As Australia slumped to a series defeat against Sri Lanka in Galle, their shortcomings against spin bowling were exposed in ruthless fashion. Now 2-0 down in the three match series after losing the first Test in Pallekele as well, Steve Smith’s side are set to lose their spot at the top of the world rankings as their wretched record in Asia continues.
Going back to the start of the India series in 2013 – the tour that became infamous for coach Micky Arthur’s ‘homework-gate’ fiasco – Australia have now lost eight consecutive Test matches in the subcontinent and the UAE. The common denominator across all eight matches has been the dominance of the home sides’ spin bowlers, as compared to the limited impact seen by the various spinners Australia have tried in the traditionally spin-friendly conditions.
The eight defeats in India, UAE and Sri Lanka have seen Australia lose a total of 159 wickets with 131 – or just over 82% – taken by spin bowlers. Conversely, of the 111 wickets that Australia have taken in those matches, only 51 of them (46%) have gone to their spin bowlers. As one would expect, Nathan Lyon has been Australia’s most prolific spinner in that period. He has taken 27 of the 51 wickets having played in seven of the eight defeats but the dismissals have come at a worryingly high average of 46.7. His strike rate of 67.5 is adequate and only a few balls higher than his career strike rate of 61.9 so the high average illustrates that batsmen are going after him, meaning that each wicket is far more expensive than his career average of 32.8.
The approach that Asian batsmen have taken to thwarting Lyon is something that Australia would do well to take on board. During the first innings of the Galle Test, Sri Lanka’s batsmen attacked 55% of all deliveries bowled by Lyon and debutant Jon Holland. When Australia batted in their first innings, that figure was just 38% and seven of the nine batsmen who fell to spin did so playing a defensive shot – or, in the case of Usman Khawaja, no shot at all. Sri Lanka were even more aggressive against Lyon and Holland in the second innings, attacking 63% of the deliveries they bowled and while Australia’s figure for their second innings was up to 47%, it nonetheless illustrated the tentative approach they had to the turning ball throughout the match.
There is one mitigating factor to consider and that is the state of the match when Sri Lanka started their second innings. Having bowled out Australia for just 106 and holding a lead of 175, the home side could bat freely without scoreboard pressure and targeting Holland, a left-arm spinner playing in his first Test, would have been a logical step. However, the data shows that Sri Lanka did not target Holland specifically as his percentage of balls attacked was almost identical to Lyon’s.
The difference in mind-set was evident to anyone who watched the extraordinary events unfold on Day 2 in Galle. Australia were tentative and prodding during a collapse that saw them lose 47-8 on their way to being bowled out for 106; Sri Lanka were aggressive and carefree as they put on 237 to bat Australia out of the game. For a side that prides itself on positive, attacking cricket and scored at an average rate of 4.3 runs per over during their most recent home summer, the contrast in Australia’s differing game plans could not be more pronounced.
After Australia lost the first Test in Pallekele, the Chairman of Selectors Rod Marsh lamented that there was little more that they could do in terms of preparation, highlighting the success Australia ‘A’ had had during their tour to India last year and questioning if the extra pressure of a Test match environment was playing on the players’ minds. It is as good an explanation as any for Australia’s failings against spin; batsmen famed for their bravado and aggression retreating into their shell when confronted with high quality spinners on a turning track.
So with the series lost and the number one ranking surely gone, Australia have the third Test in Colombo to salvage some pride. However, if their batsmen continue with the tentative approach to playing Sri Lanka’s spinners, their long wait for a win on Asian soil might yet continue.