Here you will find detailed analysis highlighted from the CricViz app.

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RABADA EXCELS WITH CONTROLLED PACE

Dale Steyn is 32 and injuries are creeping up on him. Morne Morkel is 31 and will surely be a fading influence too as time goes on. Meanwhile, Vernon Philander is not far from his 31st birthday and has a potentially difficult rehab in front of him after snapping ankle ligaments late last year.

No wonder South Africa are excited about the emergence of the 20-year-old Kagiso Rabada, who has natural pace, a fluid action and has arrived on the world stage with an almighty bang during the home Test series defeat to England.

Rabada first attracted wider attention in February 2014 at the U19 World Cup. He was one of the top performers in the South Africa squad who won the tournament, and during it he took 6-25 against Australia. Last year, he took 6-16 on his one-day international debut in Dhaka against a Bangladesh side who were good enough to hit and back claim the series. They were the best figures by an ODI debutant and his haul included a hat-trick for good measure.

By then, Allan Donald was among those waxing lyrical about the young man who had been versed in the nuances of the sport at a noted Johannesburg breeding ground for top-class cricketers, St Stithians College.

Donald said: “I am blown away by the knowledge he has got at 19. He wants it badly. He is a great athlete, he has got immaculate work ethic and he has got some gas. He is built like a racehorse, a thoroughbred and that’s exciting.”

Rabada unsurprisingly struggled on India’s featherbed wickets in his first three Tests, but has come of age against England – although he did not start it with a bang. With one eye already on controlling his workload, South Africa’s selectors did not even pick him for the first Test at Durban.

He took four expensive wickets on the flat Cape Town track, but improved considerably to grab 5-78 in the first innings in Johannesburg, and then there was Centurion. Rabada took 7-112 and 6-32 to emerge with 13 match-winning wickets. Only twice previously has a South African taken so many in a Test.

Analysis of our ball-tracking data which is instantly recorded and fed into the CricViz archive to inform all our future predictions has produced some interesting statistics regarding Rabada.

Let’s start with pace, because this is Rabada’s primary asset – and bearing in mind he probably has a few years to go before he reaches his ultimate speed level this will probably remain his greatest quality through his career.

Only 16 deliveries in a Test that lasted five days and featured seven seam bowlers were sent down in excess of 90mph (144.84kph). Rabada bowled 10 of them and the seven fastest of all, with a best of 93.28mph. Morne Morkel bowled the other six and had a good match too with five wickets all told.

The statistics firmly suggest that this was a wicket that rewarded out-and-out pace. Ben Stokes, England’s most successful bowler in the match, was the only one of the tourists’ bowlers to even threaten the 90mph threshhold. Those that kissed the surface and looked for the pitch to outwit the batsmen, such as Stuart Broad (well down on his Johannesburg speeds), Chris Woakes and Kyle Abbott, had modest matches.

Interestingly, James Anderson was much quicker on the fourth morning than he had been on the first – and that must have been a factor in him picking up the wickets of Stephen Cook and AB de Villiers in the same over as England briefly threatened to gain a foothold in the Test.

But let’s get back to Rabada, because he’s the one we’re really interested in. How much does he move the ball in the air and off the pitch? The answer is not a lot compared to others, but clearly it’s enough to take wickets.

Having worked on the CricViz model since last October, the level of deviation which appears to be significant factor on influencing edges and uncertainty among batsmen is two degrees.

If he does move the ball much, Rabada favours outswing to a right-hander (or inswing to a left-hander). He swung 11 deliveries in the match this way by two degrees more and only one (out of 238 legal deliveries) went the other way by the same margin. He did not achieve three degrees of swing in either direction at all.

By contrast, there were 102 outswingers at two degrees-plus by other seamers in the match of which nine went in excess of three degrees. There were also 100 such inswingers of which two (one bowled by Stokes and one by Anderson) came in by more than four degrees. It’s a similar story when we look at deviation off the pitch. In total, 20 balls seamed in by more than two degrees, only one of which was bowled by Rabada. Seventeen balls seamed away by more than two degrees, of which two were bowled by Rabada.

And to focus on an individual delivery, the wicket-taking ball to Joe Root in the first innings, arguably the most important of Rabada’s 13 strikes, barely moved at all. Root was caught behind for 76, the wicket heralding a collapse which turned the game squarely in favour of South Africa.

So how did the bowler do it? Well it was quick enough at over 87mph, it was in that familiar line just outside off stump which can so often cause problems and it was nice and full. Did it move much? No, just 0.83 degrees in the air and 0.45 off the pitch. But Root, one of the world’s best batsmen, nicked off anyway. As the cricinfo commentary observed: “…beautiful line, takes the edge – gottim! Rabada gallops off in celebration, he’s taken out England’s key man! The gazelle bests the lion, full enough to make him play and he just got the ball to curve away.”

Pace, consistency, a beautifully-honed action and intelligence too. Rabada’s got so much, he barely needs swing and seam movement in addition – though the ability to morph into a gazelle from time to time must help.

SOUTH AFRICA V ENGLAND 3RD TEST ANALYSIS

The scene on the third afternoon at Johannesburg was a familiar one. Stuart Broad was on a roll and the opposition had no answer. The knees were pumping and the face was ruddy, an irresistible force who made wickets rather than runs seem inevitable.

They were, too. Broad took five wickets for one run in 36 balls just after lunch, single-handedly reducing the hosts from 23-0 to 35-5. Another hot streak, another Test won for his team. But how did Broad decimate the hosts? What changed from the first innings?

Being fully fit helped, Broad having struggled with illness on the first day. He lacked zip and was evidently frustrated in not being able to take advantage of helpful conditions. This was reflected by an average speed of 81.9 mph, which increased to 84.9 mph in South Africa’s second innings.

However, his accuracy also improved greatly. All of his 73 balls on day three were either outside off stump or in line with off stump. Nothing on the pads or on the hips for batsmen to work into the legside, unlike in the hosts’ first innings, when 23.3% of his deliveries were on middle or leg stump or down the legside.

Bowling too short is a regular criticism of England’s bowlers and Broad certainly improved where he had initially erred – 74% of his balls on day three were on a good length, up from 37.6% in the Proteas’ first innings.

Faster, more accurate and with greater seam movement – his average deviation off the pitch increased from 0.74 degrees to 0.94 – Broad expertly combined the ingredients that make him so hard to handle.

Broad knows the value in finding the ideal length but has in the past discussed his tendency to ‘float’ the ball too full in trying to draw batsmen forward. There were no freebies as the home side subsided at the Bullring, the ball spitting off a decent length with just the right amount of lateral movement.

Stuart Broad, 3rd Test v South Africa1st innings2nd innings
Balls on a good length (%)36.674
Balls on / outside off stump (%)76.7100
Average speed (mph)81.984.9
Average length (metres from stumps)7.746.99
Stumps (% to hit)7.465.48
Average swing (degrees)1.110.95
Average seam (degrees)0.740.92

There was more swing for Broad in South Africa’s first innings, but excessive deviation in the air is not always a major advantage. James Anderson (1.84 degrees average swing) regularly hooped the ball past the outside edge, whilst Broad (0.95 degrees) did enough to bring keeper and slips into play more frequently.

This is what Broad does so well. He identifies helpful conditions and harnesses them superbly, rising to the occasion when he smells blood. His line and length becomes unerring, the batsmen hustled by optimum bounce and lateral movement.

Memories of Trent Bridge were stirred by this latest Broad salvo and it is worth noting that England produced more seam movement in their surge to victory at the Wanderers. South Africa faced an average deviation off the pitch of 0.92 degrees on day three, Australia 0.7 degrees in their 60 all out.

Broad is the session-changer who breaks a partnership and gets on a roll when the game is drifting. He can create something out of nothing when the pitch is flat, but it is just as important to deliver when conditions are helpful and wickets expected. Broad delivers them in abundance, the enforcer turned demolisher.

SOUTH AFRICA’S RECIPE FOR COOK SUCCESS

Alastair Cook holds the key to success for the tourists as the South Africa v England Test series reaches its halfway point. Joe Root, Ben Stokes and James Anderson are notable match-winners for the away side, but the Proteas know that a recovery is very achievable if Cook continues his run of low scores.

The away captain currently averages 10.5 in the series, his lowest average in any of the 37 Test series he has played in. An upturn in form would not be a surprise considering Cook’s pedigree and record-breaking efforts against Pakistan before Christmas, but South Africa have found the right tactics to give the best chance of restraining the opposition batting anchor.

Cook has only twice had a lower batting strike rate than the 36.8 he currently has in this series. How have South Africa restricted Cook?

The durable left-hander often wins a battle of wills when opposition bowling attacks starve him of scoring opportunities. When in form Cook invites bowlers to try a straighter line after getting frustrated with an off stump channel approach. Death by a thousand nudges to leg ensues.

However, South Africa have retained their discipline so far against Cook. BatViz analysis of ball tracking data shows that just six of the 114 balls he has faced in this series would have hit the stumps, 5.3%. For comparison, 13.6% of those faced by opening partner Alex Hales would have struck the timber.

This is partly explained by Hales’ greater exposure to spinners, who generally bowl a higher proportion of balls that would hit the stumps. Nonetheless, Cook has certainly received a lower proportion of full and straight deliveries from the fast men: the team percentage for balls hitting the stumps in all four of England’s innings range between 11% and 18%.

Cook has been unable to rotate the strike, failing to score off 95 of the 114 balls he has faced. 24 of his 42 runs have come in boundaries. Those relief shots into the legside have not been available – 44 of the 52 balls he has faced against the first choice seam line-up of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott have been dots.

Whether Cook can find a way to frustrate the South African pacemen is a key factor in the two remaining Tests. If the skipper has tired the home attack out, the prospects of a sparkling contribution from the middle order is increased.

LYON’S SHARE

Little is likely to be remembered of the third Test between Australia and West Indies, so ransacked of playing time has it been by inclement weather, in a series already convincingly won by the hosts. Yet one statistical quirk – that of Nathan Lyon bringing up his 100th Test wicket in Australia, removing Kraigg Brathwaite on day one – should ensure it is not completely lost in the ether.

It’s taken a long time for the 28-year-old twirlyman’s value to be truly appreciated, but one that is now receiving rightful recognition after becoming his nation’s most successful Test offspinner in history earlier in 2015. Following a decent Ashes showing in England, where most of his team-mates floundered, Lyon has continued his impressive form since returning home.

And his experience and, crucially, ability to adapt to slight changes in pitch conditions is demonstrated clearly when compared to current young counterpart, West Indies’ Jomel Warrican.

Warrican, 23, has made quite an impression in his short Test career, stunning Sri Lanka by removing 4-67 on the first day of his debut bout with them back in October. However, while also exciting during the ongoing Australia tour, a mixture of zapping rigours and youthful exuberance has prevented him from adding the consistency required to frustrate and topple Australia’s batsmen.

Lyon showed the benefits of regularly bowling good lengths in the first Test, 80% of his deliveries at Hobart either landing on or just back of a length, while Warrican wasn’t far behind (70%), 23% of his deliveries were sent down as half volleys, accounting for 46 runs.

1st Test, HobartGood lengthBack of a lengthHalf volley 
Lyon59%21%17%
Warrican63%7%23%

The Australian further proved his reliability by maintaining a line of outside or on offstump 86.1% of the time, where as Warrican managed 74.3%, straying down leg too often and releasing the pressure he had built up.

The difference in control is exemplified again by the number of full tosses bowled by the pair, Lyon sending down just a single full delivery – coming in the second innings of the 2nd Test – unlike Warrican who has bowled 11 so far.

Lyon is, of course, notably aided by a better pace bowling unit who can almost constantly nag away at opposing batsmen. Warrican, meanwhile, is not afforded such a luxury, his side still to undo more than four Australian batsmen in a single innings.

However consistency is key to Warrican’s development, and importantly he has already attempted to make improvements, exhibiting an enhanced understanding and awareness in this series by tightening his lines in the second Test (85.3% outside or on offstump). It is a skill that Lyon built up over a number of seasons, and Warrican can expect to need just as long. Then he may be in a position to know when and how to pitch the ball a little bit fuller or shorter, extracting extra bounce to deceive a batter, just as Lyon did to remove Brathwaite and record his ton.

OPENING VOID

We are in an era of Test cricket, or a mini-era at least, in which opening partnerships are struggling almost as much as they ever have. In only two half-decades since the Second World War have opening partnerships averaged fewer than they have since 2011.

Since January 1st 2011 opening partnerships in Test cricket have averaged 35.07, which is 2.52 runs fewer than the historical average for the first wicket and more notably 6.05 runs fewer than the half decade between January 1st 2006 and December 31st 2010. An even sharper decline can be traced back to the first half decade of this millennium in which opening partnerships averaged 41.60, 6.53 more than they have in the most recent half a decade. The fall of 6.05 runs from the last half decade is considerably greater than the overall fall in average for all wickets of 2.09, suggesting that the decline in the average for opening partnerships is not only the product of an overall decline in averages.

PeriodOpening Partnership AverageOverall Average
All Time37.5932.17
2011-Present35.0733.51
2006-201141.1235.60
2001-200641.6034.24
1996-200133.2330.81
1991-199637.8432.04
1986-199136.9232.84
1981-198635.5532.98
1976-198136.5431.08
1971-197640.3434.24
1966-197138.9330.83
1961-196641.1133.70
1956-196135.6928.02
1951-195633.5929.68
1946-195145.2734.37

The last half decade of opening batting in Test cricket has been defined by the relative lack of consistently successful players. Since January 1st 2011 only Alastair Cook (4839) and David Warner (4277) have scored more than 3000 Test runs as openers while in the half decade before that Cook (4363), Virender Sehwag (4305), Andrew Strauss (3990) and Graeme Smith (3855) all scored well over 3000 runs, and in the decade before that Matthew Hayden (6366), Marcus Trescothick (5162), Justin Langer (4631), Herschelle Gibbs (3955), Chris Gayle (3476), Smith (3332) and Marvan Atapattu (3136) did so too. This abundance of successful openers established a relative golden age for opening partnerships between 2001 and 2011.

PairInningsRunsAverage100s50s
Sehwag & Vijay1079879.8031
Hayden & Jacques1178471.2726
McKenzie & Smith27166466.5658
Gambhir & Sehwag61350560.431019
Hughes & Katich1160460.4024
Jaffer & Karthik1474457.2332
Gibbs & Smith56298356.28710
de Villiers & Smith30164654.8656
Katich & Watson28152354.39310
Petersen & Smith1475954.2125
Strauss & Trescothick52267052.35812
Hayden & Langer113565551.881424
Farhat & Umar1575450.2631

Therefore, principal among the reasons for the sudden and dramatic decline in the returns of opening partnerships since 2011 has been the retirements of many of these hugely successful opening batsmen. Namely, Smith (last Test 2014), Sehwag (2013), Strauss (2012), Hayden (2009), Gibbs (2008), Langer (2007), Atappattu (2007) and Sanath Jayasuriya (2007) as well as the inconsistent selection of Chris Gayle for the West Indies who has only played 27% of West Indies’ 43 Tests since 2011.

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Replacing such prolific batsmen was of course never going to easy; but every team—perhaps with the exception of Australia—have failed to do so. Since 2011 nine of the ten Test match teams have averaged less than 36.66 for their opening partnership and only Australia, with an average of 48.66, have managed more.

TeamPartnersInningsRunsHighAverage10050
Australia11104501323748.661721
South Africa767234613836.65510
Bangladesh848166331235.5825
England10105360423134.65812
India1388288928933.20413
Sri Lanka1491287820732.70315
New Zealand1081263215832.49414
Pakistan1380249517832.40711
West Indies1483245725430.7159
Zimbabwe82864310222.9612

The struggles of opening partnerships since 2011 is reflected in the relative instability of them. Since 2011 the average number of innings per opening pair is 7.17 which is the shortest life-span of an opening partnership since the half decade between 1996 and 2001.

PeriodInningsNumber Of Opening PairsAverage Innings Per Opening Pair
2011-Present7751087.17
2006-20117651067.21
2001-20069221227.55

Of course, replacing players of the quality that retired was never going to be easy, but teams have almost universally struggled to do so. Since the turn of the decade only Warner has emerged to join Cook as a consistently successful Test match opener.

Perennial strugglers Zimbabwe have predictably fared the worst, averaging just 22.96 since 2011.

Sri Lanka and West Indies have tried fourteen different opening combinations, more than any other team, [Sri Lanka, West Indies] but have only given more than ten innings to two and one of those combinations respectively.

Dimunth Karunaratne appears to be a promising prospect for Sri Lanka, with a Test average of 35.97, including a healthy average of 49.66 in bowler-friendly New Zealand, but they are yet to find a partner for him, with Kithuruwan Vithanage the latest to occupy the spot.

West Indies meanwhile are desperately missing Gayle who is 461 runs shy of becoming his country’s most prolific opening batsman ever but is nowhere near the team currently. Kraigg Brathwaite is, and has now played 25 Test matches. With three ducks in his last six innings and five single figure scores in his last ten, he is far from consistent but 94 in his most recent innings against Australia and an average of 33.76 suggests he is worth persisting with. Rajendra Chandrika is Brathwaite’s latest partner.

Similarly to Sri Lanka and West Indies, Pakistan have tried a lot of opening combinations: 13 to be precise, and have had a few relatively successful pairings. After Cook and Warner, Mohammad Hafeez is the next most prolific opening batsman in this half decade and he takes up one spot at the top of the order, leaving Azhar Ali, Shan Masood and Ahmed Shehzad to fight over the second spot.

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New Zealand, who possess the third worst average (30.48) for opening partnerships after Bangladesh (28.55) and Zimbabwe (21.72) since the turn of the millennium, have the makings of a successful pairing in Martin Guptill and Tom Latham. Guptill’s Test record is uninspiring but the Kiwis will hope a century last week against Sri Lanka in Dunedin can be the beginning of him translating the quality he has displayed in limited-overs cricket into the Test arena. Latham meanwhile is arguably the most promising Test opener in the world. In Dunedin Guptill and Latham recorded 50 partnerships in both innings of the Test—the first time a New Zealand opening partnership has done so for six years. Admittedly, the Sri Lankan bowling attack is not the most threatening, but perhaps a corner has been turned.

Ostensibly India appear to have finally solved their opening partnership conundrum which has seen them attempt thirteen different combinations since January 2011. Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan have now opened together on 33 occasions and average 46.20. However, that average is inflated by huge partnerships of 289 against an Australian team that would go onto be whitewashed by India and 283 against Bangladesh. Excluding those two partnerships Vijay and Dhawan average just 23 together.  With a Test average of 41.09 overall, 47.75 this year and and 45.93 since 2013, Vijay looks to be a solid option for India. It is Dhawan, who has an average of 29 outside of Asia who remains something of a concern. Admittedly, India’s problems are not as serious as those facing other teams, but it would be wrong to assume the Vijay-Dhawan axis is a stable one.

England’s opening problems have attracted a lot of attention, possibly because they have attempted seven combinations (excluding Moeen Ali & Jos Buttler’s cameo in Abu Dhabi) in just 19 Tests since Andrew Strauss’ retirement, but in fact their first wicket average of 35.41 since Strauss’ retirement is merely in line with the global average of 35.07 since January 2011. Indeed, the downward global trend makes England’s decision to axe Nick Compton, who averaged 57.93 with Cook, all the more surprising. None of the other opening partnerships attempted by England since 2011 have averaged more than 36.60. Alex Hales is expected to be the next to be given an opportunity.

Bangladesh have only played 25 Tests since January 2011only Zimbabwe have played fewer—but their first wicket average of 35.58, is only bettered by South Africa and Australia. In that timeframe, Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Kayes have the best average of opening pairs who have played more than ten innings together. However, the only time they batted together outside of Asia was against Zimbabwe.

Despite never appearing to be totally secure Alviro Petersen managed to form a fairly strong partnership with Graeme Smith for South Africa, and at least gave the top order some consistency. However, with Smith and Petersen now retired, neither opening position is safe. It is expected that Stiaan Van Zyl will partner Dean Elgar against England next week with Temba Bavuma, who opened in the final Test against India, lurking down the order. It is apposite of the age that the weakest link of the world’s number one ranked Test nation is their opening batting.

With Chris Rogers and Warner, Australia were the only team in the world with a stable and consistently successful opening partnership. Now Rogers is gone not one team can claim to have two openers who are assured of selection. Joe Burns has made a promising start to his career, but it is far too early to pass judgement on his new axis with Warner.

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Without diminishing what Warner and Rogers achieved it is revealing that they are the most prolific opening partnership of this half-decade with just 2053 runs. In the half-decade before that Cook and Strauss scored 3678 runs together, and in the half-decade before that Hayden and Langer scored 5122 runs together.

Rarely in the history of Test cricket have opening batsmen struggled as much as they are now. The extent to which that is self-inflicted is uncertain but what is certain is that as selectors and coaches itch to make changes to their struggling partnerships they should bear in mind that statistically at least, opening the batting has rarely been harder.

The seeds of success at the top of the order are there for most teams; but they will need patience and care in this harsh age.

With inputs from Patrick Baatz.

WEST INDIES: THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Are things getting gradually better or gradually worse for West Indies cricket? In terms of the fortunes of the Test team, the answer, regrettably, must be the latter.

In the year 1988, West Indies followed up four wins in England with three in Australia: seven successes in a calendar year in two of the toughest places to tour (and in those days tours were tough, long assignments with many additional fixtures). Greenidge, Haynes and Richards were still on the scene, and they together with a young Ambrose and a battle-hardened Marshall formed the nucleus of such a formidable side.

The decline was just around the corner, however. There were 25 overseas Test wins in all for the Windies in their golden era of the 1980s, but just 11 in the 1990s. And since then it’s been even worse. In the 16 years that are almost complete of this millennium there have been just nine overseas Test wins achieved by West Indies. Shockingly, only two have been against teams other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that even after reducing Australia to an almost precarious 121-3 at lunch on day one of the Hobart Test, our WinViz barometer almost scoffed at the suggestion of anything other than an Australia victory. It gave the hosts an 81.4% win chance, with “gun” batsmen David Warner and Steven Smith back in the changing rooms.

Let’s be clear: this was the one point in the match when we appeared to be witnessing a genuine contest between two proud cricketing nations, but Australia were in fact unusually robust favourites considering the score, and their position became ever rosier from that point.

Indeed, what happened after lunch only served to back up all negative preconceptions of the state of West Indies cricket. Despite being fresh, having bowled a short, single opening spell each, the new-ball bowlers Kemar Roach and Jerome Taylor were not called upon at all until deep into the middle session.

Adam Voges and Shaun Marsh, the latter in particular under pressure to keep his place in the side with Usman Khawaja due to re-enter the fray at some point, were allowed to play themselves in against two far more inviting bowlers. They were Jomel Warrican, the 23-year-old left-arm spinner who had bowled one ripper to send back Smith but otherwise lacked either consistency or menace, and the skipper Jason Holder, an honest seam-up medium-fast man who has not exactly blown away middle orders in his Test career to date.

The defensive fields in operation were hopelessly naïve too; West Indies were rapidly sleep-walking their way into a losing position. And though Holder may have argued that Roach and Taylor’s opening bursts had not been up to scratch, by holding them back for so long before their second spells on that opening day he was draining the last drops of positivity from their muddled minds.

When Australia subsequently recovered so effectively through Voges and Marsh that they were able to declare at 583-4, they then showed the value of bowling at the right length. This was a good pitch to drive on, and West Indies bowled too many half-volleys. Jerome Taylor, in taking 0-108 in 17 overs, dished out 17 juicy half-volleys which disappeared for 39 runs. Work it out: exactly one freebie an over in the perfect slot to drive and plenty of them being hit for boundaries.

Josh Hazlewood, the best bowler in the match, bowled just eight half-volleys across both West Indies innings, during which time he sent down 28.3 overs. That’s about one every four overs. Discipline is such an important part of Test match bowling and West Indies (Taylor in particular) were lacking.

When trying to pick the pieces out of this innings-and-212-run reversal in Hobart, it’s important to offer some balance and perspective when looking at West Indies cricket. Outside the Test sphere, they have enjoyed a couple of important high points in the last dozen years.

On a bitterly cold late September evening in London in 2004, they lifted the ICC Champions Trophy, unexpectedly beating the hosts in a low-scoring final thanks to a late batting heist by Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw. Then, in 2012, they again found a way to poop a home nation’s party, trumping Sri Lanka in Colombo in a remarkable, low-scoring ICC World Twenty final.

Amid all the internal conflicts, the lure of the Twenty20 leagues, the battle for cricket to resonate culturally in the Caribbean in this era, perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of all has been the state of pitches in the West Indies. It’s little wonder that fast bowlers have struggled to prosper given the surfaces simply don’t suit them any more.

In that World Twenty20 final, West Indies only needed two seamers and relied on four spinners, among them the excellent Sunil Narine. With some decent power hitters in the team as well, they had morphed into a perfect side to challenge for honours in this kind of tournament in the sub-continent. It’s a bizarre state of affairs for those who remember the West Indies teams of old.

So while the Test side is in danger of losing eighth place in the official Test rankings to Bangladesh, in the shortest format the West Indies team continues to prosper and will have a shout in next year’s World Twenty20 in India.

Of much more immediate concern is the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, which they enter with only one batsman (Darren Bravo) boasting a career average in the 40s, an important bowler (Shannon Gabriel) out injured, a captain who looks strategically lost and some motivational issues to sort out. It may not be a pretty sight.

AUSTRALIA V WEST INDIES 1ST TEST PREVIEW

The first two Tests between Australia and New Zealand resulted in a gluttonous feast of run-scoring: 3,104 runs scored in total, including 11 centuries and not including any five-fors. The third Test, played under lights for the first time, bucked this trend in spectacular fashion. Undoubtedly aided by the pink ball, unfamiliar atmospheric conditions and a pitch produced to help ensure the experiment was a success, neither side was able to better Australia’s first innings effort of 224.

Tellingly, no centuries were scored; Peter Nevill’s 66 was the highest score of the match and one of only three half-centuries. A pair of five-wicket hauls came from one of each side’s opening bowlers, Josh Hazlewood and Trent Boult, in what must have been a relief from the toil of the previous two Tests.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s tour to India has unravelled in an equally unpredictable fashion – but there the similarities end. On challenging wickets, South Africa have as yet found no answers to the questions posed by Ravi Ashwin and his fellow spinners. They have so far only managed 200 in a completed innings once – and that was in a match lost to rain after only two days of play.

From the ignominy of being bowled out for 79 in 33.1 overs in Nagpur, they are at the time of writing, in the fascinating position of having batted 72 overs for 72 runs in the hope of a reputation-salvaging draw. Against New Zealand in Brisbane, David Warner and Joe Burns combined to score 245 runs off of 236 balls at a strike rate of 103.81; on the other side of the world, Hashim Amla has faced 207 balls for 23 runs (SR 11.11) on his own, with more to follow on day five.

After two series of quite remarkable extremes, it is perhaps fitting that the world of Test cricket will now turn its collective head to a more sedate part of the world: Blundstone Arena, Australia’s southernmost Test venue and its most temperate. Nestled in Hobart’s peaceful Eastern suburbs, the ground formerly known as Bellerive Oval is one at which Australia will expect to complete a routine victory over the West Indies.

That said, Hobart has hosted only 11 Tests in the 26 years since its first, so it is hard to define patterns or make accurate predictions about the kind of match it will be – except to say that of those 11 matches, Australia have won eight drawn two and lost only one. Interestingly, all three of the results that Australia didn’t win were against New Zealand; visiting Kiwis have likely found local conditions pleasingly akin to their own country. These numbers will not inspire huge levels of confidence in the West Indies camp, especially after their recent warm-up loss to a CA XI containing no fewer than 6 debutants.

The good news for both West Indies and neutral observers alike is that Bellerive has been the site of some encouraging performances by visiting cricketers. Consider the last five Tests there: most recently, in 2012, Tillakaratne Dilshan scored 147 out of his side’s first innings 336. Before that, in 2011, Doug Bracewell bowled New Zealand to victory, taking 6/40 in the final innings. 2010 saw Salman Butt score a defiant century amidst a heavy defeat with 102 out of 301. Butt’s performance that year  curiously mirrored the preceding Test, in 2007, in which Jayawardene scored 104 out of 246, but even he was overshadowed by Sangakkara’s magnificent second innings 197, during which he added 120 runs in partnership with the number 9 and 10 batsmen.

The fifth most recent Test at Bellerive was against the West Indies, although the only members to remain from that 2005 visit are veterans Denesh Ramdin and Marlon Samuels. That team otherwise featured big names such as Lara, Gayle, Sarwan and Chanderpaul, but the only batsman to experience much joy in the match was Dwayne Bravo, who scored his maiden Test century, 113 out of 334.

The West Indies, then, can be sure in the knowledge that conditions are not so foreign or inhospitable as to feel they cannot succeed; at Blundstone Arena, visiting centurions have become as customary as inconvenient seasonal rain delays. The weather in the lead up to Thursday has been good, meaning a repeat of the 2011 green top on which Warner scored his maiden century is unlikely – the pitch has otherwise been good for batting, historically speaking, as 28 centuries in 11 Tests suggests.

Just as Kane Williamson’s defiant hundred in Brisbane kicked off New Zealand’s tour, the Caribbean tourists will look to their senior players to build partnerships and make good decisions as early as possible to set a precedent and a platform for success. It is safe to say these partnerships are most likely to be centered around captain Jason Holder and Darren Bravo, who will hope to follow in his half-brother’s footsteps at the ground a decade later. Their half centuries against the CA XI were the only two positive signs to come out of that embarrassing defeat.

Steven Smith, meanwhile, will be pleased at his side’s top order dominance over the Kiwi bowlers for most of the previous series – as well as the lower order resilience and ballast provided by Peter Nevill, whose technique and temperament belie his relative lack of international experience. He will thus be confident regardless of conditions or toss. Of the likely XI he will lead, only David Warner, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and James Pattinson have played a Test here. With the exception of Lyon, all have enjoyed considerable success at the ground: Warner’s maiden century came in defeat against the Kiwis and may still be the most difficult circumstances in which he has cracked triple figures – enough to have earned the Man of the Match award despite losing. Pattinson, who should come into the side for Mitchell Starc, played in the same game and took eight wickets for the match including a first-innings 5-for. Siddle enjoyed his best ever Test bowling figures at the ground, too: a match haul of 9/104 in 2012.

So, while it is hard to look past Australia given the recent form of both sides, it’s clear that spectators can look forward to a wicket that rewards good skills in all disciplines. This means that if the West Indies have the character and belief to produce those skills, they may well catch an Australian side who will rightly expect to win unprepared. Whether they can dig that deep, however, remains to be seen.

HAZLEWOOD’S LEARNING CURVE

Josh Hazlewood is suddenly the key man in Australia’s Test bowling attack. Mitchell Johnson’s retirement and Mitchell Starc’s latest injury have put more pressure on the 24-year-old, but his performance at Adelaide has also been instrumental in his promotion.

There was talk of resting Hazlewood for the Adelaide Test, a move which would not necessarily have reflected his prominence in the fast bowling pecking order.

With James Pattinson and others desperate for a chance to impress, being out of the side is not a good place to be for a bowler who had taken four wickets in the first two Tests of the series. A rest can easily become a longer spell on the sidelines.

However, a nine-wicket haul in the maiden Day/Night Test has assured Hazlewood’s status as Australia’s leading seamer and key bowler for the forthcoming West Indies series. His Test best second innings figures of 6/70 showed just how much the New South Welshman has developed since the Ashes and throughout this series.

He hit an excellent length at Adelaide, something he had not done as consistently in the first and second Tests. His good length percentages at Brisbane and Perth were 61.7% and 57.9% respectively. It was 69.2% in the third Test.

Overall seam bowling improvement was a feature of the Day/Night Test. A grassier wicket, a swinging pink ball and the lure of floodlight assistance encouraged better performances from all the pacemen. Real or imagined, the bowler-friendly Day/Night conditions saw all seamers raise their game.

BowlerGood length % - Adelaide 1st inns
Hazlewood59.6
Starc61.1
Boult70.6
Southee73.5
BowlerGood length % - Adelaide 2nd inns
Hazlewood75.8
Starc-
Boult81.4
Southee70.8

An analysis of the three other regular opening bowlers shows they all recorded their highest good length percentages of the series at Adelaide, with Trent Boult (75.9%) leading the way. Tim Southee’s was 72.2% and Mitchell Starc’s 61.1%.

This left Hazlewood, Boult and Southee with similar overall good length percentages across the series, with the Australian producing a consistent pattern: his good length percentage was higher in the second innings than the first in all three Tests.

BowlerGood length % - series
Hazlewood63.1
Starc43.5
Boult64.4
Southee63.5

Some might say Hazlewood should learn faster than taking an innings in each match to find the appropriate length, although different conditions do call for varying approaches. Nonetheless, he has made great strides since the Ashes, when he mixed occasional unplayable deliveries with too many half volleys, seemingly striving too much for the perfect delivery with the Dukes ball.

As the occupier of the perhaps over-rated role of leader of the attack, Hazlewood justified his captain’s faith in him. Steven Smith pressed for his state colleague’s inclusion at Adelaide, knowing Hazlewood is now capable of attacking and containing as is required. A useful combination, and one which makes him the bowler to watch in the West Indies series.

CAN AUSTRALIA RECAPTURE THEIR AURA?

It was the day before the 2009 Ashes Test at Edgbaston that Andrew Strauss, in his then role was asked this question: “Has the Australian aura we’re used to disappeared?”

Strauss was in no mood to be all coy and diplomatic. “I don’t think this Australian side has got an aura about it, to be honest with you,” he replied as though half-expecting the question. “You’ve got players at the start of their Test careers and by very definition they don’t have an aura about them. That’s encouraging.”

How quickly things had changed. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, perhaps the two best bowlers Australia have ever possessed, had retired simultaneously at the end of the 2006-07 whitewash over England. Come 2009, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, two of the most awe-inspiring batsmen, had departed the scene too.

Little wonder that English journalists, as well as the team captain, felt confident enough to goad Australia about this lost “aura”. But that was then and this is now. And while players of the calibre of McGrath, Warne, Hayden and Gilchrist don’t grow on trees, Australia are pretty close to winning back universal respect as a very strong cricket side. They have regained the World Cup, are joint second in the Twenty20 rankings (if anyone follows such things), and are second to South Africa in the Test rankings ahead of the home series against West Indies starting 10 December. And frankly, that should be a bit of a penalty kick.

There has been quite a dramatic turnaround since the dark days of 2013. Between February and August of that year, under the captaincy of Michael Clarke, Australia lost seven Tests in nine, and could only draw the other two. But they refused to panic unduly with team selection and promptly banged out seven wins in eight after that, with series wins at home to England and away to South Africa bringing about a most impressive renaissance.

It’s been more up and down since then, and the recent 2-0 home series win over New Zealand sounds better than it was. They batted poorly in the recent Adelaide Test, and if New Zealand had themselves taken a little bit more care with their batting Steven Smith’s men might easily have come away with a defeat and a 1-1 draw.

Batting will clearly be the issue with Australia going forward, because bowling stocks look good at the moment with a clutch of generally fast youngsters, the experienced Peter Siddle and the hugely improved spinner Nathan Lyon all contributing to a pretty powerful unit in that department.

But the batting hangs firmly on the shoulders of two men, Smith and David Warner, and that needs to change. In the calendar year 2014, Smith struck 1,146 runs at 81.85 while Warner contributed 1,136 at 63.11. The next best Australian contributor was the now retired Chris Rogers, a fairly modest 665 at 36.94 from him.

Little has changed in 2015: Smith again infuriating bowling attacks worldwide with 1,260 runs at 66.31, Warner following suit with 1,213 at 57.76. This year, the third-placed man has not been quite so far adrift (Adam Voges hitting 653 at 54.41) but – and partly because the batting unit changed a fair bit during and after the Ashes – nobody else has reached even 400.

Thus the most important thing for Australia’s forward progression in Test matches is for batsmen like Voges, Joe Burns, and (once he returns to fitness) Usman Khawaja to kick on against West Indies and beyond. Mitchell Marsh, the most obvious successor to the all-rounder role filled with a fair amount of success by Shane Watson previously, is not scoring nearly enough runs for a number six at present. Peter Nevill’s 66 at Adelaide could prove a vitally important confidence-booster as he looks to secure the wicketkeeping role, as this will have to include more than just the occasional momentum-seizing innings.

What Smith and Warner have shown is that effective Test match batting is not about style. It’s about having an effective game plan that forces bowlers to abandon orthodox plans, especially when there is no overdue assistance from the surface.

CricViz data tells us that Warner, in his 224-ball 163 in the Brisbane Test against New Zealand, was able to score rapidly without being unduly aggressive. He either defended or left a total of 98 balls. In the second innings, he played to the situation with Australia looking for a declaration. His 116 from 113 balls featured just 21 deliveries that he chose not to attack.

In both innings, Warner’s driving proved particularly profitable, contributing 48 runs in the first innings and 33 in the second. This was partly because New Zealand gave him far more good-length deliveries than short ones – they know that like the best Australian batsmen Warner is a particularly good puller and hooker.

Smith’s 114-ball 53 in the first innings at Adelaide (the next best score by anyone in Australia’s top six was 14) was a very important innings in the context of the series. Acutely conscious that runs were at a premium compared to the luxuries of Brisbane and Perth, Smith’s strike rate was significantly below his average in Tests. He left or defended more than half the balls he received and scored twice as many runs working the ball into gaps or flicking behind square on the leg side (18) as he did through cuts, hooks and pulls combined (nine).

Warner and Smith are very difficult batsmen to bowl too. Warner, with his tree-trunk lump of willow, gets maximum value from his shots and is every bit as intimidating an opponent as Hayden was in his pomp. Smith’s unique selling point is his ability to regularly hit balls in the channel well outside off stump into gaps on the on-side. Both these men are highly unorthodox but supremely good at doing their job. What the team needs is more batsmen as effective as those two – and they don’t necessarily need to be unconventional players – and then they might recover the “aura” that underlined an earlier generation of exceptional Australian cricketers.