India’s pace pangs in Australia
India vs Australia: The Tests are a fortnight away, but the confidence of the new-ball bowlers has been hit after heavy defeats in the first two ODIs at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
In 2018-19, India’s fast bowlers received high praise after their historic first Test series victory in Australia. Their quickly adapting to Australian conditions, and striking early with the kookaburra ball that can lose sting once the shine wears off, it was a coming of age story.
The Tests are a fortnight away, but the confidence of the new-ball bowlers has been hit after heavy defeats in the first two ODIs at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
India’s bowlers landed in Australia in good rhythm, high on confidence. Playing in the two-month Indian Premier League had helped build on their run-up, pace and control after months-long lockdown. Strike bowlers Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami were impressive in the T20 league, moving the ball at high pace to be among the leading wicket-takers. Yuzvendra Chahal was the stand-out spinner.
The SCG matches have shaken them. Taken for 374 runs in the series opener, India conceded 389 on Sunday, losing both the games tamely. It left their batsmen with too many runs to chase.
Bumrah (10-1-79-1) and Shami (9-0-73-1) conceded 70-plus runs on Sunday. The bigger concern is Bumrah has taken just three wickets in eight ODIs this year, averaging 146.33. Main spinner Chahal went for 89 and 71 (nine overs) in the two games.
Former India captain and chief selector, Dilip Vengsarkar, blamed the bowling woes on a lack of tour games. “The thing is we have come to Australia without any match practice. I always believe when you go to Australia, England or South Africa, the conditions are different. Even if you have gone there many times, it takes time to acclimatise to the wickets and conditions. They are directly coming from playing the T20 format; it will take time,” he said.
“We always make this mistake—they should have played two proper one-day games. Of course, they did match simulation, but that is different from a proper game. I’m sure Indians will get progressively better. Though they lost, they put up an improved performance in the second match. I am positive they will keep improving as the tour progresses and put up a better performance in the Tests.”
The flat SCG wicket took the sting out of India’s bowling. On a batting wicket, the key is to come up with smart game plans for each player and executing it well. That’s been the difference between the sides.
In the first game, Australia took out India’s top-order with short stuff as Mayank Agarwal, Shreyas Iyer and Virat Kohli fell for the trap set by Josh Hazlewood. Hardik Pandya got 90, but in the second game the hosts were ready. With Pandya using the depth of the crease to target the fast bowlers, Pat Cummins frustrated him with off-cutters wide of the crease. Unable to break free, he was out for a 31-ball 28.
By contrast, Glenn Maxwell has been given a free run. IPL teams were successful in countering his open stance. In the ODIs though, he has proved hard to stop with a 19-ball 45 and 29-ball 63*.
“IPL is different, can’t compare that with international cricket. There you have to hit every ball; in 50 overs, they organise their batting as they don’t have to do that. Wickets with more bounce suit Maxwell’s game,” said Madan Lal, former India pacer and coach.
“The Australians are playing a very aggressive game and we have to match it, otherwise we have no chance in T20s as well. You can’t bowl short on Australian wickets, they will rock back and smash you. You have to hit the deck at a length where it becomes difficult to hit,” said former India pacer, Kharsan Ghavri.
Lal attributed the struggles to an inability to move the ball. “I am surprised our main bowlers Bumrah and Shami are struggling. If you don’t move the ball, it is always going to be very difficult. Navdeep Saini’s ball is coming straight. The only bowler who looks like moving the ball is Shami. Otherwise it is up-and-down stuff. Whatever speeds they bowl—141 to 145 kph—is not going to trouble Australia batsmen. They are used to that. The lack of early wickets is going to put pressure on the spinners and the batsmen are able to attack Chahal,” said Lal, who felt Shardul Thakur and Deepak Chahar (in T20 squad) may be more effective as they can move the ball.
India vice-captain KL Rahul defended the bowlers at Sunday’s post-match press conference, but the India think-tank knows if it does not find a way to stop Steve Smith, it will become a forgettable tour. Australia’s ace batsman has been in great touch, scoring back-to-back hundreds, and the bowlers have been clueless against him.
Vengsarkar felt India’s best chance to stop Smith would be bowling discipline. “They will have to bowl on one side of the wicket, and the length is important to him. If you bowl on both sides, it will be difficult to set a field. Because of T20s, there have been so many innovations that he has shots all around the wicket. If you just bowl on the off-stump, you will force him to take chances. That’s the only way. He will try to hit through the line, (but) the thing is there is always a chance if you bowl a disciplined line and length.”
Ghavri echoed Vengsarkar’s views: “Smith is very strong on the on-side; to stop him you have to pack the off-side, and he is bound to make mistakes.”
Sachin Tendulkar had advised the fast bowlers before the series. “Smith’s technique is unconventional...Normally, we tell a bowler in Tests to bowl on or around off-stump, or may be a fourth stump line. But for Smith, because he shuffles, may be that line moves further away by four to five inches,” he told PTI.
“One has to aim between fourth and fifth stump for Steve to nick one—it’s a mental adjustment of line more than anything else.”
Lal, who took the most famous wicket in ODI history—Viv Richards in the 1983 World Cup final—though felt Bumrah and Co must attack the stumps against Smith.
“Don’t give him any room, let him make room. He is hitting the balls from the stumps, but at least you have a chance of getting him out. If you gift him runs, he is going to be lethal,” he said.
Bumrah is known to adapt quickly to conditions. Hazlewood’s tactic of “bowling into the pitch” or digging it in to extract bounce has worked. Hardik Pandya, though bowling at half his usual pace as he works on his bowling after back surgery, tried that on Sunday and was successful to an extent.
Bumrah explained his thought process in an earlier interview to HT.
“If I’m going to England, I ask myself, what does James Anderson do? I like to do a lot of homework.”
He gave the example of his successful Test debut in South Africa, in January 2018. “I’d never gone to South Africa. I was playing my first Test. When you play in India, you look to bowl full because there’s not a lot of bounce over here. But in South Africa, I quickly realised that when I bowled full, they play through the line and it’s easier for them to play that length.”
A strong response by the fast bowlers could mark a turnaround.