Over the last couple of decades, the rivalry between Australia and India has slowly bubbled along to the point where it is perhaps the pre-eminent rivalry in world cricket, at par with the Ashes in terms of pride, competitiveness and interest from fans. India had pulled off a win in the Test series the last time they were Down Under, between November 2018 and January 2019, becoming the first side from Asia to win a Test series in Australia. However, that win was always tarred by the brush of Australia not having a full-strength squad available to them, due to the bans that Steve Smith and David Warner were serving at the time for their part in the Newlands ball-tampering scandal earlier that year. Thus, this edition of the Border-Gavaskar series was touted as being the true test of India’s ability to win in Australia, and by extension, on away tours, as they would be facing an Australian side with all their big guns fit and firing.
We were treated to one of the most entertaining Test series in recent memory, which firmly put the notion to rest that Test cricket can be boring. The narrative across the four matches unfolded like a movie script at times, and so it was perhaps fitting that India, having been reduced to the status of underdogs due to their horrific injury problems, ended up winning the series 2-1, for the second tour in a row, and retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy. We shall look at the performances of the Australian side across these four Tests in this analysis piece, and try and figure out who were the key players and whether they performed as expected or not. Our analysis will look at the statistics behind Australia’s performance.
The last time India were on Australian shores, they won the Test series by a 2-1 margin, against an Australian side that was missing David Warner and Steve Smith, and therefore was not at full-strength. Tim Paine was a few months into unexpectedly receiving the captaincy, at a time when his place in the Test side was not exactly guaranteed, and Australia were definitely a team in transition, if not on the field then off it in terms of the culture and dressing-room environment. Justin Langer had taken over as coach from Darren Lehmann, and had immediately prompted a review of Australia’s values and behaviour. Thus, many observers, especially in the Australian media, believed that while this was an excellent Indian win, Australia were far from their ruthless best, and there was always an asterisk attached to this series as a result.
This time around, Australia had both Warner and Smith around, and could conceivably field their strongest and first-choice XI. Of course, those plans were disrupted when Warner picked up an injury during the white-ball leg of the tour, ruling him out of the first two Tests and forcing Australia to hunt for an opening pair. However, this pales in comparison to the injuries that India racked up, and the home side were still able to play most of their big guns, including their much-vaunted four man bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, and Smith-doppelganger Marnus Labuschagne. Paine also seemed settled behind the stumps as well as with the captaincy, although some questions had begun to be asked about his decision-making, especially around DRS.
All of this meant that throughout this series, Australia undoubtedly had the upper hand as far as having first-choice players was concerned, to go with their home advantage.
We shall now look at Australia’s batting performance during these four Tests.
The first chart we have has the batting average and balls faced on the axes, while the size of each individual dot indicates the number of runs scored by that batsman.
It is immediately noticeable that very few Australian batsmen were able to occupy the crease for long periods of time. Labuschagne led the way in this regard, batting for a total of 850 deliveries across the four Tests, which is comparable to India’s Cheteshwar Pujara and his long stints. The likes of Smith and Cameron Green, who made his Test debut during this series, also did reasonably well, but were not backed up by the other batsmen. We shall look into this and the impact it had on Australia’s batting later in this piece, but for now it is important to focus on the mainstays of the lineup and their contributions.
Labuschagne is still a relative newcomer to Test cricket, having only made his debut in October 2018, but has taken to this format like a duck to water. His unorthodox batting technique has drawn comparisons to Smith, and the two are apparently inseparable off the field. On the field, Labuschagne has also begun emulating Smith’s impact in terms of his batting performances, and he led the way in this series, scoring 426 runs to be the top scorer from either side. He did so at a healthy average of 53.25, and notched a century and two 50+ scores as well. That century came in the fourth Test at Brisbane, where he scored 108 to help Australia to a total of 369, which looked like being more than enough for a formidable first-innings lead before Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur came together in India’s reply. Labuschagne also had innings of 47 and 48 in this series to go with those 50+ scores, which underlines how it was he and not Smith who was Australia’s batting lynchpin. The South African-born Labuschagne also scored those runs at a decent clip, with a strike-rate of 50.11, and was often the most prized wicket for India, behind Smith’s of course.
One of the best Test batsmen of the last decade, Smith had a much quieter series than usual. Indeed, it was nowhere near his utter dominance in the Ashes in 2019, for example, but the former captain did score 313 runs to come in second in the runs chart – more than any of the Indian batsmen managed. This included a superb innings of 131 in the third Test, which needed an excellent run-out by Ravindra Jadeja to send him back to the hut. He also got 81 in the second innings of that match to help set an imposing target of 407 for India, but struggled to have an impact throughout the series. Smith began the series by being dismissed by Ravichandran Ashwin twice in three innings, scoring a total of just 10 runs in those outings, and while he had a decent fourth Test, scoring 36 and 55, this was a subdued series from one of the greatest batsmen of our times. He averaged 44.71 – much lower than his career average of 61.8, and scored at a strike-rate of 51.14.
The Australian captain has described his role in the side as ‘captain first, wicket-keeper second and batsman third’, so it was a bit of a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to see him play some crucial innings in this series. He scored 204 runs at a healthy average – for a number 7 batsman – of 40.8, and had the highest strike-rate of the Australian batsmen at 58.45. Paine started off in brilliant fashion, remaining unbeaten on 73 in the first Test as Australia only managed 191 in their first innings, but it would be the final Test for him to get his second and only other score of 50 or higher in the series. He did chip in with another unbeaten innings, this one for 39 runs, in Australia’s total of 312/6 in the third Test, where they were looking to set an imposting total for India while also having enough time to bowl them out. Ultimately though, Paine has come under the scanner for some of his remarks to Ravi Ashwin in that Test, as well as his general captaincy, tactics and use of the DRS. He was also a little erratic behind the stumps, dropping chances and missing what would have been a crucial stumping as well. Paine the batsman had a good series – the same cannot be said of Paine the captain or Paine the wicket-keeper.
Green has long been touted as the next big thing in Australian cricket, and he got his chance in an extremely high-profile series here. The all-rounder had a much greater impact as a batsman than as a bowler, scoring 236 runs at an average of 33.71, and a strike-rate of 40.68. Those are more than decent numbers for a debut series against a team as talented as India, and he came extremely close to his first Test century in that third Test, where he scored an extremely attacking 84, hitting four sixes and eight fours as Australia looked to score quickly. The all-rounder can be extremely pleased with his batting efforts in this series, and should be in Australia’s Test side for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest issues for Australia was the lack of stability in their opening batsmen. They started the series with Joe Burns and Matthew Wade at the top of the order – one batsman who had a lot of question marks over his place in the side, and was arguably only playing because Warner and Will Pucovski had been ruled out through injury, and another who had rarely ever played as an opener in red-ball cricket in his career. While Burns did score an unbeaten 51 in Australia’s chase of 90 in the first Test, that was a false dawn, and he managed just four runs in the next Test, while looking extremely uncomfortable, to then be dropped. Wade, who had fared a tad better, with innings of 8, 33, 30 and 40, was moved back down the order, with Pucovski and Warner forming an entirely new opening pair for the next Test.
Pucovski, who made his debut in the third Test, acquited himself well enough, scoring 62 in his first innings, but was ruled out with another injury sustained in the field in that match, which meant that Australia had to bring back Marcus Harris from the cold to partner Warner for the fourth game. Warner himself had a horrible series, scoring just 67 runs from four innings, and it is an indication of Australia’s opening woes that they crossed 20 runs as an opening partnership on just two occasions – the low-pressure environment of chasing 90 in the first Test, where Burns and Wade put on 70, and then straightaway in the fourth Test, where Warner and Harris scored 89 runs together. In between, Australia struggled to get to double digits without losing a wicket, and this was a big reason for their overall batting woes in this series. Our next chart shows how rarely the Australian batsmen, in general, were able to stick around at the crease, in contrast to their Indian counterparts.
We’ve considered balls faced/innings here to show how the Australian batsmen did not stick around for too long in this series. Labuschagne was the exception, averaging over 105 balls per innings, with Green and Smith also showing some staying power in averaging over 75 balls/innings. It is notable that the Australian openers, with the exception of Pucovski, all averaged between 25 and 55 balls/innings – this meant that the lineup was often exposed early on, with the likes of Smith and Labuschagne having to walk out to face the new ball. Pucovski is the exception here, averaging around 63 balls/innings, but having played just two innings in the series, it is an extremely small sample size.
Other players who would have been expected to contribute did not do so either. Travis Head had another disappointing series, scoring just 62 runs across three innings before being dropped, while more could have been expected from the likes of Warner, Wade and even Smith. Australia’s batting was nowhere near the heights expected of them, and this was a big reason for their series loss.
We now move to the bowlers, with the next chart looking at bowling average and strike-rate, with the size of the plot indicating the number of wickets taken by that bowler. The axes have also been reversed, to indicate that lower numbers for average and strike-rate are better for bowlers.
Compared to the same chart for India, the relative sparseness of this graph stands out. Of course, this was due to the fact that India had to constantly chop and change their team due to the freakish number of injuries suffered by their players, mainly the bowlers. However, it is still concerning that only four Australian bowlers picked up any wickets in this series, if slightly tempered by the fact that only six players bowled any overs in the first place.
Some members of Australia’s ‘Fab Four’ certainly had an excellent series. Cummins led the wicket-taking charts with 21 strikes, followed by Hazlewood with 17 wickets. However, this is another example, as with the batting, of the Australians topping the individual batting and bowling charts, but getting undone as a team.
Cummins was lethal in this series, able to find pace, bounce and movement in all four Tests, and even though he did not end up with a five-wicket haul in any game, his position as the leader of the attack was undoubted. Hazlewood was an able partner, often prising out well-set batsmen, and this duo were a big reason for India being bowled out for 36 in the first Test – Hazlewood picked up five wickets, while Cummins got four in that rout.
However, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon had extremely disappointing outings. Starc only notched 11 strikes, and was the most expensive of the Australian bowlers, going at 3.27 runs per over throughout the series. His average and strike rate also shows how he was generally ineffective, and often ended up releasing the pressure that had been built up by Cummins and Hazlewood. It was telling that in the fourth Test, with India chasing 328 to win, Starc bowled just 16 overs, as Paine clearly did not think that he was enough of a wicket-taking threat. He was also extremely expensive in that innings, going at 4.69 runs per over, and this was perhaps the nadir of his series, and maybe even his Test career.
Nathan Lyon was the only frontline spinner in Australia’s squad, and has often been compared to Ravi Ashwin, given that they are both off-spinners who started their careers around the same time. The fact that Ashwin has played a lot of cricket in India, where pitches traditionally aid spin, and is still behind Lyon in terms of overall wicket tallies, is often used as a stick to beat him with, as is his more limited threat away from home. However, in this series, it was the Indian spinner who came up trumps, with Lyon managing just nine wickets across the four Tests. He would have expected to cross the 400 mark at some point in the series, but ended up stranded on 399, with Australia now not scheduled to play any Test cricket for months due to the postponement of their tour of South Africa. It was notable that Lyon struggled to create periods of pressure on the Indian batsmen – they were often able to find runs when facing him, and Rishabh Pant, in particular, took a liking to him, dancing down the track and hitting him for six on multiple occasions in that fourth Test, as well as in the third Test at Sydney.
Cameron Green would have definitely hoped to have much more of an impact with the ball – he sent down 44 overs with no reward, and was largely used as a relief bowler to give the main pacers some rest. Marnus Labuschagne was the only other Australian to tweak his arm over, bowling just 11 overs across the four Tests.
These numbers show that Australia are extremely dependent, at the moment, on all four of their frontline bowlers to be at the top of their game, if they are to take 20 wickets in Test matches. There may be a case for greater rest and rotation in the future, with a number of quality options, such as James Pattinson, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Michael Neser, Sean Abbott and others waiting in the wings to make their Test debuts, or come back into the side, as the case may be.
Australia will have been chastened by this defeat, given that it came against a hugely-depleted Indian side. Introspection has already begun, but we will not see any potential changes for a while, after Australia’s tour of South Africa was postponed due to COVID-19. Australia’s hopes of making the World Test Championship final against New Zealand therefore now rest on the result of the ongoing India-England Test series, with a few possible outcomes sending them at the expense of either of those sides to that showpiece event. However, they will need to significantly improve their performance if they have any hope of regaining their place as one of the best Test teams in the world, a mantle they carried for nearly a decade between 2000 and 2010.