India fail Boland and Co's not-so-simple inquisition

Mitchell Starc got the better of Virat Kohli
June 08, 2023

It's pretty simple, Steven Smith said.

It's not but he would say it given that he does something that is very complicated for almost all human beings, and he does it to historically great levels. He wasn't talking about his batting though. He was talking about Australia's bowling after a day on which it left them in firm control of the World Test Championship title, but without actually hitting the heights an attack of this capability can and has done.

"Think hitting that six- to eight-metre length on off stump is important," Smith said, when asked what his attack had done right.

"We've seen a bit of variable bounce and seam movement, so if we are challenging the top of the stumps as much as possible that's the quickest way home. Can certainly get the outside edge from there when it seams away and bounces or takes off, which a couple have, then pads and stumps are in play with the ones which shoot low or seam back. About as simple as we need it keep it."

That length that Smith spoke about, fuller than good but shorter than driveable, is not at all simple to hit. Fast bowlers have come and gone trying to hit it consistently. India couldn't do it consistently all innings. It took Pat Cummins a little while to find it. Mitchell Starc didn't find it all day. Scott Boland is unfair because that length is his home. Cameron Green is really unfair because no player should be this good.

Once Cummins did get there though, the full, unrelenting threat of this attack became clear very quickly. Rohit Sharma was 15 off 19, a couple of boundaries to the good, feeling his way in nicely, when Boland came on. Immediately a maiden in which he had to play at all but the first delivery.

Next over, having first been pulled back and then given time to perhaps fret over it off strike for five balls, Cummins hit exactly that length, and the movement evident all the way through off this surface did the rest.

It will be argued that Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara's dismissals were of their own making, of errors in their own judgement. And there's truth in that, not least because the same could be argued of almost all batting dismissals.

But with Gill, there was the fact of nine dot balls from Boland before he struck. Nine balls, eight of which India had to play, three of which Gill had played. At base, cricket is an inquisition. A bowler asks a question, the batter must respond one of two ways: by playing at the ball or by leaving it. There's no other response.

And the more that judgement is tested - whether a batter is consistently leaving or consistently playing at the ball - the more there is a chance, as happened here, that it falters.

It was much the same with Pujara. He'd survived an entire over from Boland, being pulled forward to defend his stumps from that length, ducking a surprise bouncer and then getting suckered into nibbling at one that moved away. Next over from Green, Pujara had four balls as non-striker to think about all the questions he'd been asked, and off the fifth, he gave the wrong answer.

Boland may not have played this Test had Josh Hazlewood been completely fit, or there hadn't been the prospect of five more (Ashes) Tests to consider in less than eight weeks. But the threat he poses in these conditions - today was the first time he's bowled with a red Dukes ball in England - was evident all afternoon.

"Think the angles he provides, his ability to hit the stumps from slightly shorter than some of our other bowlers is a big plus," Smith said. "Shorter guys that are a bit skiddier... so if there's a bit of seam movement it gives the ball more chance to move and still hit the stumps. So the skills he possesses, he's turned up every time he's had an opportunity. Whether he's leaving any of the big three [Cummins, Starc, Hazlewood] out, I don't know the answer to that, but he's certainly a quality prospect."

In a way, Boland's stumps-targeting mode illustrated the difference between the two attacks. Around 7.5% of all deliveries India's pacers bowled would have hit the stumps. For Australia that same figure so far is around 9%. It isn't a massive difference, but it is enough of one given the relentlessness of what the attack does around those deliveries.

And even when they weren't bringing the stumps into play, they possessed the ability to produce arguably the ball of the day - the Test so far - from within their ranks. Starc did not make a great start to this summer. He improved when he came back on after an aborted opening spell but the ball to dismiss Virat Kohli, vicious, lifting, angling across would have dismissed most batters on most pitches. It wasn't anywhere close to hitting the stumps and it wasn't remotely close to being a simple ball to produce.

It reinforced the unmistakable impression too that England's new batting approach - which has already been tested by serious bowling attacks (New Zealand, South Africa and India) - might be facing its biggest test this summer.

It's not going to be simple.

"Think [the Bazball approach] would be difficult on this kind of wicket that's up and down and seaming," Smith said. "It's not easy to defend them, let alone come out and swing. I said it initially when Bazball started, that I'm intrigued to see how it goes against our bowlers, have said that all along.

"They've obviously done well against some other attacks but they haven't come up against us yet so we'll see. It's been exciting to watch, I've enjoyed watching the way they've played and the way they've turned things around in the last 12 months or so, but we'll wait and see how it comes off against us."

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