January 20, 2012

The great Australian chokehold

Geoff Lawson
India's downfall in this series has been due to the relentless pressure the opposition bowlers have kept up, with accuracy, movement and pace working in harmony

The only way to win a Test match is to take 20 wickets - most of the time anyway - and Australia have been doing that easily recently. Post-Argus, post-Andrew Hilditch, post-Mitchell Johnson.

The brutal futility of the last Ashes summer against Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott seems light years away. The Ben Hilfenhaus of 12 months ago has a doppelganger, one with three yards of extra pace, a higher delivery point, reconditioned knees, and late movement. Batsmen now come to the crease with reputations and leave dragging frowns and frayed edges. Peter Siddle has discovered swing - a wonderful accessory to a giant heart and faultless work ethic - and is significantly more potent in taking wickets.

Postman Pat Cummins (he delivers) was included as a premature discovery, a talent of quality, no doubt, but in need of some quantity under the belt. James Pattinson, taken to Sri Lanka in September and then bailed from South Africa in November, was returned to the fold after Cummins discovered the impact of playing a five-day match. Pattinson too has now been sidelined by the same fact of fast bowling life - your feet take a pounding.

Pattinson was identified as a burgeoning talent two years ago and has suffered the obligatory back injury and rehabilitation. He is now more resilient and more knowledgeable about what his body can endure. He has the advantages of height and pace to go with the razor-straight seam that aids swing and seam movement. His final ingredient is his overt aggression: in many ways he is the archetypal Australian quick - if minus the 'tache - as delineated by Spofforth and Lillee.

The Indian capitulation, and I use the word advisedly, has come through the agency of seam bowlers who actually hit the seam - sometimes after it has swung, sometimes without. The greats of the Indian order have been undone by accuracy, movement, discipline and some decent pace. Eight dismissals in every ten have been off the front foot; the tail have mostly got out to short stuff because that is just about all that is bowled to them. Agreeable pitches promote fuller bowling, and Craig McDermott has kept his tribe on the hymn sheet, with hallelujahs dotted on every line.

Like the great West Indian batteries of the 1980s, the current Australian fast bowlers give you few opportunities to score. The methods are different, as only two bouncers an over are allowed now, and more than 11 overs an hour are required, but Siddle, Hilfenhaus, Ryan Harris, Pattinson, and now Mitchell Starc (ragged in his early Tests against New Zealand, but with his radar operational in Perth) are making square cuts and clips to square leg rare indeed.

On this tour it was expected that a team with the two highest run-scorers in Test history and two others with over 8000 each would not find trouble making defendable totals. The problem was thought to be that India weren't going to bowl anyone out.

The pitches have helped seam bowlers of all varieties, and to be fair the Australian batsmen have, apart from in Sydney - and they were 37 for 3 there at one point - also found fluent strokemaking a tad difficult. The Indians have bowled well themselves without quite getting to the level the home squad have managed. The pressure is never released with a scattered over or spell from this pack of Australian pacemen. The sum of the pressure from the whole is greater than the pressure from a sole practitioner. Bowlers who hunt in packs are better than those who hunt as pairs.

The tactic during the lost Ashes was primarily to hit the deck and be persistent, but there was no sign of variety, creativity, movement or, vitally, accuracy. Hilfenhaus' dodgy knee didn't help, and Harris, the best of the crop, could not stay on the park, in true Bruce Reid-style, for consecutive Tests. Siddle persisted but without zip or plan or a roll of the fingers across the seam.

Like the great West Indian batteries of the 1980s, the current Australian fast bowlers give you few opportunities to score

Siddle now has his front shoulder aimed to the target by a few degrees more, aiding swing and pace, and looks a leading man rather than a member of the support cast.

Virender Sehwag's stationary base, which works on low-bouncing pitches, has been exposed by the movement, and he has been captured in the slips. Sachin Tendulkar may have his feet anchored by the artificial hundreds milestone, but if a senior citizen, he has at least looked like one with some time left on the frontline yet. Gautam Gambhir's angled bat nicks bouncing deliveries all too regularly. He and Phillip Hughes may soon be attending the same remedial classes.

Most disturbing for India has been how Rahul Dravid has been bowled in eight of his last ten Test innings. Mostly the offcutter has been responsible - going through the gate, no less, bat and pad separated by a door now more ajar than ever before. That gap has been opened up by the outswing that brings right-handers moving uncertainly toward and outside the line of off stump to cover edges to slip.

VVS Laxman was expected to bloom on Terra Australis, where he has made runs before, but he has looked tentative and unable, like so many, to counter away swing interspersed with off-cut.

It's a simple recipe, but what a difference when the ball moves! Green pitches help seam movement, but they also help the ball stay shine-able. No mention of the dreaded reverse-swing that barren and coarse surfaces promote. Well done to the groundsmen around the country, from Hobart to Perth.

Be sure that there have been some technical changes in the Australian bowlers that are helping the late movement, the seam angles and the pace. They have enjoyed some pastures to bowl on after so many deserts.

India's will has not been as it should - their away record is no excuse. An examination of a different type awaits in Adelaide. The pitch there has never enjoyed a reputation for being green, or seaming, or for all that much pace. Spin generally has its sway and pace bowlers become more effective as the surface dries, bakes and wears and the bounce becomes less predictable. Other tools will have to be pulled out of the kit bag on Bradman's favourite strip if Australia's fast men are to maintain their stranglehold on the prolific but barely breathing Indian batting line-up.

Geoff Lawson played 46 Test matches for Australia, and has coached NSW and Pakistan. He now commentates on the game for ABC radio