India were bowled out twice in cumulative 74 overs of batting in the first Test against Australia in Pune. These are freak numbers, especially considering the fact that in their three previous Test first innings, India made monumental totals – 631, 759/7 declared, and 687/6 declared. What really happened? Were India’s bowlers and batsmen as inferior to the Australian visitors as the 333-run margin in less than three full days of cricket suggests? What does it say about the future of this series?
The answers are simple. No, India weren’t as bad as the margin suggests. And it says very little about this series other than the fact that it will be competitive.
Over the past few years, ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball commentators have kept track of a “control” measurement and published it in every match scorecard. This is a measure of whether or not the batsman was in control of a given delivery. If the batsman is beaten, then he is not considered to be in control even if he scores runs off that delivery.
The table below shows a summary of these control figures by team innings. I have created two measures based on the control data – the “Not In Control Strike Rate” measure gives the number of not-in-control deliveries bowled per dismissal. The “In Control Per Not In Control” measure gives number of deliveries for which the batsman was in control, for each delivery that that batsman was not in control.
The data shows that Australia were unusually good at converting beating the bat into dismissals in the first innings, especially in their first bowling innings. In fact, India’s bowlers created uncertainty more frequently on the first day than Australia’s bowlers created on the second. The table below shows these numbers broken down by individual bowlers.
Over the course of the Pune Test, Australia were three times as efficient as India at producing dismissals out of the times they beat the bat. Some of this difference can be explained by the fact that Australia took a few exquisite catches, while India missed a few. But given the large number of times the bat was beaten, these dropped catches don’t really matter as much as one might think. After all, Australia dropped a few catches as well. Some of the difference is explained by the fact that when India bowled, especially in the second innings, they had to set fields to save runs and as a result could not attack as much as they otherwise might have.
But the single most significant event in this Test was Steve O’Keefe’s first-innings spell. He beat the bat only 10 times, and produced six wickets. This is a rate of return he’s unlikely to sustain in the future. It is a testimony to his accuracy, but it is also a testimony to the amount of good fortune that he enjoyed. In that first innings, he got a wicket at a rate of one every second time he beat the bat.
O’Keefe did his part well. He rarely bowled a bad ball. He kept bowling an attacking line and length, which gave him the chance to beat both edges of the bat. He challenged the batsman’s off stump and kept LBW, bowled and caught dismissals in play. But so did Ravindra Jadeja. Jadeja beat the bat 94 times in the match and got five wickets in return. O’Keefe beat the bat 36 times in match and got 12 wickets in return.
It is not generally true that bowlers who beat the bat a large number of times per wicket are unluckier than those who manage dismissals more frequently. Accuracy contributes to this conversion rate. A mature theory of how a bowler is trying to dismiss the batsman also helps.
For instance, consider a fast bowler who has excellent pace, but keeps bowling short outside off stump. This bowler has only one realistic chance at dismissal – caught by the keeper or the slip cordon. He’s also likely to go for runs, because even a slight error in line and length will offer the batsman a cover drive or a square cut without having to defend the stumps. By comparison, a bowler who attacks the top of off stump has at least three possible modes of dismissal – bowled, LBW or caught. The latter is likely to create dismissals more frequently than the former.
The control numbers show that unless Australia’s outstanding good fortune holds, no matter what the nature of the wicket, this is going to be a closely contested series. Steve Smith made a terrific century in Australia’s second innings. He was beaten 64 times in the match and dismissed twice. India’s entire team was beaten 95 times in match and dismissed 20 times.