Australia’s new-ball attack is bringing a little Test cricket into the World Cup

Nov 17, 2023 11:30 PM IST

India have built their winning streak on the aggression at the top order but will they change track against metronomes from Down Under

After a rather lacklustre World Cup in terms of close matches and high drama, the semi-final stage has delivered in spades. India beat out New Zealand with a thrilling batting display followed up - alongside a healthy dose of jeopardy - by an outstanding individual performance from Mohammed Shami, to take the hosts one step closer to the title.

Australia's Josh Hazlewood in action (REUTERS)
Australia's Josh Hazlewood in action (REUTERS)

However, it was in the other semi-final, between Australia and South Africa in Kolkata, where the real drama arrived, with Pat Cummins’ side triumphing in a low-scoring thriller. While the tension rose to its highest with Australia’s lower order scrabbling around on ragging Eden Gardens surface, creeping over the line with three wickets to spare, it was the very start of the game which saw the greatest moments of quality.

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Australia’s new ball bowlers, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, were outstanding as they reduced South Africa to 24-4. Frontloaded by captain Cummins, the two legends built scarcely believable levels of pressure. After all the discussion around how South Africa were desperate to bat first and pile on the runs, their hopes were all but extinguished by some of the finest ODI bowling you will see.

It’s not an isolated incident. Australia have been strong in Powerplay 1 throughout much of this 2023 World Cup, and have been particularly outstanding when it comes to limiting scoring opportunities despite the fielding restrictions. While the Aussies have actually struggled for simple breakthroughs - their strike rate is the fourth worst in the opening stages, for any team - they have kept it very tight, with the second best economy rate, beaten only by India.

Indeed, the only time in the tournament where India have been under genuine, sustained pressure by an outfit at the top of their game was in the opener against Australia, when Starc and Hazlewood were similarly devastating. It’s easily forgotten in the rampage of positive results which has followed, but India were threatening to get off to the worst possible start, and that was in the face of Australia’s new ball onslaught.

And yet, while these numbers to stack up over the course of the competition, it wasn’t always this way. After scything through India’s top order, Australia’s new ball attack had a barren 30 overs, where South Africa (53-0), Sri Lanka (51-0) and Pakistan (59-0) all scored quickly and without significant risk. While the latter two matches still ended in victory for Pat Cummins’ side, their high class quicks weren’t hitting their levels. But since then, things have clicked - 10 wickets in six matches, averaging 29 and going at less than 5 runs per over.

Australia haven’t been finding much lateral movement. Across the tournament, they have found 0.51 degrees of seam movement in Overs 1-10, the third lowest in the competition; they have found 0.9 degrees of swing, the fourth lowest. Their effectiveness has not been built on hooping swing or jagging seam, but on something more traditional.

45% of Australian pace deliveries in the first 10 overs have been pitching on a good length, that 6-8m zone to which all seamers aspire. That’s more than any other attack in this World Cup, and they are damned effective when they do find that length - 9 wickets at an average of 21 with the new ball. India themselves are slightly more effective from a good length (8 wickets at an average of 18), but they find that zone far less.

In essence, Australia’s new ball attack is about bringing a little Test cricket into an ODI tournament. Josh Hazlewood slamming it in on a good length, building pressure? Check. Mitchell Starc looking for the magic balls but, just quietly, bowling far fewer half volleys than a bowler of his attacking threat should manage? Sure. Pat Cummins popping in to keep that economy on the floor, and taking rewards where they come? Tick, tick, tick.

India’s campaign has been defined by the first 10 overs, with bat and with ball. With ball, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, and particularly Mohammed Shami, have been exceptional, and frankly there’s no reason for that to change on Sunday. Australia’s top order will have to fight tooth and nail to get through those early stages, and even harder to do so with any sort of score on the board. David Warner and Travis Head have got an immense task ahead of them.

But with the bat, India are in a curious position. They have built their winning streak on the aggression of Rohit Sharma, the captain leading from the front and giving breathing room for Virat Kohli, imperiously averaging over 100 this World Cup, to dictate terms at his own pace. Rohit’s flying starts have been crucial, and it’s no coincidence that the match where India got closest to losing was when he was dismissed early.

That’s the question for India’s top order, and for the skipper in particular, to answer ahead of the final. Against Australia’s metronomic, imperiously skillful new ball bowlers, do they withdraw a touch and seek to get through those early overs, and perhaps look to target the much weaker fifth and sixth bowlers. Or, do they continue to do what’s worked, and worked brilliantly, for the entirety of the tournament - except against Australia.

Only time will tell, but their decision could go someway to deciding the fate of the 2023 ODI World Cup.


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