After last year's New Year's Test against England the Australian attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon stood triumphant on the SCG holding the crystal Ashes trophy and was hailed as the best bowling unit in the world, or close to it.
Twelve months on, a comparison of Australia's combined bowling averages with those of other Test-playing countries can no longer support that claim. Far from it.
Statistics can always be debated but the bottom line is that through 2018, Australia's bowlers claimed 172 wickets in 10 Tests at an average cost of 32.72 runs – the third worst average, ahead of only Ireland and Afghanistan, who each played only one Test. By comparison, South African bowlers claimed 14 more wickets at 23.03 in the same number of Tests. Indian bowlers claimed 85 more wickets in four more Tests but did have the advantage of two home Tests against the West Indies, ranked eighth on the ICC's ratings.
No one can deny the brilliance of the Australian bowlers when they're on song, and Pat Cummins is at the top of his game, just pipped by Jasprit Bumrah for man-of-the-match honours in Melbourne. Nathan Lyon was arguably the best spinner in the world in 2018 but his 49 scalps at 34.02 came at a higher cost than Pakistan leggie Yasir Shah and Indian off-spinner Ravi Ashwin, whose 38 wickets each cost on average 23 and 25 runs, respectively.
The Australian bowlers have had a great deal to contend with over the past year. Frequent batting collapses have meant they have often had to back up quickly. At times Australia had to go into battle without their frontline quicks – spearhead Starc missed the final Test in South Africa because of injury, while fellow quicks Hazlewood and Cummins missed the two Tests against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.
And even the bowlers may have suffered from the defining event of 2018 – Cape Town. One of the features of last summer's winning Ashes series was the Australians' ability to produce dangerous reverse swing with the old ball. This was reprised in the first Test of next series against South Africa in Durban. But since the ball-tampering scandal at Newlands, the Australians have understandably appeared much more cautious when it comes to reverse swing. ESPN Cricinfo published data from this summer that shows India's quicks have been much more effective than Australia with the older ball, taking 15 wickets at an average of 22 after the 41st over, compared with the Australians' six wickets at 46.
Other numbers, cited by cricket statistician Ric Finlay, suggest strikes rates – balls per wicket – have also become a problem for the Australians.
The international average in 2018 was 55 balls per wicket yet only one member of Australia's frontline attack – Cummins – beat that. Nathan Lyon struck every 75 balls, Hazlewood 73 and Starc 62, with Cummins at 43. Mitch Marsh, included for the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne to help ease the load, took a wicket every 103 balls.
So, while most scrutiny has been on Australia's top six batsmen, who have struggled to bat time and produced only one century (to Usman Khawaja in the UAE) in the absence of the suspended Steve Smith and David Warner, Shane Warne may have been onto something when he criticised the bowlers and Cricket Australia's preparation of them. Warne had pointed to the fact that only Cummins averaged less than 30 runs per wicket against top-six batsmen in 2018.
These issues have grown in prominence because of the hold India's pacemen have taken on Australia this summer. The tourists have always had great batsmen, but this time they've come to Australia with a formidable pace attack of Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and the exceptional Bumrah.
CricViz statistics show that heading into Thursday's series decider in Sydney, India's fast bowlers have the advantage in swing, seam movement and discipline.
The tourists have generated average swing of 0.61 degrees compared to Australia's 0.51. Their percentage of balls on a good line and length is 41.9 to 34.7, while 10.1 per cent of their deliveries have been projected to hit the stumps, compared to Australia's 8.8 per cent.
Virat Kohli has praised his bowlers for their attention to detail, and says the ''fact that they have taken total ownership of their skill and taken responsibility for the team is what has set them apart this calendar year''.
That attention to detail led to Peter Handscomb, who stands deep in his crease, being relentlessly attacked on his stumps. Ishant's spearing delivery to the Victorian in Perth all but confirmed his axing.
The tourists knew Khawaja was a danger man, so they opted to shut him down by having 61 per cent of his deliveries outside off stump. He has gone at only 1.96 runs per over, his slowest pace ever in a series where he has played more than once.
It is said that bowlers win Test matches, but it's clear that Australia's bowlers need help – from the batsmen. Should the toss go in Tim Paine's favour in Sydney, for only the second time since he took charge, he will hope the New Year can bring change in his misfiring top order.
"If we can get Virat [Kohli] and [Cheteshwar] Pujara out, there's holes in the opposition's batting as well. We've got to be able to score enough runs to give our bowling attack a chance to line them up," he said.
"We're not scoring a lot of runs but I don't think India are at the moment. Part of the reason is both attacks are really, really good as well."
Balls per wicket by Australian bowlers in calendar year 2018:
33: Marnus Labuschagne
43: Pat Cummins
62: Mitchell Starc
73: Josh Hazlewood
75: Nathan Lyon
106: Mitchell Marsh
117: Jon Holland
128: Peter Siddle
147: Chadd Sayers
Jon Pierik is a sports writer with The Age, focusing primarily on AFL football, cricket and basketball. He has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.
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