World Test Championship: Australia — Awww, look: they should have made the final
Australia proved, once again, that they are fine team: a consistent and effective batting line up coupled with a world class bowling attack. So failing to reach the final, albeit by the finest of margins, can be considered a disappointment and a bit of an underachievement.
Australia look well set for the immediate future but their current strengths may contain the seeds of their biggest medium term challenge. But if they manage that sensibly there’s no reason to think Australia won’t be very successful in the years ahead.
How it played out
Australia had a lopsided and somewhat unbalanced WTC schedule. Their first fives Tests were away in the 2019 Ashes series, followed by nine at home against Pakistan, New Zealand and India. That overweighting of home matches was offset by the toughest-possible set of fixtures.
The first knock chart below highlights how topsy-turvy the Ashes series was. Two evenly matched sides playing out a drawn series. Across that series Australia averaged a first knock score of 287 (unlucky for some) versus England on 259 — but that included England’s capitulation for 67 in Leeds.
Back on home soil, Australia began to dominate. The Tests against Pakistan and the Kiwis saw five consecutive scores above 450 — and so five consecutive leads after both sides had batted once. Indeed Australia averaged totals over 500 in these matches, with an average lead of 279 — pure dominance.
Then came India.
The signs were there in the first Test in Adelaide, where India took a small lead into the turn before the historic capitulation for 36 all out. That Aussie bowling display masked the significant air coming out of Australia’s first innings scores compared to the previous two series. Indeed, across all four Tests against India first innings metrics were very similar. In those four first knocks India scored 57 runs in total more than Australia — a fourteen run difference on average is absolutely nothing at all.
So amongst the high and low scores through the series, the underlying truth is that Indian and Australian performances were very similar. India, of course, deserve the lion’s share of the credit for winning the series in such adversity: the lowest or low scores, Kohli heading home, a raft of injuries….. it just shows the depth India have to be able to continue to compete even away in Australia.
Australia batting: one man stands out (no: not him. Or him)
Australia’s string of high scores was underpinned by the consistent brilliance of Marnus Labuschagne.
Marnus breaks the chart.
Averaging 104 across 12 first innings knocks is something special and, I’d argue, means any talk of the ‘big four’ really has to go up to five and include him in the reckoning. He’s that good.
Steve Smith and David Warner also had world class WTCs. Smith averaged over 70 and Warner over 60. These three guys were the engine room that delivered high first innings totals time and again.
You probably didn’t need a chart to tell you that, right?
What the chart does highlight is the disappointing contribution from nearly everyone else. Captain Tim Paine averaged 33 — and batting at number seven that’s perfectly serviceable. Travis Head, in at five or six just scraped into the 30s in his first knock. That would be a disappointment and goes some way to explaining his slightly in and out selection.
Matthew Wade was also underwhelming. He was ever-present but can perhaps consider himself lucky to have kept his place in the side, averaging just 23 in his first knocks. Perhaps it is his adaptability and mentality that Paine likes to have around, meaning the Australians can have him in the middle order or even opening the batting.
Ah, yeah. Opening. About that.
Australia’s Openers: Warner and Meh
If Head and Wade were a bit underpowered, Australia had a much bigger problem at the top of the innings.
Across all innings in the WTC, there were 26 opening partnerships. Warner was, of course, the mainstay; batting 22 times and averaging over 40. The other 30 innings were spread across five other players as the Australian selectors threw players at the situation — and the game chewed them up and spat them out. The overall results — as the chart below showing Aussie openers’ (excluding Warner) four innings rolling average across the WTC. Lots of time in the red zone.
Cameron Bancroft had four innings, averaging 11 with a highest score of just 16. He was replaced by Marcus Harris for the remainder of the Ashes series. He did even worse, averaging under 10 with a top score of 19.
Back in Australia the selectors recalled Joe Burns. He started well, with a 97 in the second innings against Pakistan, but tailed off over the next seven Test. Overall he averaged 26.5 in his 12 innings — better, but not un-droppable, numbers.
Warner missed the first two Tests against India and the aforementioned Wade stepped in, averaging a shade under 28 in his four stop-gap innings. Warner came back for the 3rd Test against India and the Aussie selectors finally gave their head a shake and elected Will Pucovski. He had just scored back-to-back double hundreds in the Sheffield Shield so it really was a case of ‘if not then, when?’.
Puck did well, scoring 62 and 10 — and then promptly got injured, ruling him out of the final Test. The selectors went back Harris for the final game. He scored a decent 38 in the 3rd innings to at least make a contribution, even if his overall WTC average still ended up around just 12.
The Aussies solution here would look to be Pucovski. Aged just 23 — compared to Burns in his early 30s, and Bancroft and Harris in their late 20s — he looks worth the investment in the future. If he can recover from his serious shoulder injury then he gives them a clear first pick to open with Warner for the final phase of Warner’s barnstorming Test career.
Bowling — the Fab Four are not from Liverpool
The Australian attack is extremely consistent. You know what you are going to get and, most of the time, you know who you are going to get. Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc bowled an improbable 83% of all deliveries in the WTC, taking 88% of the wickets.
As the chart above shows, the Fab Four are also all highly effective. For the quicks, Cummins and Hazlewood have out-bowled Starc, though Starc has still been excellent and his strike rate of a wicket every 46 balls makes him a true strike bowler. I think we can forgive him an economy rate of 3.17 runs an over.
Cummins and Hazlewood profile in a similar way — both take a wicket between 47 and 49 balls and go at about 2.5 an over. Tremendous stuff. If you consider these three pacemen bowled 1,280 balls and still delivered these standout metrics.
To have one quick doing this is a bit of a prerequisite for a top Test side. To have two is dangerous. Three? Incredible.
Turning to Ringo, I mean Lyon: His economy rate of under three shows excellent control and his strike rate of a wicket every 67 balls is better than average across the whole dataset of all WTC wicket taking bowlers.
He was the busiest bowler in the WTC (bowling 630 overs) so it’s interesting to compare him to the other high volume spinners in the WTC.
Neatly, there were eleven spinners who bowled more than 200 overs in the WTC. Looking at average, economy and strike rate, Lyon was only outperformed by India’s Ashwin and Jadeja; only he, his two Indian counterparts and Bangladesh’s Taijul Islam went for less than three-an-over and only Ashwin and Jadeja had a better average than Lyon’s 31.37.
In terms of strike rate: again, Ashwin and Jadeja did better than Lyon’s wicket every 11.1 overs, as did Lasith Embuldeniya of Sri Lanka and, perhaps surprisingly, Jack Leach of England. But, if you are going to bowl 106 overs more than any other spinner, then your strike rate might take a bit of a hit.
So although Lyon might not quite show in the numbers he’s (Pete) best, coming in with this performance — after the batsmen have seen off Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood — is a major contribution to Australia’s success.
Where next for Aussie pace bowling?
Are the seeds of future issues hidden in these bowling data? Lyon is 33 years old. Starc is 31; Josh Hazlewood is 30 and Pat Cummins is younger, at 27. OK, so spinners can go on a bit longer and no-one is yet calling time on bowlers aged 31, 30 and 27 — but three of these guys will likely age and retire at a similar time in the medium term, even if Cummins is around for a further Test fixture cycle.
The next most-used Aussie quick was James Pattinson, aged 31; Mitch Marsh — who shows up very well in the data from an admittedly small sample — is 29. Peter Siddle chipped in with 97 overs across three matches: he’s whatever the opposite of a spring chicken is; making his Test debut alongside Matthew Hayden and against the incomparable Sachin Tendulkar.
Australia need to find some new, young bowlers and find a way to integrate them into the Test side — but how do they do that when the Fab Four are so damn fab?
Looking at the recent T20 squad in New Zealand, two 24 year old quicks were given the chance to impress.
Riley Meredith made three appearances and did well — taking 4 wickets for less than 21 apiece — but T20 is not Test cricket and Meredith’s red ball experience has so far been limited to 18 matches in which he’s taken 53 wickets at about 35 each. That’s not a bad start but doesn’t yet scream out at someone who the Aussies could confidently swap out a Starc or Hazlewood for.
A better bet — and someone with two Test caps to his name (in early 2019) already — is Jhye Richardson. His first class experience is similarly limited (17 matches) but he’s taken his 67 wickets at just under 24 each. These are the kinds of figures that are going to get the selectors taking a closer look.
Across the WTC, I feel confident in saying Australia were the second best side and so were unlucky not to make the final.
Marnus plus Warner plus Smith gives them a reliable first innings platform, and if they can find an opener — Puck if he’s fit — then they have all the pieces to for together into a formidable batting line up; as good as anyone.
Their main three quick bowlers are all the real deal and all take wickets frequently and for not many runs. Lyon comes on and supports as both the most willing and durable spinner around — and the best non-Indian spinner in the current Test game.
If Tim Paine can do the dual jobs of both keeper and captain then that’s great. Steve Smith has recently admitted he’d come back as captain again, and that may allow Australia to look at other keeper-batsmen too. Josh Phillippe, perhaps.
Australia look set fair to advance over the immediate future. Longer term, if they can manage the transition from the current crop of bowlers to the younger guns coming through then Australia look well-placed to make sure they don’t miss out on too many more WTC final matches.
Sports Fan TV Cricket Fan Show is part of the SFTV family. It’s on every week, on both YouTube as a video and on all good podcast platforms including Spotify and Google Podcasts. Mac hosts, and Steve — author of these articles — is joined by regular guest Tony to talk all things cricket.
Look out too for our live episodes, available on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. These are 8pm UK time on Thursdays.
You can also follow the show on Twitter: @SFTV_Cricket.