Ageing ball no longer sparkling red for Australia

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If trash-talkers love to attribute the Aussies’ history of Test success to their use of underhanded means, the decline in their old-ball strike rates post Sandpapergate seems to lend credence to them.

Australia’s untrammelled ineffectiveness with the older ball is hard to miss, unless you haven’t been paying attention. | The Hindu

Australians love their wine. From the Penfolds in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia to the Leeuwin Estate in Western Australia, the country has a rich culture of wining. This taste for vintage is mirrored in their fast bowlers’ preference for older balls, the ones that swerve back in late and leave batsmen wondering what-just-happened. Reverse swing, once an art patented by the Pakistanis, emerged in Australia among a new breed of quick bowlers nurtured on flat tracks such as the new-age WACA, which was once a bed of nightmares for batsmen.

And as totals soared in a country where fast bowlers once felt ashamed to allow an innings to last till the second new ball, a nerve was struck. Starved of supportive turfs and yet determined to live up to the reputation of forefathers such as the Mcgraths, the Thommos, the Lees, the Aussie seamer was forced to evolve and develop new devices.

The new ball was failing them time and again. What unfolded at Newlands in the series against South Africa, during now infamously dubbed the ‘Sandpapergate saga’, was perhaps the untoward culmination of such internal pressures compounded by the perpetual need to appease demanding fanbase. Hence, until it all came crashing down, their new-age mantra with the red cherry — ‘the older the better’.

It was enough to procure them the Ashes, where England appeared all at sea against Australia’s unwavering skill with the old ball. But as the sandpaper roughed them up, bereaving them of two of their finest batsmen of the modern era, Australia was forced into ‘elite honesty’, a slogan backed up by an ever-smiling captain, friendly fielders and humorous banter.

While Tim Paine, the skipper in metamorphosis, has managed to mitigate the disrepute with heart-warming gestures and kindergarten sledges, the performance albatross remains around the team’s neck. Victories have deserted them and after a series loss against India at home for the first ever time, the grapevine is that the missing yellow piece of paper has affected the Aussies.

Australia’s untrammelled ineffectiveness with the older ball was hard to miss unless you weren’t paying attention. Shane Warne went on air bashing Mitchell Starc for his waywardness, Pat Cummins bowled his heart out and Josh Hazlewood kept plugging away outside the off-stump with machine-like consistency. Yet, the wickets column refused to tick over after the new ball was blunted.

What must have hurt even more was how the Indians — amidst the ‘canteen staff’ jibes on air against India’s domestic competition — out-bowled them. They were on a par with the new ball numbers and much more effective with the old ball, which was all the more frustrating for a bunch that was sorely lacking in the department of preparing the ball for reverse swing.

The new ball was still effective for both teams and Australia took one wicket more than the Indians with the brand new cherry but the fact that Indians were there and thereabouts throughout tilted the balance of the series as much as Cheteshwar Pujara’s steadfast defensive shots and unblinking concentration.

 

Wickets taken with new ball (first 20 overs of all new balls taken in the Test)

Test

India

Australia

Adelaide

11

10

Perth

6

9

MCG

7

7

Sydney

3

2

Total

27

28

 

The only Test Australia won — at Perth — they performed better than the Indians with the new ball. What is notable is that their performance with the old ball remained nearly on a par with that of the Indians. Much of that success could also be attributed to Nathan Lyon who picked up eight wickets in the Test.

In every other Test, Australia’s old ball performance was dubiously second-rate.

Wickets taken with old ball (from 50 overs old till next new ball)

Test

India

Australia

Adelaide

4

2

Perth

4

5

MCG

7

2

Sydney

3

2

Total

18

11

 

At Melbourne, it hit an unprecedented low and the series was perhaps lost then and there. The sparkling success they enjoyed with the old ball had been the foundation of their Ashes win at home earlier in 2018. England had raised a hue and cry even then about Australia’s success with the old ball and the reverse swing that they generated while James Anderson and Stuart Broad couldn’t.

 

Performance of Australian seamers with new and old ball in Ashes 2018

Test

India

Australia

Brisbane

3

8

Adelaide

7

8

Perth

4

5

MCG

4

3

Sydney

7

3

Total

25

27

 

In South Africa, multiple cameras scooped up the ‘behind the scenes’ of the infamous footage and what came crashing down was not just Australian pride or the derailment of two leaders, but the surrendering of a home record that the World’s no.1 Test team had been itching for. The result could well have been 3-1 had the rain gods not relented and saved the Aussies some grace.

But the rumour mill / trash talk that the Australians’ success has been thanks to their underhanded means is rapidly collecting sound statistical evidence. The funny banter, quirky press conferences and suave mannerisms have failed to mask the gravity of the loss and the stark contrast between their old-ball performances before and after Sandpapergate. The summer has just begun Down Under but the wilting of leaves in the home vineyard is unmistakeable.

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