After an intriguing first day at the new Optus Stadium, Ben Jones analyses India’s new ball bowling, and wonders what could have been.
Pitch-hype has generally fallen flat in recent times. One loses track of how often a surface is photographed the day before a Test, green as the outfield, before going on to play as true and slow as any other. Well, for once, the pitch delivered on its pre-match promise. All day, the Indian bowlers were able to get something from the pitch, be it lateral movement or spitting bounce, but the movement was particularly clear with the new ball. The pitch that the new stadium’s curator had promised was what we were given. But India didn’t make the most of it.
When Tim Paine won the toss and chose to bat, there was a general sense that this was an aggressive call, designed to show that Australia were uncowed by the pitch or the Indian attack. It was certainly brave, but it may have been fool-hardy; unintentionally, Paine handed India a gem of an opportunity to get stuck into a limp, unproven Australian batting line-up. Conditions were ideal. India squandered them.
In the opening ten overs, there were above average levels of both swing and seam available, but India could not get their collective radars working. With the ball moving through the air and jagging off the pitch, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah were unable to find the right areas, and test the Australian batsmen. Just 31% of India’s deliveries in that first 10 overs were on a good line and length – at Adelaide, that figure was 54%. It doesn’t matter whether the ball is swinging round corners, if you get your pitchmap wrong, then you’re not going to get the best from the conditions.
The issue was that they bowled extremely full. More than half of their deliveries were pitched up, anticipating the extra bounce that the surface might offer, trying to compensate and allow LBW and bowled to remain viable options for dismissals. Again, this may have worked, but their individual paces were down, diminishing their effectiveness – both Ishant and Bumrah’s opening spells were 4kph slower than their equivalent at Adelaide. The tense finish there, combined with a quick turnaround, may have taken the edge of their bowling, and without it, those pitched up balls were floaty half-volleys.
As a whole, the attack did self-correct. For the rest of the session, every other delivery was bang on that good line and length zone. They were much improved, and whilst they didn’t get the rewards they may have liked, the pervasive sense of frustration was gone. India were bowling well but not getting the luck. Their Expected Wicket Sum up until drinks was 1.55, suggesting that regardless of the overall lack of intensity, they were still bowling wicket-taking deliveries. But India’s attack is comprised of four top-class quicks – they’re going to bowl some serious deliveries, if you give them an hour on a lively pitch. They should be striving for more.
Later in the day we saw clear evidence that Kohli agrees. Shami was given the second new ball, an acknowledgement from Kohli that his first choice openers had got it wrong first time around, with Bumrah banished from the frontline of the attack. Whilst such a demotion will always feel like a pointed dig at an individual, it reflects poorly on the selection of the Indian side. Setting up a team is always a work of anticipation, and you’re always rolling the dice on what the conditions are going to be, and it will be rare that a captain goes through an entire Test match without some slight twinge of regret over their decision. “He’d have bowled well on this” must be up there with the most frustrating thoughts a captain can have. Without wishing to force Kohli into such negative thoughts, it was hard to watch Ishant and Bumrah spraying the ball around without thinking that Bhuvneshwar Kumar would have been the perfect fit for such a surface. When the pitch is doing so much, accuracy can be lethal, and few are as accurate as Bhuvi. The closest bowler to him in this quarter is Shami, and that is who Kohli turned to as things went wrong.
The question of Bumrah is difficult to answer. He has developed a reputation, in his short Test career, for being better in his second spell than his first – whether this is something related to the new ball will become clearer as his career progresses, but it is an issue. In the first 20 overs of Test innings, Bumrah averages 41.83; after that, he averages 21.34. He is a wonderfully talented bowler, replete with idiosyncrasies in both his run-up and his action, and is a serious threat. But perhaps for now, he needs to be coming on first change.
So, a frustrating day for the visitors, but you could argue that the hosts will still feel this was a missed opportunity. At one point today, Australia’s WinViz reached 61%. With Marsh and Head batting together, they had the chance to really run away from India, putting a seriously strong score down on a pitch that has shown early signs of uneven bounce would have been potentially match-winning. Instead of slow accumulation, edging further ahead, Australia played a series of loose shots and gave India a lifeline. On a surface like this, a score of 260-4 at stumps would have represented an almost impregnable position. Australia took their foot off the opposition’s throat, and India escaped. If they can keep Paine’s side to under 300, then they may still feel there’s a win to be had here in Perth. If they can’t get one, then they’ll be looking back on those first ten overs with significant regret.