India vs Australia Test series Preview - India’s balancing act: Meeting fire with fire
At the Sydney Cricket Ground this week, as Australia A crossed 200 in their second innings of the day-night warm-up game against India, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami launched a bumper barrage. Bumrah came round the wicket to give Jack Wildermuth the Indian version of the perfume ball, the name given in the West Indies for deliveries aimed at the throat of batsmen.
Wildermuth swayed and avoided it, but was helpless as the next ball climbed on him, and flew off the top of his blade. Luckily, it fell in no man’s land, away from the ‘keeper and the slip fielders.
In his next over, it was the turn of Ben McDermott, batting in his 80s. Bumrah’s searing delivery into his body had him hopping and the ball ballooned off the splice. It fell on the leg side, though again there was no catcher. Shami fired in some snorters from the other end.
It was a none-too-subtle signal to Australia batsmen on what they can expect, much like what the Indian batsmen will be gearing up to face from Mitchell Starc and Co in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy series starting on Thursday. Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are as good an Australian unit there has been in their rich fast bowling history. Though there is no Ishant Sharma, India won’t be far behind, especially if the seasoned Umesh Yadav plays and gets his rhythm.
After a sterling show in India’s historic first series victory in 2018-19, all eyes are on Bumrah. He has the pace and a knack of hitting the right length to extract bounce on Australian wickets. He keeps at it—the pace doesn’t drop in the later spells. According to CricViz data, last time’s joint highest wicket-taker with 21 scalps took all but three wickets after the 31st over (nine between 31-80 overs, nine after 81).
Bumrah’s unique action and pace apart, his range—fast and slow yorkers, and bouncers quick and slow—can unsettle any batsman. He also bowls a very good length ball that can move either way. Shami gets the new ball to shape away in either direction; with the old ball, he extracts seam movement. Umesh generates good pace and has an excellent bouncer.
When individual brilliance is chanelled into team tactics, the potency goes up. In 12 matches Bumrah and Shami have played together in Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand, they have taken 101 wickets together. In 11 games Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood have played together in Australia, they have 144.
Clicking as a unit is what gives India success, says former left-arm pacer Karsan Ghavri, who featured in three Test wins (two in 1977-78, one in 1981-2) in the six matches he played in Australia, taking 21 wickets in all. “In Test cricket, the kind of attack we have is supposed to be the best in world cricket. There will be a result in all the games. Both teams have quality bowlers to take 20 wickets and win the game.”
Ghavri is confident India will overcome the absence of Ishant Sharma, who would have played in his fifth series in Australia but for injury. “Bumrah and Shami can complement each other,” he said. “Their bowling style is different, which helps. Bumrah’s natural delivery is the in-swinger; now he has developed an outgoing ball… Shami bowls with great accuracy, which will be the key.”
Ghavri was Kapil Dev’s new-ball partner and they didn’t let opening partnerships cross 100 for around 25 Tests. He says competitiveness among teammates helps. “They have a healthy rivalry going. If Shami takes one wicket, Bumrah will try and take two. That attitude also helps the team,” says Ghavri.
The top three Australia fast bowlers are over 1.91m and disconcerting bounce will be a challenge. “They will be at the Indian batsman’s throat. There will be a lot of short-pitched deliveries and they will set the field accordingly, try and force mistakes from the batsmen.”
At the start of the year, pace legend Glenn McGrath had said the current attack could match that of any era in Australian cricket. “They are right up there, without a doubt, their stats prove that. In Australian conditions they are tough to face; they will be tough to face anywhere in the world.”
Last month, in a media interaction, he explained. “Hazlewood bowls in good areas and is tall, strong. Pat Cummins is the No.1 bowler in the world, runs in all day, always gives 100 %. He gets slightly different angles because of the way he runs in. Starc, when he gets it right, can pick four-five wickets at a go. He has got that X-factor.”
Australia’s strong bench has James Pattinson, who is in good form while India will miss Ishant’s experience and mastery at reverse swing.
The Australia pacers are waiting to settle scores. The last time, they were outperformed by Bumrah, Shami and Ishant in all aspects—most wickets, best bowling averages and strike rate. Bumrah was joint highest wicket-taker with 21 scalps. Shami was the second highest. Ishant, who played three Tests, took 11 wickets, and their combined tally was 48. Starc (13 wickets), Cummins (14) and Hazlewood (13) shared 40.
Bumrah (44.90), Shami (51.25) and Ishant (56.18) had better strike rate than Cummins (62.14), Starc (64.08) and Hazlewood (70.23). In averages too, Bumrah (17.00), Ishant (23.82) and Shami (26.19) were ahead. Cummins was the best for the Aussies (27.79).
CricViz analysis shows Bumrah reaped success by maintaining a line of attack wide outside off-stump, bowled 90% in the channel, averaging 142.5 kph. Only Starc was quicker, averaging 144 kph. But he wasn’t consistent. He bowled 41.5% deliveries in the channel, 25.8% on the stumps and nearly 17% down the leg.
In the last series, Starc’s poor form hurt Australia. Since then, he has played eight Tests, taking 45 wickets at an average of 18.42 and a strike rate of 34.8, well below his career numbers (26.97 and 48.1).
The left-arm pacer looked rusty in the one-dayers, but has a great record in pink-ball Tests. Australia have won all seven played at home and Starc has 42 wickets.
Starc told ESPN’s The Cricket Monthly: “You never want to lose a series and you certainly never want to lose one in Australia. India were just better than us throughout the series with bat and ball… We needed to be better in all facets of the game and this summer’s certainly a chance to rectify that.”
Indians will be more wary of Cummins, who has a knack of producing wicket-taking balls during a lull and surprising set batsman. Since the last India series, he has risen to No.1 in Test rankings with 63 wickets (9 Tests, 4 series). Hazlewood has 30 wickets in six Tests. He bowled just 1.2 overs in a seventh.
The rise of their fast bowlers has fundamentally changed India’s mindset. Earlier, no pace bowling partnerships meant they could not put pressure on Australia in their backyard.
That has changed. In the day-night game, the bouncer barrage sent a clear message. It has sowed doubts in the Australia management’s minds over pitches. Otherwise, with Virat Kohli leaving for home after the first Test, Australia would have rolled out bouncy, green tracks to go after India’s batsmen, confident their own would cope.
That used to be the tactic before Bumrah’s arrival in early 2018. In 2011 in England, Zaheer Khan limped out the first day of the series and England had a free run after that, winning 4-0. They laid out seam-friendly tracks for the next three Tests and James Anderson and Stuart Broad wreaked havoc.
Australia know their batsmen can get back as good as their bowlers give.