Patrick Noone on why we shouldn’t write off Australia, even if the ball is swinging and seaming
Australia have not won an away Ashes series since 2001. The reasons for them failing to win in England since have been numerous and varied, but the enduring image from their most recent tour, in 2015, was of a succession of batsmen throwing hard hands at balls outside their off-stump during Stuart Broad’s 8-15 demolition job at Trent Bridge. Since then, the prevailing narrative has been that Australia Do Not Play The Moving Ball Well and that England’s bowling attack, allied to helpful conditions, are perfectly placed to exploit those weaknesses.
Conditions in Test cricket in England have rarely been as bowler-friendly as they are right now. Top six batsmen averaged just 28.32 across the seven Tests played in 2018 and, if the one-off Test at Lord’s between England and Ireland is anything to go by, we look set to be in for another summer of ball dominating bat.
Last year’s series against both Pakistan and India saw seam bowlers from all teams find prodigious movement off the pitch. In fact, there was more seam movement, on average, in Tests on UK soil last year than in any previous summer on record. Given the decision to use last year’s batch of Duke’s balls for the upcoming Ashes series, there is plenty to suggest that seamers will once again dominate proceedings.
While their batsmen might still be dogged by criticism about how they play the moving ball, Australia’s recent record against balls seaming a large amount (more than 0.75°) is far better than many might think, better even than every other team’s top six since the start of 2015.
This suggests that, despite their reputation, Australia are as well-equipped as anyone to deal the ball in seaming conditions. Where they have struggled in recent years is in conditions where there is lateral movement through the air – swing, rather than seam. Balls that swing more than 3.00° tend to be less threatening than those in the bracket between 0.75° and 3.00°, suggesting it’s possible to find too much swing. Australia’s record against balls in that sweet spot of swing is poor; their average is lower than any other team since the start of 2015.
As we’ve already seen, bowlers are finding more seam movement than ever in England at the moment, but it’s actually a different story for balls swinging a dangerous amount. The last two years have seen the lowest percentage of balls in the 0.75°-3.00° bracket since records began.
So, while the ball is doing plenty off the pitch, we know that Australia can deal with the seaming ball. And, while they might struggle against the swinging ball, recent data suggests that they won’t be facing as many balls of the kind they struggle against as they might ordinarily expect.
Furthermore, Australia’s preparation for this series has been solid, both in terms of their warm up matches and in their batsmen getting valuable experience in English conditions. Cameron Bancroft and Marnus Labuschagne have respectively played nine and ten matches in this season’s County Championship and both are in the top ten list for batting averages across the two divisions.
In fact, of the ten batsmen named in Australia’s squad, only Matthew Wade and Marcus Harris have played less than five First Class matches on English soil. With hints from the Australian camp that it will be Bancroft who partners David Warner at the top of the order, rather than Harris, Australia’s probable top six will have played 64 First Class matches in England before the series gets underway.
For context, in 2015, Australia’s top six had played a total of 87 First Class matches in England prior to the first Test, and that team contained veterans such as Chris Rogers, Adam Voges, Michael Clarke and Shane Watson. For the current team to have played just 23 fewer matches than their 2015 counterparts, despite their relative youth and perceived inexperience, is a credit to the preparations made by the Australian setup this time around.
In comparison to the batsmen selected in England’s squad for the first Test at Edgbaston, Australia’s batting line-up actually boasts a very slightly superior record in First Class cricket on these shores. Of course, the sample sizes differ and the margin between the two sides is small, but the numbers do at least suggest that Australia won’t be the rabbits in headlights that some have been expecting them to be against the Duke’s ball.
Nonetheless, Australia will have seen what England did to Ireland on the third morning at Lord’s. They will know that when they get it right, they can be devastating in these conditions, especially once James Anderson and Jofra Archer are added to the equation, but they come into the series knowing they have done all they can to counter that threat.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.