Ben Jones analyses how Australia’s batsmen are failing to make the most of their starts, and reflects on their lack of centurions.
Getting in and getting out. Across all levels of cricket, it’s seen as the greatest crime that a player can commit. Having done the hard work, surviving those first 30 deliveries where you’re getting your eye in and adapting to the conditions, to throw it all away when in the groove is seen almost as a misuse of privilege. It’s ungrateful. You had it all, and you squandered it.
This summer, Australia have been squandering opportunities left, right and centre. It may not feel like it, given the ever-increasing dominance of Virat Kohli’s Indian side, but this series has been a parade of Australian batsmen coming to the crease and fighting through the tough period, only to then fall away once the threat has supposedly diminished. In their entire history, Australia have never seen more batsmen dismissed having faced between 30 and 100 balls (max four matches). More than at any other point in their history, Australian batsmen are getting in, getting set, then getting out.
This is demonstrably a worrying trend. This summer Australia have not made a single red ball century and as such, have found it difficult to make truly imposing totals. No batsman has been able to act as the backbone of the innings, standing tall as the maypole around which the others can dance. An Australian batsman has faced 200+ balls in an innings just once. India have done so six times.
This insubstantial element to their batting has come to define their batting of late. In the whole of 2018 they made four individual centuries. The last time they made fewer was in 1996 when they managed just two, but then they played just five Tests. In years where they’ve played at least 10 Tests, they have never registered a lower total. Australia’s inability to go on and make centuries has plagued them.
Indeed, the absence of centurions stands out, because for so long Australia had a plentiful supply. In every Test series they played between September 2010 and March 2018, one of their batsmen made a century. That’s 26 consecutive series. Unless someone passes 100 in the second innings of this Test, then Australia will have gone century-less in two of their last three series.
It’s a problem evident in Shield cricket as well. In the 2017/18 season, the average Shield game saw 1.42 centuries; since 1990, only one season has seen a lower number of centuries-per-match. At both the international level and the domestic level, the last 18 months has seen a clear reduction in batsmen going on and raising the bat.
With regards to the specific struggles of this series, this could be a direct result of the quality and depth of the Indian attack. Jasprit Bumrah has been the standout performer for the tourists, but those at the other end and in support have been almost as impressive. Barring Hanuma Vihari in the Perth Test – which was a unique situation, due to the surface the game was being played on – there has rarely been a tangible weak link in the tourists’ attack. Opportunities to accelerate after that tough opening period have been few and far between.
Equally, for all the talk of flat pitches, the bowling on both sides this summer has been as dangerous as it ever has been in recent years. Using CricViz’s Wicket Probability Model, we can use ball-tracking data to calculate the likelihood that any given delivery will take a wicket, then translate it into the ‘expected’ dismissal rate for any given spell, bowler, or match. The 2018/19 summer has seen an expected dismissal rate (xDR) of just 52.8, the lowest for any of the last seven Australian summers. Conditions at the MCG may have been less than ideal for exciting cricket, but the average delivery faced in this Test series has been significantly more likely to take a wicket than in previous years. A jaffa will still get you, whether you’ve faced 10 balls or 100 balls.
This isn’t simply a question of the performance in this series, but it is where they’re being given their most high-profile airing. Good bowling in tough conditions is a challenge to overcome, not a free-pass to failure.
There are plenty of skilled batsmen to work with in Australian cricket. Not as much as in the past, sure, but there are talented players who, with good coaching and improvement from experience, could be effective Test players. Some of those players are in Justin Langer’s team, some aren’t.
Whoever they are, they need to be coached to play with the appropriate level of aggression, to strike a balance between intent and caution. 58% of Australia’s dismissals in this series have come from attacking shots – between 2010 and 2015, just one of Australia’s series saw a higher proportion of dismissals come in that manner. For whatever reason – and there will be plenty of theories flying around – Australia are getting out playing attacking strokes more than they have done previously. That needs to be addressed.
This is where the coaching staff really earn their dollars. Players who can’t face 30 balls without being dismissed are probably beyond saving; players who regularly go beyond it probably don’t need the help. It’s the way that coaches work with guys in the middle that really reveals their skill, the specificity of their expertise. Tweak this, and you’ll improve. Tweak that, and you’ll find things easier. That’s where a mentor can really make a difference at this level.
Australia are going to need it. In tougher conditions like those they’ll encounter in the Ashes next winter, set batsmen making big contributions can define low-scoring series. They need to improve in that area, fast, if they are to compete in England.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.