The last four Australian wickets put on 75. The last four Indian wickets added 32. The lead obtained by Australia, which can prove to be a match-winning one, amounted to 43.
132 for 4.
At stumps on the third day, Australia are perhaps slightly ahead in this riveting Test match. Effectively they are at a reasonably comfortable 175 for 5. The injury to Aaron Finch is serious, but the cushion of a significant first-innings lead is reassuring. The 43-run lead gave them a head-start in the second innings, in spite of some probing spells by the Indian pacemen. Chasing more than 225 in the final innings on this wicket will be quite a challenge.
At the end of the first day, we had discussed the pros and cons of playing four pace bowlers in the Indian side. We had touched upon what it does to the batting depth.
Let us now analyse what it did at the end of the first set of exchanges in this Test match.
The Australian tail is prone to wagging. Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood are four stubborn customers. Yet, apart from Cummins the others did not really play a major hand in the first innings.
Yet, the final four men of the Australian line-up contributed 34 runs in exchange of 3 of these men getting out.
The Indian counterparts, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah contributed just 9.
One has to agree that scoring runs is not the job description of this excellent bunch of Indian pacemen, by far the best quartet India has ever fielded in a Test match.
But, there is a very relevant statistic, which comes across as even more significant through coincidence.
The last four wickets lasted 26 overs and 2 balls for Australia, helping skipper Tim Paine along as 75 runs were added in the process.
In contrast, the last four Indian wickets lasted only 12.5 overs, that too due to an unusually obdurate Umesh who stuck around for 31 balls and remained unbeaten. Only 32 runs were added after the sixth wicket went down in the form of Virat Kohli at 251.
The difference between the scores put up by the last four partnerships is therefore 75-32 = 43.
That is exactly what the lead amounted to.
In the first innings, Travis Head had slashed Ishant into the hands of Shami with the score on 251. The fall of the sixth wicket had been at identical scores for both the sides.
The runs put on by the last four partnerships made the difference. It produced a lead which can very well prove match-winning.
Late order woes
In England, Nos 1-7 for India had scored at 28.00, marginally more than their English counterparts who managed 27.58.
But while the Nos 8-11 for England had hammered runs at 21.63, the Indians had managed to score at just 9.13 down the order. That too was hauled up by Ravindra Jadeja’s 86 unbeaten runs at The Oval.
That had been the story of the difference between the two sides.
And in this Test match, there are already ominous signs of the story being repeated.
Of course, one cannot suggest that India start looking for lesser bowlers who are more likely to get useful runs down the order. No, that cannot be the way forward. Historically, the team has carried too many decent to less-than-decent medium pacers who could play the vital innings when required. Ramakant Desai, Madan Lal, Roger Binny … the list is long. Even with Kapil Dev at one end, the rest could not be asked to step up and challenge the best pace bowling attack blow for blow in their backyard, or even at home. To be precise, that sort of pace attack found it hard-pressed to pick up 20 wickets on any surface against any side.
But now, with the attack India has, they can do exactly that. They can respond in kind to this excellent Australian bowling unit. This is the firepower that wins matches. And if the side wants to remain at the top of the table and become a champion outfit, they will have to carry on picking the best possible bowlers.
Yet, the balance of the side is a genuine problem. Rishabh Pant should not have to walk in to bat with the score reading 223 for five, while India, for all intents and purposes, are virtually 8 wickets down.
Of course, Ravichandran Ashwin’s injury did not help. And perhaps Ravindra Jadeja could have been squeezed in for one of the pacemen. But, that is an alternative that the team management did not go for. And indeed, on some tracks, India can justifiably want to go in with four pace bowlers, because they indeed have some genuinely good ones. Earlier, the thinking would have been to ignore the surface and play to one’s strengths. Hence, India would load the side with spin. But now, pace is one of India’s major strengths as well. And Perth was a fiery wicket.
As Abhishek Mukherjee has argued in these pages that this is precisely why Virat Kohli has rooted for the inclusion of Hardik Pandya. A paceman who can hold his own with the bat is handy in these circumstances, especially overseas.
At the same time, we need to look at the alarming statistic I hinted at. In England, the runs made by the tail was the difference. Here too, the pattern is recognisable.
If we look at this calendar year, the Indian tail (Nos 9-11) have been one of the most unproductive in world cricket. Only Afghanistan in their one Test, and Zimbabwe in their couple, have done worse. The Australians 9-11 have got their runs at 14.45 per wicket, the Englishmen at 13.08. The Indians have done it at 7.17, with a highest of 28.
That means a difference of 20-22 runs per completed innings with Australia and England. In Test matches with four completed innings, that means a mean difference of 40-44 runs. That is often the difference between a win and a loss.
|Tests in 2018||Average runs of Nos 9-11|
When we look at the same figures for Nos 8-11, that Jadeja innings carries India one slot higher, ahead of South Africa, with an average of 12.29. Take that Jadeja knocks away and once again the Indian tail is just ahead of the Afghans and the Zimbabweans with 10.95. The England 8-11 have scored at 20.21 per wicket. That is an 80-run difference per Test match.
The only way out of the problem of an unproductive tail who are excellent bowlers is perhaps to create a serious process of batting-skill-enhancement for the bowlers in the side. It should be a system with proper ownership and goals, perhaps with a buddy system with a major batsman teaming up with one of the tail-enders, with very specific improvement objectives and targets.
The great Australian side of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s had such a system. One remembers the limpet-like Jason Gillespie with an average of 58 balls faced per dismissal, his many adhesive efforts and finally that double hundred as a career swansong. One remembers the cameos of Brett Lee, the resistances of Michael Kasprowicz, the useful contributions from the likes of Andy Bichel. And as far as Shane Warne was concerned, he was often close to being an all-rounder. He came within one run of scoring a hundred, and almost won the Ashes in 2005 with both bat and ball. Even the notoriously inept Glenn McGrath was in excellent hands, with none other than Steve Waugh overseeing his stints at the crease during practice sessions. It was not for nothing that his average, which read 6.34 after 99 Tests, boasted an inflated 12-plus in the last 25 Tests including an entertaining 61 which brought the team out on the balcony with brightest of smiles.
The resolute tail was one of the many reasons why the Australian side was a great one. If we look at the great sides in history, the tails have always been rather productive. And India does need one at this stage, because the opening batsmen tried overseas this year have managed just one 50-plus innings in a sum-total of 38 innings so far.
If the Indians adapt this policy of skill-building, with perhaps Kohli himself taking charge of Jasprit Bumrah, the situation can definitely improve.
Shami is a seasoned pro now and one of the best fast bowlers produced by the land. Bumrah is a bowler a kind that India has never known. Ishant is hugely improved and has been an asset in overseas conditions over the last four years. Umesh has not been a regular in the side, but still has 119 Test wickets under his belt.
One can say with reasonable certainty that this group will remain the core Indian pace attack, perhaps along with Bhuvneshwar Kumar, for some time to come.
It does make sense to address this unavoidable downside of having the best ever Indian pace attack.