perth Stadium was a furnace.
For the first two hours, nothing could have gone better for Australia. Their tail had wagged, lifting them to a healthy 326, and when asked to take wickets in the short session before lunch, their quicks had responded. With the last ball before the interval, Mitchell Starc had produced an absolutely sublime delivery to remove Murali Vijay. Full, swinging in and beating the straightest of bats from the Indian opener, it was a statement delivery from a bowler who looked below par at Adelaide. According to CricViz’s Wicket Probability, on average it would take a wicket every nine balls, making it the third most dangerous delivery bowled in the match so far. To produce that to an opening batsman just before lunch is the opening bowler’s dream. There was a tangible sense around the Perth Stadium that this match was hotting up.
After the break, Josh Hazlewood removed KL Rahul with another full swinging ball, another moment of excellence from the Australian seam attack, but it was the defining moment of the day for a reason less pleasant than they’d hoped. It brought Virat Kohli to the crease.
Australia have publicly acknowledged a willingness to bowl full and straight at Kohli early on, to try and expose a weakness outlined on this site before the series. It was in evidence today, Paine’s bowlers keeping an extremely tight line to the Indian skipper. In the first 30 overs, Kohli’s first 50-odd deliveries, just 6% of the balls he faced from the seamers were wide outside off-stump. Three of the first ten he faced would have hit the stumps. Australia weren’t playing a waiting game. They were at him, and up for the fight.
But so was he. Four boundaries in his first ten balls did nothing to turn down the heat. In those two overs, India’s WinViz rose by 6%, which feels like a lot, but you’d be hard pressed to find a single Australian fan watching those shots that didn’t feel their heart sink as the ball flew to the boundary. It was a statement that directly countered Starc’s opening wicket. If you come hard at us, we’ll go hard at you. It took 30 deliveries, and 45 minutes, before Kohli played a false shot. It was remarkable.
Kohli was making his usual choice to bat out of his crease as a means of negating lateral movement, but he was doing it to an almost comical degree. His average strike point to the seamers across this series is 2.16m away from his stumps. In the CricViz database (2006-present) no visiting batsman has ever batted further down the track in an Australian Test series. To do that, when the opposition are all bowling over 140kph, is bordering on ridiculous. This attack is arguably the fastest Australia have ever fielded, and Kohli is walking towards them. He is on a different level to everyone else right now.
At the other end, it was a different story. Pujara may be known for his resolute defence, but that was being tested – to a serious extent. In the ten overs after lunch, he played 24% false shots. Cheteshwar Pujara, the second coming of Dravid, was edging or missing every four deliveries. That doesn’t happen very often.
Australia’s seamers were gambling again, bowling 43% of their deliveries full, not getting drawn in by the pace and bounce of the surface. Pujara averages over 50 against the short ball in the last 18 months away from home – the danger area, even on this pitch, was right up in his half, and Australia barely moved from it. Yet somehow he survived, clinging on by his fingernails, scoring at just 1.58rpo in the session. He went in undefeated at tea, and that was all that mattered.
Because his presence meant that Australia were were forced into a tactical withdrawal against Kohli. Faced with India’s No.4 racing along as if wearing a blue shirt rather than a white one, Australia knew they had to take a backwards step. After tea, 25% of their bowling to Kohli was wide outside off, playing on his patience rather than challenging his technique directly. His scoring rate fell to 2.62rpo, but just as importantly he was only playing 10% false shots, the average for all others in the Test being 19%. He was slower, but considerably more solid.
What India managed to do, particularly after Rahane replaced Pujara in the middle, was pick precisely the right moment to attack. Kohli in particular was exceptional in this regard, refusing to get drawn into loose shots with unclear foot movement. He and Rahane scored almost all of their runs when the Australian attack erred too short or too full. They were exceptional.
Truthfully, Tim Paine could hardly have asked more from his bowlers. They performed superbly. Their Expected Wicket Sum (according just to the ball-tracking data) was 8.09 – i.e. if they had bowled the deliveries they bowled today to the average Test batsmen, they would have taken eight wickets rather than three. Of course, there is nothing average about Kohli, nor Pujara, nor Rahane. This was a day where Australia threw everything at India’s middle-order, the real guts of India’s team, and India saw them off.
What’s so thrilling is that this afternoon was when the Test could have fallen away. There has been a tendency to bemoan how modern batting sides have no grit, no ability to fight their way back into a Test match in the face of run pressure. But that’s exactly what happened today. When Vijay and Rahul were both back in the dressing room, India’s WinViz stood at just 19%. As Kohli and Rahane walked off this evening, it stood at 47% – the tourists were ahead, marginally. That passage of play wasn’t just enthralling as a raw spectacle; it could have turned the Test match.
Yesterday may have been the first day of five-day cricket here at the new ground, but today was the day Test cricket really arrived at the Perth Stadium. Grounds aren’t christened with opening ceremonies, ribbon-cuttings or off-field pomp, they’re christened by sessions like we had this afternoon, with passages of play that people go home and tell their friends about, mythologise about to those who dipped out, and missed it. New grounds need time to bed in just like new players, and just like new players, if we give them time to create memories, we might all just fall in love again.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.