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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 21, 2013, 20:24 GMT

    Great article! I love it how the English supporters are saying that Cook, Trott, and Prior have been out of form and that when they do hit form, the England team with dominate even more. It never occurs to them that this lack of form is actually the opposition bowling well and having good plans. True that the Aussie's old ball plans are less potent. Perhaps they need to bring out the mints from 2005.

  • hari on August 21, 2013, 8:23 GMT

    Akash is a good analyser and his knowledge of the game is great. His analysis of Aussie bowlers is spot on and the way they managed to blunt the top three is amazing. Aussies never had the same attack in this series. They changed every innings the new ball bowlers. Each test had atleast 2 changes. It is repeated at Oval too. Inspite of that their bowlers have done a splendid job. They have failed in only 2 innings. They bowled really well to the top three and the bottom 4. However, it is the middle three they failed to stop. Pieterson and Bell have gained immensely from this. Especially they are yet to sort out Bell. This series is all about Bell and Aussies. Remove Bell from the XI and both teams will be at par. Aussies never could find a Bell. Mike Hussey could have been the one if he had played. In fact bowlers batted better for Aussies. If the first 3 tests saw no support from spinners, the fourth test saw no support from Siddle and Bird. It is a collective failure for Aussies.

  • David on August 21, 2013, 8:08 GMT

    Nice article Mr Chopra! Some actual analysis!

  • GAURAV on August 21, 2013, 4:55 GMT

    @ Sundararaman.Right mate.seems Mr Chopra is overdoing his analysis and needs to be clear of what he wants to express.suddenly a 'drab attack" turns right in his eyes.why doesnt someone do a analysis on his articles.earlier his article came about lack of support pitches for fast bowlers and then cam next article that there are no good off spinners because of pitches supporting fast bowlers.Geez.What does he wants to say.

  • Dummy4 on August 21, 2013, 3:32 GMT

    This is the same Chopra who in his previous article said that the Aussie bowling unit is a drab one :-)

  • Henry on August 20, 2013, 22:41 GMT

    And the Aussies have also quelled Bairstow and Prior so far, but containing 5/7 bats hasn't been enough when England's plans against Clarke have also worked well.

  • raul on August 20, 2013, 21:47 GMT

    Australia's problem is with old ball. They bowl well with new bowl. They need someone who can reverse swing the old ball. I would say they should give one more chance to Mitchell Johonson....They also need david hussey for middle order....So my australian 11 for 2nd ashes series down under will be: 1) Rogers 2) Warner 3) Hussey 4) Smith 5) Clarke 6) Watson 7) Haddin 8) Flaukner 9) Jhonson10) Harris 11) Fawad Ahamad/ Agar/ Lyon(depending on Form). This gives australia best chance with: 5 experienced guys(gud leadership overall). 5 spin options including clarke. 4 seam options including watson. 7 batsman and 3 allrounders including Jhonsion. btw harris and agar can bat a bit too.I think calrke should give up captaincy and hand it to Rogers who can groom smith and warner for captaincy. Clarke the batsmen is much more imp. to oz's then clarke the captain. Watson needs to be there cuz he can do what gilchrist did for australia with bat and he can do what kasperowiz or gillespie did in 90's

  • Subramani on August 20, 2013, 20:28 GMT

    If Australia has indeed planned as minutely as Akash has mentioned, their bowling coach needs to be congratulated. I say this because they had not seemed to have prepared similarly when they bowled to the Indian top 3 when they visited India not too long ago. A thumb rule executed with much accuracy is bound to pay off. I mean if it had been planned to bowl to Cook pitching on middle and off or thereabouts it was inevitable that he would not be as prolific as he was in India and before that in Australia because of his being very strong off his legs.In fact this sorting out of great batsmen is what makes me give great respect for batsmen who have lasted very long like Tendulkar Lara Ponting and Dravid.I believe that the explained weakness of Cook will be open to frequent exploitation by others as well. His greatness lies in his ability to change. Pietersen is vulnerable to off spin bowled from round the wicket with flight and drift. He was uncomfortable even against Lyon

  • Dummy4 on August 20, 2013, 17:11 GMT

    So, the Aussies have worked out Alastair Cook, but have no idea how to bowl to Ian Bell? You'd think if it was nothing to do with the batsmen's form, and everything to do with masterful planning and execution by the bowlers, they'd have dealt with Bell by now. Or were they so scared of Cook they didn't bother planning for anyone else?

  • Ross on August 20, 2013, 13:46 GMT

    @landl47: So what you saying is that their spin selection was far inferior to England's? Swann and Root = 26; Lyon, Smith and Agar = 14. Personally I would have loved to have seen Fawad Ahmed in this series. He's rough, he goes for runs, but he takes wickets and he's a legspinner.