Aus vs WI, 2023-24 – No runs for fun: how bowlers are now holding sway in Australia

This was supposed to be a summer of cashing in for Australia’s batters.

Pakistan and West Indies were returning to Australia’s shores having combined for 32 wickets in four previous Tests in Australia in 2019 and 2022 respectively. The home side made 500 in four of their six innings across those two series, with batters piling up triple and double centuries galore.

But Australia’s batters have not had much fun against two very inexperienced attacks this summer so far, having been tested by debutants Aamer Jamal and Shamar Joseph.

Only two players, Mitchell Marsh and David Warner, have averaged more than 40 and only two centuries have been scored, although Marsh has twice fallen in the 90s.

Fairly or unfairly, it has led to questions about the form and composition of Australia’s top six, with the decision to open with Steven Smith in Adelaide proving a lightning rod for opinion.

But what is going unnoticed is how difficult the pitches are for batting in Australia compared to years past, and how friendly they are to seam bowling.

Captain Pat Cummins believes it is a welcome relief from some of the Australian pitches that were served up in his first full home summers in the team, between 2017 and 2021.

“It’s nice,” Cummins said. “My first couple of summers it felt like even the games that we won, you were bowling 45 overs as a quick bowler. You were finishing on day five and you were pretty bruised and battered.

“We haven’t really had that for the last couple of summers, which is great. It feels like, say the hundred that Trav [Head] got [in Adelaide] holds even more significance. You’ve got to earn basically every run you get. I love it. It feels like you’re always in the game. Even if you’re out of it or feel like you’re a little bit ahead, a quick half an hour can turn the game. I quite like the Test matches.”

Some outstanding players have played in Australia in both periods and the decline has been marked. Eight visiting players scored more than 200 runs and averaged more than 40 in Australia between 2017 and 2021, including Joe Root and Babar Azam. None of the players to have scored more than 200 since have averaged more than 35, with both Root and Babar returning in that time.

Australia’s batters have faced a similar decline at home. David Warner, Steven Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and Mitchell Marsh all averaged over 66 at home between 2017 and 2021. Only Marsh has been able to maintain that since 2021 albeit his sample sizes in both periods are quite small. Travis Head and Usman Khawaja are the only mainstays to improve their home records but Khawaja has scored all three of his home centuries on very placid SCG pitches in that time and two of those have been not out when the team has declared to help that average. Head has been a complete outlier in terms of his success on lively home pitches. Khawaja and Green have vastly improved records overseas since 2021 than they do at home which is unusual for Australian players, especially given three of those tours have been in Sri Lanka, India and England.

Smith agreed that the pitches have been tougher to bat on but has enjoyed the battles.

“I think you can probably see that with the scores,” Smith said. “There are not too many 500-plus scores that we were getting three or four years ago pretty consistently. The games are ending a lot quicker as well. There has certainly been a lot more in it.

“The Kookaburra balls are staying harder as well. The new balls seem to have another coat of lacquer on them. Even after 80 overs on a couple of occasions there is still writing on the ball and you can see it still shaping and remaining reasonably hard. Maybe there is a balance between them. I feel like it has been pretty hard on the batters the last few years but it has still been fun.”

Sheffield Shield pitches have also been incredibly seam-friendly in recent years. It has led Australia’s back-room staff to take a different approach to appraising the performances of the batters at both Test and first-class level, with traditional averages not carrying as much weight. Individual runs percentage contribution to an innings score is one measurement used, with 15% regarded as a good baseline for top four players and slightly less for Nos. 5-7, while runs above expected average is another.

Australia coach Andrew McDonald reiterated the importance of putting context around batting averages and contributions.

“On average, runs are coming down in Australia. Batting hasn’t been easy over the last couple of years,” McDonald told SEN. “So maybe some averages reflect that. We’ve got to put a bit more perspective around those averages.”

But speaking after the Adelaide Test, which ended inside seven sessions of cricket with only two players passing 50, McDonald did not believe the pitches had become too seam-friendly

“It’s a great debate, isn’t it?” McDonald said. “The wickets have offered more for seam bowling, and this wicket out here had a little bit of variable bounce as well. So I think it’s definitely evened up and is that a good thing or a bad thing? I think as long as you come to a venue and it’s showing consistent traits as a home team, you’re happy with that.

“We’re encouraged by the seam. You’re never out of a game. Even if you’re in front of the game you’ve got to be really diligent in making sure that you maximize that position. I think it keeps everyone interested. This game probably sped up a little bit quicker than what the fans would have liked, than what probably the players would have liked, but in saying that, I think it was a balance. You earned your runs and you still had to work hard for your wickets as well.”

Australia’s staff are constantly checking ball-tracking data as well to evaluate their batters’ performances.

“You look at the scoreboard and it’s 5 for 144 which we were at and you put into place what you’re seeing in terms of the data that’s coming through and you understand this not easy for batting,” McDonald said. “So that just gives us an understanding of how difficult wickets are and what’s happening with the ball.”

Alex Malcolm is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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