Ben Jones analyses a day where Australia fought through the tough times, then threw away the initiative.
India’s bowlers will be relieved. At the end of Day One, it appeared briefly that their loose new ball display had cost their side heavily. Inaccurate and down on pace, Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah wasted the weapons available to them on a lively surface, and Australia got off to a strong start. Today, they more than made up for it.
With the new ball on Day Three, India bowled so much better today than they did on Day One. They were quicker, finding that extra yard of pace that can force mistakes, and they were more accurate. They actually found less swing and seam movement than they did on the opening morning, but the effectiveness of what they did find was maximised by the regularity with which they hit that good line and length. They did more with less.
What’s more, they were getting results – of a kind. They produced more false shots with their new ball spell than anyone has done in the match so far. A reflection of the degrading surface to an extent, but also testament to the fact that India had improved significantly from the first innings. Yet they went wicketless in those overs, despite this increase in Australian mistakes. It’s a cruel aspect of high-level sport that sometimes your luck deserts you when you most deserve it, and when you most need it.
The turning point of the day was the injury to Aaron Finch. Hit on the finger by a sharp delivery from Shami, the opener was in clear anguish, and was forced from the field. However, in some respects Finch brought the injury on himself, a judgement it’s more comfortable to make now he has been cleared of any serious injury. He was batting so far out of his crease (2.5m away from his stumps), the danger of the Indian seamers was clearly heightened. It was a mistake that might not have cost him his wicket, but it cost him his place at the crease.
Without his partner at the crease, Harris was visibly less comfortable. He added just 12 more runs after the break, and looked to have been affected by a blow to the head. His mind maybe still scrambled, he left a straight ball from Bumrah that clipped the off bail. It’s the immediate instinct to blame the batsman in such a scenario, but Bumrah clearly plays trick on batsmen in this regard; it’s the third time he’s dismissed a batsman playing no shot, more than any other bowler in 2018. He does something that others don’t.
Just as India were taking their foot off the gas, as the Test was drifting away from them, Australia contrived to collapse. Harris’ wicket brought about a worryingly limp capitulation from those below him in the order. Shaun Marsh has been a resident at last chance saloon for so long now that the reception on his arrival resembles something out of ‘Cheers’. For so long, his weakness outside off-stump has held him back from reaching that top level, and it’s an ailment not showing any signs of being cured by experience. In 2018, against pace deliveries in the channel outside off-stump, Marsh averages 9.40. For a batsman challenged to step into Steve Smith’s shoes at No.4, that is simply not reflective of necessary application or ability. He didn’t get a ripper of a delivery – according to Wicket Probability, it had just a 2.4% chance of dismissing him – but instead played a loose shot at a crucial moment. His place may be under threat.
Soon after, an equally familiar scene unfolded, as Handscomb’s technical issues continued. Against deliveries from seamers that would have hit or clipped his stumps, Handscomb averages 5.80, being dismissed LBW/Bowled on eight occasions in Test cricket; the groans of frustrated recognition rang loud around the Perth Stadium as he was struck on the back leg by Ishant, gone again. Against an attack as deep as India’s, it’s hard to see how a player with such a specific, pronounced flaw can survive, let alone thrive.
Travis Head was dismissed by the second widest ball he faced. In the five overs previous to his dismissal, India’s xDR was 84.9. There was no pressure building from the bowlers, only from the scorecard and, perhaps, in the mind of the South Australian. To be dismissed playing at such a loose delivery was, yet again, an error of judgement from a man well set at the crease. The ball which dismissed him had just an 0.8% chance of taking a wicket. Australia were doing India’s work for them.
This is the truth of it; in this passage where Australia collapsed, India weren’t pushing. There was none of the vim and vigour of before the break, the atmosphere more patient than anticipatory. Indeed, Harris’ dismissal marked a clear decline in quality from the Indian bowlers, which Handscomb, Marsh and Head duly compensated for with rash shots. When Kohli’s bowlers were firing, they got nothing, and when they fell away, they got the luck.
Matches turn on luck; luck turns with time. Australia could, and should, have escaped in this evening session, away into the long grass of a sizeable lead and an unchaseable target. But they failed to make the most of their early good fortune, and instead tosses the advantage back to India. The hosts are still the favourites, but the visitors are still in the game – but only just.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.