CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde examines how India’s selection cost them in Perth.
Another away Test match defeat for India. After the euphoria of Adelaide, Australia’s victory in Perth leaves India’s hopes of a historic series win in Australia well and truly back in the balance. Lose in Melbourne, and although the Border-Gavaskar Trophy could still be retained in Sydney, India’s epic 12 match odyssey in 2018 will end without the series victory that would define Virat Kohli’s legacy as Indian captain.
India were outplayed by Australia in Perth. Australia’s top and lower order batting was comfortably better than India’s, the former helped by Australia’s superior new ball bowling – particularly on first morning when India’s lack of pace turned their attacking full lengths into floaty drive balls. Australia’s 112 run opening partnership on a difficult pitch for run-scoring was a setback from which India, already on the back foot after losing the toss, never really recovered.
Yet as well as being out-played in Perth, India’s defeat also appeared to be the consequence of mis-reading conditions and errors in selection – a recurring theme of India’s away Tests in 2018. The pre-match hype surrounding the nature of the Perth pitch—expected to be fast and bouncy—persuaded India to select four quicks and no frontline spinner. It was a fascinating and bold strategy but it was one that cost them – not because India lost the match but because of how they lost it.
The clearest indication that India read the pitch wrong was Nathan Lyon’s performance, whose 8 for 106 won him the Man of the Match award. Spinners outperformed pace bowlers across the Test with Hanuma Vihari also picking up two wickets, albeit at a high economy rate. Lyon is clearly a brilliant bowler and it is unlikely Ravindra Jadeja would have matched his performance but equally he is unlikely to have fared worse than Umesh Yadav whose 2 for 139 was easily the worst performance of the Test by any bowler.
Speaking after the match Mohammad Shami admitted that India should have picked a frontline spinner but Virat Kohli brushed off suggestions that India had made an error saying that the pitch didn’t take much turn throughout the match. This is right: the average spin of 2.71° is low even by Australian standards (average 3.61°), but closer analysis of Jadeja’s record in Tests suggests he isn’t a spinner who needs significant assistance from the pitch to be successful. Jadeja is a bowler who relies on subtle changes in line and speeds for his threat.
India may have been dissuaded from picking Jadeja—a left-arm spinner—against Australia’s left-hander-heavy top order (generally left-arm spinners struggle against left-handers) but analysis of Jadeja’s record shows him to be an excellent bowler to left-handers and his record against them is not poor in SENA countries either.
This was only the third Test in their history that India did not select a frontline spinner. On a new and unfamiliar pitch it was a huge risk to take such a break from convention. That Vihari bowled 28 overs across the match was a tacit acknowledgement of India’s error. In the second innings he retained control (economy rate 2.21) but in the first innings (economy rate 3.78) he released pressure, particularly in the evening session on day one with the match in the balance. Australia attacked 37% of his deliveries on day one compared to 17% against the quicks, clearly recognising he was the weak link in India’s attack.
Not only did India probably get it wrong by leaving out Jadeja in favour of four quicks but there’s a strong argument that they got the identity of the quick bowler wrong as well. In opting for Umesh ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar India chose pace and bounce over accuracy and control. That in itself was not a terrible decision but in what proved to be a low-scoring match Umesh’s inaccuracy released pressure. On a pitch which ultimately had more uneven bounce than pace off the surface Bhuvneshwar’s stump to stump lines and controlled lengths would probably have been more appropriate.
Additionally, and perhaps even more significantly, selecting Umesh ahead of Bhuvneshwar or Jadeja meant India had an exceptionally long tail with the batting average of their numbers 8 to 11 amounting to 10.97. Not only was Bhuvneshwar’s bowling arguably more suited to the pitch than Umesh’s but Bhuvneshwar’s batting would have lent India valuable batting depth.
On a pitch that India deemed lively enough for four fast bowlers their shallow batting order placed enormous responsibility on their top seven, two of whom (Murali Vijay and KL Rahul) are woefully out of form, and two of whom had only played six Tests between them (Rishabh Pant and Vihari). India’s lack of batting depth proved to be a notable difference between the two teams – something which cost them in England and is now costing them again in Australia. In this Test India’s last four batsmen added a paltry 12 runs in just 78 balls. The effect of India’s long tail was clearly illustrated in both innings when Pant was forced to farm the strike with four wickets still remaining. In contrast, Australia’s lower order stubbornly hung around as they had done in Adelaide, allowing Australia’s middle order to add valuable runs and putting precious miles into the legs of India’s attack.
In the post-match press conference Kohli explained that Bhuvneshwar wasn’t picked because of a lack of first class cricket—he hasn’t played a first class match since the third Test in Johannesburg—but if that makes him un-selectable and with no first class matches scheduled during the series, then why is he in the squad at all? Either India got their team wrong or their squad wrong.
It is unlikely that had India picked one of—or both—Bhuvneshwar and Jadeja, they would have won in Perth. The match was arguably lost on the first morning when Ishant and Bumrah were as culpable as anyone—but a different team may have given them a significantly better chance of getting back into the match. The control ceded by Umesh and Vihari with the ball and the way the tail folded in both innings were significant factors in the result.
Yet even with what appeared to be notable selection errors India pushed Australia hard across the five days, and this is what is so frustrating about this Indian team. India are clearly a very good side and this year they have largely played well in tough conditions but too often they appear to have made elementary strategic errors that have cost them dearly in tight matches. In a year of fine margins India’s failure to read conditions and understand the strengths of their own players has arguably stood between them and greatness.
On three occasions this year India have left their second and third best batsmen (Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane) out of matches (Cape Town, Centurion and Edgbaston) despite them clearly being well suited to conditions in South Africa and England. In Johannesburg they selected four frontline bowlers and an all rounder on a devilish pitch that required batting depth rather than bowling depth (sound familiar?) and at Lord’s they made the utterly inexplicable decision to select two spinners after an entire day of rain had washed out the first day and postponed the toss. No match in the CricViz ball-tracking database which begins in 2006 has seen more swing or seam than that Test at Lord’s, yet India played two spinners—nothing better encapsulates their poor reading of conditions than that moment. Admittedly they have made some good calls as well – most notably the selection of Bumrah despite a very short first class career and more recently giving Prithvi Shaw a Test debut, but that does not excuse the litany of errors that have contributed to defeats in Cape Town, Centurion, Edgbaston, Lord’s and now in Perth.
Winning away is exceptionally hard and India have made it more difficult through unenforced strategic errors. Losing because the other team is better is one thing but losing because—or at least partly because—you’ve made fundamental selection blunders is less excusable. India have two Tests to ensure that their shortcomings off the field don’t obscure their obvious brilliance on it.
Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst. @fwildecricket