India take long time to find the 'short' answer for Head
It wasn't until centurion Travis Head entered the nineties that the Indian bowlers resorted to the short-ball tactic for the Aussie batter
As Day 2 of the World Test Championship final began, the big question ahead of the Indian team was the one posed by Travis Head, the Australian batter who had ended the first day on 146* off just 156 deliveries.
The left-hander scores quickly without ever trying to — his career strike-rate in Tests is 61.82 and over the last three years it has risen to 78.34. It is an all-or-nothing approach, but it has worked (he also averages 53.07 over the last three years). His natural game sees him attack at every opportunity and invariably forces bowlers to change their lengths. You come in with a plan and suddenly find yourself leaking runs.
For much of Day 1, India’s bowlers tried to exploit the English conditions — find a good length and let the movement do its trick. But for much of the day, it was a tactic that didn’t work.
Head's key strength, as CricViz noted, is counter-attack, his ability to attack good-length deliveries standing out. In this WTC Cycle, he has been dismissed only once attacking good length deliveries out of 134 balls — the global dismissal rate is 34. This put India off their lengths. The plan wasn’t working.
And they didn’t find their comeback until late in the day when Head had already entered the nineties. India started going at the left-hander with the short ball — it wasn’t a barrage but it was enough to see that the batter had a problem with this line of attack.
Head’s response had been awkward. When the ball was just around chest high, he would punish it. When it was a bit higher, he seemed to be caught in two minds. But before India could push him even more, the day ended.
At close of play, India’s bowling coach Paras Mhambrey felt that his team had missed a trick.
“I thought that's one definitely discussed among our bowlers,” said Mhambrey when asked about short-pitched bowling. “We always felt that that was an area that we could exploit against him. But we could have done it a little earlier. Maybe 30-40 runs before, this strategy could have been implemented. But I think you also go with the captain’s instincts. And he felt maybe that situation wasn't right to use that kind of a strategy. But I thought we could have done it a little earlier.”
So come Day 2, it was interesting to see whether the bowling coach had managed to convince the skipper. For a moment, it looked like he hadn’t. Mohammed Siraj served up two half-volleys to Steve Smith, and the Australian got to his century without much fuss.
But then Smith backed away just as Siraj was about to bowl a delivery in the third over of the day. The spider cam was in his line of sight. It didn’t please the bowler, and sometimes, building up a head of steam is just as good as having a brilliant strategy in place.
India had attacked right from the first delivery — their lengths were full or short. Australia had attacked too — they scored 34 runs off the first six overs. But at some point, something had to give.
When Smith backed away, Siraj seemed to suddenly remember that he needed to bowl short at Head. That started him and Shami off. It was clear to anyone watching that the left-hander was being targeted, three fielders along the boundary line challenging the batter to have a go.
Head got a few more shots away but if England were watching, they would be sure to adopt this strategy in the Ashes. Eventually, it worked. He shuffled across the stumps to try and hit the ball towards fine-leg but brushed it to the keeper.
According to CricViz data, Head had 38% false shots against short-pitched balls aimed at his body but dominated everything else. But that is exactly what India failed to pick up on.
Apart from the extraordinary partnership between Head and Smith (285 off 408 balls), the Aussies were able to score only 184 runs. In hindsight, it feels like India missed a huge trick here. When Jasprit Bumrah (career economy 2.69), Ishant Sharma (ER over last five years, 2.80) and Mohammed Shami were at their peak, rarely if ever were such opportunities missed.
Even when things weren’t going to plan, they had the control to restrict the flow of runs. Siraj (28.3 overs, 108 runs) and Shami (29 overs, 122 runs) couldn’t quite do that, allowing Australia to reach 469 before being dismissed.
So much of Test cricket is about finding the right tactic. India’s problem was that they took a long time to find the ‘short’ answer.