Ben Jones analyses how the Indian seamers have trumped their Aussie counterparts, and retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
India aren’t supposed to win like this. India aren’t supposed to rock up overseas, and outbowl the opposition in home conditions. If they do, it’s certainly not supposed to happen in Australia. Yet over the last three weeks, that is exactly what has happened.
By almost every metric available, India’s fast bowlers have been better than Australia’s. India’s seamers have found more swing than Australia in this series. They have found more seam. They’ve bowled more balls on a good line and length. They’ve bowled more balls that would have hit the stumps. They’ve drawn more false shots, and taken more wickets at a better average. Presumably, they’ve also run quicker to the team bus, kept their bedrooms tidier, and kept their shoes cleaner. We don’t have the data for that.
This isn’t a poor attack that India have outperformed. Australia’s attack is still probably the finest in the world, and that is not a slight against Jasprit Bumrah and co. Yet the Indians have found 19% edges or misses in this series, compared to Australia’s 16%. They have been better than their hosts, and to outperform such a team in home conditions, is a genuinely historic achievement.
What’s more, their excellence has been specific, and pointed in the right direction, their planning sophisticated and effective. In individual moments each of them have shown considerable nous and intelligence – as documented on this site a few days ago – but they have arrived in Australia with a plan for how to dismiss every Australian batsman.
Peter Handscomb can’t play deliveries on his stumps (he averages just 11.75 against them in his career). India pressed on that bruise. 18% of the deliveries Handscomb faced from the seamers would have hit or clipped the stumps, the highest figure for any batsman on either side, barring Mitchell Marsh.
They knew that keeping Usman Khawaja quiet would be tough, but they banked on their ability to maintain pressure; 61% of the balls he faced were in the channel outside off-stump, more than any other Australian batsman. He’s responded to that pressure by averaging 27.83 and scoring at 1.96rpo, the slowest scoring rate for any series where he’s played more than once. India’s seamers have ruthlessly culled the weak elements of Australia’s batting line-up, and diminished the strong elements.
Every single member of that central Indian pace trio have found more seam movement than every Australian bowler. In a country where seam movement is the main weapon available to the fast bowler, that is a huge area in which to dominate. India have beaten Australia at their own game.
They have had their bad moments. The first session at Perth arguably cost them that Test, and throughout the series the only moment when they’ve not been able to match the home side has been with the new ball in their hand. As the innings has progressed, India have looked after the ball better than the opposition.
They’ve managed to do this by finding more reverse-swing. Tim Paine’s men have only been able to find 0.44° of swing in overs 41-80, while the tourists have found 0.6°. That is a considerable difference, and on flat pitches like the one in Melbourne, it can be a decisive one. India have maintained their threat throughout the innings, their depth, skill and stamina coming through in the most effective manner possible.
The sense is that this is a bowling attack hitting their peak. 2018 has been the year that India’s seamers dominated all before them; it is, without question, the finest year of fast bowling that Indian Test cricket has ever seen, and this Indian attack is outstanding. They end 2018 with 179 wickets; they’ve never taken more in a calendar year. They also end with a bowling average of 23.70; only three times in their history have they averaged less, and in those years they took 43, 9, and 7 wickets. Their achievements this year have gone far, far beyond those before them.
In a sense, this may be an unsustainable level of brilliance. This series, Jasprit Bumrah has found an edge or a miss every four balls. For bowlers who’ve bowled as many balls as Bumrah, that’s the fifth best series performance ever in the CricViz database (2006-present). The highest figure was Mohammed Shami in England this year, with 26.2%. A testament to their depth – they haven’t played the wonderful Bhuvneshwar Kumar once, in either England or Australia – but also a sign that these are outlier performances. Nobody could sustain them.
Alternatively, you could say there’s room for them to improve. Bumrah still hasn’t quite worked out how to bowl with the new ball in Test cricket, averaging 50.75 in the first ten overs of the innings compared to 18.27 from then on. That itself is an outlier – there is surely no chance that a player of Bumrah’s ability cannot increase his returns during the period when all other seamers find it easiest to take their wickets.
Kohli’s individual brilliance and force of personality insist that in Test cricket, batsmen are your defence. They lay the foundations, and ensure you don’t lose. Then, when that is established, the bowlers set about trying to win it. Kohli and Pujara have lead the way in building that platform, and they should receive ample praise for the work they have done. They surely will given that, as a cricketing culture, India is rarely less than keen to lavish praise on the run-makers.
Yet if India do win in Sydney, or the inclement weather in New South Wales takes us to a drawn final Test, then it will be because of the attack dogs Kohli has had pulling at the leash throughout the tour. The teams that come to Australia and win are the ones with immense bowling attacks. South Africa with Morkel and Steyn, England with Anderson and Broad backed up by the powerful support of Bresnan and Tremlett. Seamers who succeed Down Under win series for their sides; Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma could be about to enter the pantheon of all-time greats.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.