India have won three of their last six Tests in Australia as their spinners have surprisingly conceded just 2.0 runs per over.
By comparison, over the five summers previous to this one non-Indian visiting spinners bled runs in Australia, going at 4.0 runs per over.
Neither Ravichandran Ashwin nor Ravindra Jadeja has bulldozed the Australian batting line-up – they have solid but unremarkable strike rates of 64 and 65 respectively across those Tests.
Instead their resounding success has been built on suffocating the Australians. The home batsmen have allowed India’s spinners set the pace of this contest. Even the world’s best batsman, Steve Smith, admits he’s let Ashwin “dictate terms”, saying this was something he’d “never let any spinner do in my career; I’ve taken to them and been a bit more aggressive and made them change things”.
This final point is crucial. Ashwin and Jadeja are not being forced to adapt, not being pressured into a Plan B. They are being allowed to set attacking fields and then bowl in a consistent manner, which is a dream for any slow bowler.
The best Australian players of spin I’ve seen all had one thing in common: they forced tweakers to regularly change their lines and lengths and left them guessing before each delivery just what the batsman would do.
They achieved this in a variety of ways. Some used their feet nimbly like Michael Clarke, others swept with authority like Matthew Hayden, or exploited the full depth of their crease to cut and pull good length deliveries like Damien Martyn.
A player who does none of those three things against spin typically becomes a static target, an easy opponent. By becoming rooted to the crease they let spinners find their groove. And when bowlers the quality of Ashwin and Jadeja get locked into a comfortable rhythm the runs dry up.
Not only does this put the batsmen under pressure, often forcing them into an ill-conceived stroke, but it greatly benefits the Indian quicks, who have lighter workloads. New Zealand showed earlier this year that when you take on the Indian spinners it unsettles their entire attack.
India’s slow bowlers had next to no impact on that series as the visitors were thumped 2-0 by NZ. Ashwin, Jadeja and left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav combined to take just seven wickets at 34.
Rather than being hyper defensive against the Indian spinners, the Kiwi batsmen were assertive. As a result, Ashwin, Jadeja and Yadav were far more expensive than they’ve been in Australia, conceding 3.1 runs an over.
Without their spinners choking the Kiwi batsmen, the Indian quicks had a tougher task, and overall New Zealand finished that series with a healthy scoring rate of 3.42 runs per over, which equates to making 308 runs in a full day’s play.
By comparison, Australia have gone at just 2.52 runs an over against India in this current series, equivalent to notching a paltry 227 runs in a day. One of the many downsides of scoring this slowly is you’ll only be on 201 when the opposition gets the second new ball should you even last that long.
Another way of looking at this current Australian scoring rate is that, even if they manage to bat for four sessions (120 overs), Australia still will make only 302, an ordinary total in their home conditions.
A key reason Australia’s been so commanding at home over the past ten years is that, outside of these two recent series against India, they’ve scored at a swift 3.62 runs per over.
That meant they only needed to bat for 120 overs to make 434 and take the game away from the opposition. The return of David Warner should help Australia address this problem should he be declared fit to play in the third Test at the SCG this week. But it won’t guarantee a fix.
Even Warner has scored at only 3.06 runs per over against Ashwin and Jadeja in his Test career. The Indian offie in particular has tied Australia’s star opener in knots, dismissing him nine times in Tests while conceding only 182 runs.
Warner’s ability to set the tone of an innings with his aggressive batting has long underpinned Australia’s home dominance. If he plays at Sydney, he must look to disrupt Ashwin and Jadeja. So too must Smith and first drop Marnus Labuschagne. That pair have always looked at their best against spin when batting with positivity.
So far in this series both Smith and Labuschagne have been timid against spin in the face of quality bowling and clever field settings. Since the second Test both batsmen have disclosed plans to be bolder in their strokeplay at the SCG.
Australia need this spark from Smith, Warner and Labuschagne. Because if India’s spinners are allowed to bowl in comfort in Sydney, the tourists may well secure the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.