Virat Kohli has given his customary two penny’s cuss words to Brad Haddin upon his arrival to the crease. Long-leg’s back on the fence. So is deep backward square-leg. India think they have got one-up on the Australian wicket-keeper for whatever reason. Kohli certainly does. He expects his bowler, Mohammed Shami, to attack Haddin’s throat, or maybe his head. Or how about a nice double-bluff and bring out a searing toe-crusher. A haggard Shami runs in, buoyed slightly by the wicket of Shaun Marsh. The ball lands right under Haddin’s bat, who launches it over mid-on with a glorified follow-through of his bat-swing despite his customary short-back lift. The ball thuds into the boundary boards at the Randwick End. Kohli stares at the feet. Haddin is smiling, and walks away towards square-leg. The joke’s on the Indian captain even if he refuses to see the funny side of it.
Umesh Yadav has come in for his first spell of the second morning. He’s welcomed to the bowling mark by a 7-2 off-side field. Kohli has given him two slips and a gully. He’s literally telling Yadav, “Bowl outside off. Keep it tight.” The new-ball’s still only 16-overs old. Steve Smith is in his nineties. He’s not been as electric as Day One. He’s been bogged down by very satisfactory spells from Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. Second ball of the over, Yadav pitches it short and is walloped to the boundary for four. Next over, he gives Smith a full-toss on his pads, which he whips away for four to bring up his fourth century of the tour. Kohli stares at his feet, as Smith celebrates.
Ryan Harris has walked to the middle. He needs to be kept on straight. Haddin waits at the other end. Australia are hurtling towards declaration. India need to delay it and ensure fewer overs for their batsmen to contend with. Kohli goes to Kumar. The field is in to prevent Harris from changing over. Kumar deliveries two half-volleys, one outside-off and the second on Harris’ pads. Both go screaming to the fence. Then he bowls short and is slapped for four. Nineteeen come off the over. Next over, Australia declare. Kohli stares at his feet again, before walking off the field.
Like in life, you are also judged by the company you keep on the cricket field, especially if you are a captain. So far while Kohli has insisted and raved on about having more firepower in his present pace attack than ever before. But like they did in Adelaide—and they did in Dhoni’s case around the world—they had let him down again. Australia had crossed 500 again becoming only the second team in history to do so on four or more occasions in the same Test series. In the over before being assaulted by Harris, Kumar had become the 15th Indian bowler to concede over 100 runs in an innings in the series. Off those 15, five had done so at over five-runs-an-over. For the third time in four matches, all four of India’s recognised bowlers had finished with three-figures in their tally.
Four of their frontline bowlers on tour have gone at over 4-an-over in the series. Varun Aaron’s economy rates in the two Tests he played was 5.64.
That this should be the case shouldn’t surprise anyone. For, seeing India bowl so far in this series, you wouldn’t be able to fathom whether they were doing so to defend or to attack. Not once have they shifted to boring a batsman out, i.e. stick to a line or a length and coax him into an error. They’ve had their strategies. Some prudent — like bowling short to Brad Haddin in the first two Tests — some ludicrous — bowling around the wicket to David Warner in both innings at Adelaide. But once plan A hasn’t worked, they’ve just not fathomed how to deal with it. Then, it’s been a lottery. Let’s run up and roll our arms over, and hope it lands somewhere on the right spot. They have hardly set anyone up. India have gotten wickets along the way, which you anyway will. But they’ve hardly ever earned a dismissal in this series. There have been no sustained attacks that have led to any breakthroughs.
Yadav, too short
The major reason for that is the brazen waywardness of their bowlers. And also their inability to find the right length. At the SCG, only seven of the 137 runs Yadav conceded came in the ‘V’. And close to 17 off the 19 boundaries that were hit off him came from short-of-length deliveries. Only 14 out of the 55 deliveries he bowled to Smith were on the right length. One of them even fetched him the Australian captain’s wicket. But he hardly persisted there. He was instead content to bang it into the slow wicket and see what happens.
Smith on his own has hit 75 fours in the series. A number of them have been off Shami. The Bengal seamer, who finished with a facile five-wicket haul, to his credit has bowled some of India’s best deliveries on tour. But with him the issue is an absolute lack of consistency, almost as if he’s slinging them in and not bowling them in. He’s drifted down to the batsman’s pads every fourth delivery in this series, which means Kohli and MS Dhoni before him can blame him solely if they want for the effect captaincy has had and will have on their respective hairlines.
Kumar came into the match looking semi-fit. And he’s bowled at the SCG like he was on anaesthetics, pale, disoriented and clearly lacking in energy. He was the most accurate of the Indian bowlers. But he was too full. Off the 18 boundaries hit off him, 10 came off half-volleys or balls pitching too far close to the batsman at gentle and inviting pace.
Ishant might have been India’s best bowler so far but he’s bowled more like a third seamer than as the leader of the attack, solely based on the length he’s operated at. By bowling short-of-length some 76 per cent of the time, he’s had a speed-breaker effect on the marauding Aussies. But he’s hardly bowled wicket-taking deliveries as a result, or even threatened to do so.
The reasons for the Indian pacers’ plight are plenty. They don’t play enough first-class cricket. They go from Test series to Test series. Yes, you can work out plans and strategies in the nets. But building Test match temperament or mental stamina is a whole different matter altogether. Being relentless and being bull-headed about pitching the ball consistently on a spot requires concentration, loads of it. The likes of Shami & Co have come a cropper in that department. Probably it’s because they don’t have to do so too often in the little domestic cricket that they have played. It’s an ironically vicious circle. They get noticed in the first place for having been good enough to roll over batting line-ups in domestic cricket. But at that level, they never had to prise out wickets. They never learned that art. Then they come to Test level, where persistence is everything. And they realize it wasn’t in their syllabus at learning school.
Probably it’s a fitness issue, too. But whatever it is, it might in the coming months lead Kohli to rethink his ‘aggression first’ policy at least on the field in away climes. For, it takes a competent bowling attack to back up those claims.
On batting-friendly Australian pitches, both teams have had to toil to pick up wickets. What has given Australia the advantage is that their pacers have shown far more control than the Indians.
Mohd Shami, 14 wickets, has the best strike rate by a pacer (51.6) in the series. Josh Hazelwood (9 wickets) has the best strike rate by an Australian with 55.5. Even Umesh Yadav (11 wickets) with a strike rate of 63 compares favourably with Ryan Harris (8 wickets @ 66.7).
Indian pacers have, however, been expensive. Yadav (4.35), Shami (4.18) and Varun Aaron (5.64) have gone above four an over. Ishant (3.47) is the most economical Indian pacer. In contrast, Harris (2.48 ), Hazelwood (3.20), Mitchell Johnson (3.77) have been restrictive.
R Ashwin — India have had to rely on R Ashwin (economy 3.13) to tie down the runs. But his strike rate is an alarming 114.5 (nearly 20 overs between wickets). To prevent the game from drifting, India have to bowl their far more expensive pacers. Australia’s spinner Nathan Lyon, in contrast, has a series-leading strike rate of 48.8 and wickets (19) and also a reasonable economy rate of 3.84.