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 Indian 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 India’s performance.
Before getting into the analysis itself, it is important to set the context for this series, especially in terms of the absences that India had to contend with. Due to COVID-19, India flew to Australia with a much larger contingent than usual, and this ended up saving them as they had enough personnel (just about) to cover for injuries. However, these were players who had barely had a taste of international cricket, certainly at Test level, and the number of debut caps that India gave out in this series shows just how unexpected it was to see those players then perform in the manner they did to get India the win.
Virat Kohli, the Indian captain and perhaps the best all-format batsman in the world at the moment, travelled back to India after the first Test on paternity leave, and thus missed the majority of the series, with the regular vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane stepping up to lead in his absence. Thus, India were without their best batsman for the majority of this series. Ishant Sharma, a veteran of 97 Tests with 297 wickets to his name, didn’t even get on the plane due to an injury picked up during the Indian Premier League. Mohammed Shami, one of the leaders of the Indian bowling attack, broke his wrist on day three of the first Test, and thus was ruled out of the rest of the series. Umesh Yadav, another of India’s burgeoning pace battery, who was on his fourth tour of Australia and thus was one of the most experienced bowlers in these conditions, was ruled out of the last two Tests after suffering a calf injury in the second Test. Ravindra Jadeja, one of the best all-rounders in the game at the moment, broke his wrist in the third Test at Sydney and was thus unavailable for the fourth and final Test. Ravichandran Ashwin, who has a claim to be the best off-spinner in the world, alongside Australia’s Nathan Lyon, pulled his back while saving the Sydney Test with the bat, and was unable to play in the fourth Test. Hanuma Vihari, who batted for hours with a torn hamstring in that Sydney Test on the last day with Ashwin to secure a draw for India, was also ruled out of the fourth Test. Navdeep Saini, who himself only made his Test debut in the third test due to these aforementioned injuries, himself picked up an injury in the fourth Test, which meant that he only bowled five overs in Australia’s second innings. Jasprit Bumrah, one of the most exciting fast bowlers in the world at the moment, was ruled out of the fourth Test due to an abdominal strain. KL Rahul, who had been in a rich vein of form over the last 18 months or so, and would have probably come into the side at some point given the injury problems that India had, went back without playing a single Test as he picked up a wrist injury in the nets. Finally, India played the first two Tests without Rohit Sharma, who was nursing an injury picked up in the IPL, and thus only flew into Australia in time for the last two Tests of this series.
That is nearly an entire team that was absent for various reasons across this series, with many of them being first-choice players. The likes of Kohli, Rohit, Bumrah and Ashwin would probably walk into any Test side in the world, with Shami and Jadeja not too far behind. This is just to try and show the wealth of talent and experience that India had to do without for vast stretches of this series, against a top-class side in Australia, and thus makes this achievement even more special for fans of Indian cricket, and Test cricket in general.
With that context-setting exercise out of the way, let us now dive into the numbers to see who were the key performers with bat and ball for India in this series.
We’ve looked at average and balls faced on this scatter plot, while the size of the individual dots indicates the runs scored by that player.
Almost immediately, we can see that Rishabh Pant, Shubhman Gill, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara scored nearly the same amount of runs, even though they did not play the same number of games. In fact, Pujara and Ashwin were the only two players from the Indian side to play all four Tests. Pant came in from the second Test onwards as the wicketkeeper in place of Wriddhiman Saha, while Gill replaced Prithvi Shaw as an opener in that same Test. Pujara (271 runs), Rahane (268 runs), Gill (259 runs) and Pant (274 runs) were the mainstays of the Indian batting lineup in this series, but there were notable contributions from various other players as well.
What is notable is that Pujara was once again an immovable wall, much like how his predecessor in the number 3 slot for India’s Test side, Rahul Dravid, used to be. Pujara faced 928 balls across the four Tests, which was the highest of any player on either team and shows how he was able to blunt the Australian attack at times through sheer determination and force of will, even though he did not score too rapidly. Indeed, he only had a strike-rate of 29.2 across these four matches, for which he did face a lot of criticism from various ex-cricketers. However, his role in this Indian side has always been to hold up one end and tire out bowlers, taking advantage of any scoring opportunities that may present themselves in the bargain. It is to the credit of the Australian bowlers as well that they were able to restrict his run-scoring, with memories still fresh of how he had dominated the bowling during the 2018-19 tour to finish as the top run-scorer, with 521 runs and three centuries. This time around, he only managed three 50+ scores, but all of them were crucial innings, perhaps none more so than in the fourth Test, where Pujara scored 56 of 211 deliveries in India’s second innings, for the slowest half-century of his career, while getting hit on his head, gloves and chest on multiple occasions. That innings allowed India to keep a foothold in their chase and allowed the likes of Gill and Pant to bat a lot more freely at the other end. Pujara may not have scored as many runs as he did last time around Down Under, but his impact was perhaps as lasting as on that tour.
Of course, we must mention the stand-in captain, Ajinkya Rahane, in this analysis. His knock of 112 in India’s first innings in the second Test set the team up for a dominant position but was also important given that India had been knocked over for 36 in the first Test. That capitulation had set alarm bells ringing in the Indian fanbase, especially as the team would now be without Kohli, but Rahane’s innings helped instil some sense of calm back into proceedings and gave India a sizeable lead to play with, eventually leading to an easy target of 70 which they duly knocked off to restore parity in the series. Rahane did not pass 50 in the rest of the series, and his average of 38.28 may seem mediocre, but contextually, he played one of the most important innings of the tour.
Rishabh Pant and Shubhman Gill were at the forefront of the new wave of young Indian talent that came to the party in this series. Pant had entertained crowds during the last tour Down Under, both with his antics and words behind the stumps as well as with the bat, notching a century in the fourth Test at Sydney. This time around, the 23-year-old was given the license to play his natural attacking game, and this allowed him to play freely against Nathan Lyon in particular. His swashbuckling innings of 97 of just 118 deliveries in the third Test briefly raised the possibility that India might just chase down the target of 407 runs before Vihari and Ashwin came together to block and secure the draw. He would go one better in the fourth Test, scoring an unbeaten 89 to secure the win and the series for his country. With two 50+ scores and an average of 68.5, along with a strike-rate of 69.89, Pant was a crucial part of the Indian batting effort in this series.
Shubhman Gill has long been touted as one of the future stars of Indian cricket, but there were still some concerns around dropping him in to open the batting in the second Test on his first tour of Australia. However, the 21-year-old quickly dispelled any doubts about his ability or temperament. Gill made 45 and 35* in that Test, providing a solid platform for India’s win, and he followed that up with innings of 50 and 35 in the second Test to briefly give India hope of chasing down an improbable target. Like Pant, his innings in India’s chase in the fourth Test was vital – he made 91 off 146 deliveries, narrowly missing out on a maiden Test century, but setting the platform for Pant to come in later and be able to take India to the win. Gill showed excellent technique on both sides of the wicket, as well as on the front and back foot, notably playing the pull shot with ease and comfort rarely seen from Indian batsmen, and this bodes well for the future of Indian cricket. He had a healthy average of 51.8, and scored at a rapid strike-rate of 60.65 as well, thus helping India take control of sessions and putting pressure back on the Australian bowlers.
We must also mention Ravindra Jadeja, Ravi Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Hanuma Vihari and Washington Sundar from a batting point of view. Ashwin and Vihari, as mentioned earlier, helped save the third Test through their dogged resistance – the duo, together, faced 290 balls but scored only 62 runs, with both of them battling injuries that would eventually rule them out of the fourth Test, and in Vihari’s case, out of India’s upcoming series against England as well. Jadeja scored a vital innings of 57 in the first innings of the second Test, which helped set up India’s win by giving them a substantial lead over Australia, while Thakur and Sundar, who are primarily bowlers, rescued India from 186-6 in the fourth Test, with a 123-run partnership for the seventh wicket. Thakur scored 67 and Sundar made 62 to drag India to 336 and therefore only give Australia a 33-run lead, where at one point it looked like they would be around 120-140 runs ahead.
A slight tweak to our scatter plot will help us visualise this impact to an extent as well.
We’ve tweaked the X-axis on the chart, to now have balls faced/innings, which gives us the average length of innings for each Indian batsman, with the other metrics staying the same as on the previous chart.
We can see that Pujara averaged over 115 balls/innings in this series, which, when put in a different way, means that he faced nearly 20 overs of bowling by himself on average per innings. That is quite an impressive feat, and once again shows just how important he was to grinding down the Australian attack. It is also notable as to how the likes of Sundar, Vihari, Pant, Gill and Jadeja all faced over 60 balls per innings, with Jadeja averaging 98 deliveries faced. Sundar, being a bowling all-rounder, facing nearly 87 balls on average across his two batting innings is notable as well.
Another interesting takeaway from the chart is the performance of the Indian openers – Gill averaged a little over 71 balls per innings, while Sharma was not too far behind at 67.5 balls per innings. This illustrates that the Indian openers, especially in the last two Tests, were able to stick around for a bit and avoid a collapse, while also helping to see off the new ball. Lastly, Pant’s impact can be seen by the fact that he faced around 79 deliveries per innings on average. With his high strike-rate, that meant that he would end up scoring a decent number of runs, even though he was shuffled up and down the batting order based on the match situation.
Thus, the story of India’s batting in this Test series was one of small, important contributions which helped change the course of sessions, innings and matches. Of course, there were a few standout performances, but the overall run tallies show that rather than one batsman dominating the scoring, India were able to call on various players during this series who stepped up and scored crucial runs when needed.
On this chart, we have looked at bowling average and strike-rate, while the size of the dot indicates the number of wickets taken by that player. We have also reversed both axes, to reflect the fact that lower numbers are better for both bowling average and strike-rate.
Mohammed Siraj, who made his debut in the second Test, ended up as the highest wicket-taker in the series for India with 13 scalps. This included a five-for in the fourth Test, which helped knock Australia over for 294, and therefore allowed India a slightly lower target of 328 than they would have expected. He picked up the important wickets of Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith in that innings, denying both players big scores, while Labuschagne was also his first Test wicket ever, in the second match. The 26-year-old quickly developed as the tour progressed, with pace and bounce to trouble the Aussies, while he also had a knack for breaking partnerships and getting set batsmen out. Of course, it must be mentioned that he overcame personal adversity on this tour, deciding to stay back in Australia upon the death of his father to try and fulfil his wish of playing Test cricket for India, and Indian cricket now has yet another brilliant fast bowler to add to their ranks as a result.
Ravi Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah
Siraj was closely followed in the wicket-taking stakes by Ravichandran Ashwin and Jasprit Bumrah, two of the bowlers who the Indians would have put high hopes on. Both only played the first three Tests, but still managed to have a significant impact on the series. Ashwin, in particular, was able to subdue Steve Smith to a large extent, getting him out four times in those three matches. Ashwin has always been unfavourably compared to Lyon in Australia, but the fact is that both bowlers, despite being off-spinners, are very different types of bowlers. Ashwin has more variations in his arsenal, and largely sticks to a stump-to-stump line, looking to bring LBW and bowled as modes of dismissal into play, while Lyon is more traditional, trying to hit the area outside the off-stump of the right-hander and induce an edge. Both have been extremely successful, as their respective career wicket totals show, but this tour served as a timely statement from the Indian spinner, in that he was able to have an influence throughout the series with the ball. Bumrah, on the other hand, was quietly effective – he was perhaps not as potent as he had been on the previous tour, but was still able to pick up crucial wickets when needed, while also having the third-lowest economy rate of the Indian bowlers at 2.74.
Ravindra Jadeja had a big impact for India despite just playing two Tests and bowling in three innings. He picked up seven wickets at a fantastic average of just 15.00, and a strike-rate of 32.1, which was the best of the Indian attack across the series. The left-arm spinner has long been used as an enforcer – someone to get through a bunch of overs quickly without giving away too many runs and thereby building pressure for the bowler at the other end to exploit. However, he showed his ability to be an effective wicket-taker in the third Test, where he took four wickets, including Labuschagne when he looked well-set on 81, and also ran out Steve Smith on 131 with a direct hit from square leg. Jadeja has often been called a ‘3-D’ cricketer for his ability to contribute with the bat, ball and in the field, and he showcased this for India in this series.
The likes of Shardul Thakur, T Natarajan and Washington Sundar must also get a mention here. Natarajan has had something of a dream tour – he was initially only selected for the white-ball leg of the tour, making his ODI and T20I debuts at the age of 29, before being asked to stay back as a net bowler for the Test series. He missed the birth of his first child to do so, and eventually made his Test debut in the fourth match, due to the crippling injury crisis that India were going through. The left-arm pacer had an impact as well, getting two set batsmen out in Australia’s first innings (Labuschagne for 108 and Matthew Wade for 45), and while he went wicketless in the second innings, this would have been a debut to savour. It was a similar story for the other debutant, Sundar, who is just 21 years old. We have spoken about his impact with the bat, but he also picked up four wickets in the Test, all of which were pretty crucial. He got the prized scalp of Smith for 36, Cameron Green for 47 and Nathan Lyon for 24 in the first innings, and also sent back David Warner for 48 in the second innings. Thus, the off-spinner was able to stop a number of Aussie batsmen from converting starts into bigger innings, and this, combined with his batting exploits, was a big reason for India’s win in that Test. Finally, Shardul Thakur also played the fourth Test, and it was effectively his debut, given that he had only lasted 10 deliveries before going off injured on his actual debut, against the West Indies in 2018. Thakur picked up seven wickets in this match, and was arguably the man of the match alongside Pant for his batting in the first innings as well. The 29-year-old got the Australian captain, Tim Paine, twice in that Test, while also picking up Cameron Green among others in the second innings to halt Australia’s momentum.
As with the batting effort, India’s bowling exploits were also a story of the collective over the individual. This was largely forced due to the number of injuries to the bowling personnel and the disruption this caused, but it is perhaps even more impressive then, that India were able to bowl out Australia on six occasions in these four Tests. Consistently being able to claim 20 wickets is one of the key traits to winning Test series, and India’s bowling attack showed their ability to do so in foreign conditions on this tour.
At the risk of recency bias creeping in, this series did feel like one of the most epic Test series ever, and a large part of the credit for that has to go to India for the fight and determination they showed in the face of mounting injuries and absences, as well as the humiliation of the 36 all out innings from the Adelaide Test. This Indian side showed that while their ability is not in doubt, they have the spirit and character to go with it as well, and thus the team are now well placed to make it to the final of the inaugural World Test Championship this June.