August 20, 2013

What Australia have done right

Their batsmen may have flopped but their bowlers have done their homework and stuck to their plans

Australia's bowlers have been the unlikely stars of the current Ashes. Even though England have collectively and decisively defended the title, their players' individual imperfections have made them look somewhat error-prone. On the other hand, the Australia batsmen's lack of skill seems to have widened the gap between their glorious past and the iffy present, but their counterparts, the Australian bowlers, quite the underdogs, have relentlessly challenged the England batsmen, irrespective of the final outcome.

It hasn't been the English batsmen or bowlers, and certainly not the Australian batsmen, who have prevented the proceedings from looking mundane, but the likes of Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon, who have doggedly applied pressure on the hosts.

That's the beauty of a long series like the Ashes - it allows bowlers to plot and plan. The time available - five days in a match and five Tests in the series - allows bowlers to work on a batsman, set up dismissals, and showcase all their wares. The early help from the pitch and five days of wear and tear add an interesting sub-plot.

In this Ashes too, in spite of the one-sided scoreline, Australia's bowlers, time and again, have tirelessly brought their team back into the contest. The way they have trapped England's batsmen has not only showed off their specific game plans but also their patience and discipline in executing those plans ball after ball.

England have had plenty of problems at the top of the order - their top three have barely managed to contribute in the first four Test matches. Had it not been for runs from Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, the series result could perhaps have read differently. But it's not that England's top three are all going through a bad patch; it has been made to look that way by some thorough thinking and execution by Australia.

Alastair Cook, who has been a prolific scorer for England, has been struggling to put a big score together in this series. There has been a concerted effort to attack his off stump, mostly from over the wicket, by the right-arm bowlers. They have made a conscious decision to stay away from his pads come what may. If they have erred, it has been on the side of going further outside off; they have rarely bowled on his legs.

They have also bowled full, drawing Cook forward all the time, and that discipline seems to have squeezed him dry. He has stayed at the pitch for long periods but runs haven't flowed, for he hasn't been fed on his strength, which is to play off his legs. In the last innings of the fourth Test, Cook played 37 balls, of which 33 were outside off. That's discipline.

Almost 90% of those 33 deliveries that ended outside off, pitched inside or just a shade outside off stump. The Australian bowlers have used the angle to good effect to take the ball away from Cook, and that has made the occasional in-dipper more potent. Twice in this series Cook has got out leg-before expecting the ball to go away after pitching.

While the Australians deciphered Cook at the beginning, they decoded his opening partner Joe Root as the series progressed. Root is an exciting young player who, in his pomp, reminds one of Michael Vaughan. His strength is his balance on the crease, which, in his case, stems from keeping the weight on the back foot. But while the balance gives him control, the weight staying on the back foot is the basis of his problem.

Admittedly he doesn't have too many issues to solve but the one he must fix soon if he wants to continue as an opener is his reluctance to get on the front foot. Early in an innings, his weight is so much on the right foot that bowlers get away with half-volleys. In fact, a half-volley outside off is a wicket-taking delivery before Root gets going.

The Australians weren't likely to miss the trick and after Root's big innings at Lord's, they didn't allow him to breathe easy. In the first innings of the fourth Test, his front foot hadn't even landed before the ball took the outside edge. One could understand if the bowler was very quick and Root was late on the ball because of the pace, but it was the military medium of Shane Watson that consumed him.

While the Australian bowlers have had only one plan for Cook and Root, they have two for England's No. 3 batsman. Jonathan Trott has a fairly pronounced front-foot trigger movement that allows him to throw his weight towards the ball when it is full, but the same trigger movement gets him into awkward positions if the bowler digs it in short. Trott's weight is so much on the front foot that he finds it difficult to pull back in time and get into the right position to play an attacking shot.

He has been out twice to deliveries that have been dug in short, but not short enough to be left alone. He can still leave bouncers comfortably, but it's the ones that climb up around his chin that are causing him a problem.

His forward trigger movement is also resulting in his head falling over towards the off side, making him vulnerable to those that come in and pitch fuller.

Mitchell Starc got Trott leg-before at Trent Bridge, and if you were to freeze the picture at the point of impact, you would find that his head was on top of off stump while the ball was hitting the line of leg stump. If your head is falling so much towards off, the chances of your bat coming down straight are minimal, which was highlighted at Old Trafford, where Trott's angled bat provided catching practice to the slips cordon. The Australians have used a two-pronged attack against him: bowl full and straight, and aim a fair sprinkling of short-pitched stuff at his chin or thereabouts.

These minor glitches would have gone unnoticed and unexploited even in a seven-match ODI series, for singles come so easy in ODIs that it's overstating it to believe that you could plan and plot a dismissal. But in a Test series, there's no room to hide. If the opposition discerns your weakness, it is sure to be exposed and exploited. And that's when the true ability of a batsman comes to the fore. Quality batsmen somehow find a way.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here