In the revered Australian film Breaker Morant, the titular character explains his practice of shooting prisoners of war by saying he enacted “Rule 303”, in reference to the .303 calibre rifle in use at the time. In this series, Australia have skated to victory in the bare minimum three matches by invoking another simple and sometimes brutal rule: “Rule 140”.
There was some irony in Chris Woakes’ final dismissal by Pat Cummins, for the New South Welshman’s delivery was recorded at a speed of 130.2kph. But the wider truth of Australia’s pace advantage can be read from the overall speeds of the two bowling attacks across all three Tests in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. According to CricViz, England’s pace bowlers have clocked an average of 135.37kph over that time, a long way short of Australia’s 141.44kph.
While some spells and days offered hope to the lesser velocities of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Craig Overton, the broad truth of this encounter was that in Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cummins, Australia had the weaponry to wear down England’s batsmen while taking no little delight in terrorising their tail enders. For an example, just look at the first ball Cummins bowled to Anderson this day. Four years ago Michael Clarke had warned England’s No. 11 to “get ready for a broken f***en arm”; this time there was no verbal warning about the spitting bouncer that slammed into the earpiece of Anderson’s helmet.
Australia’s instant response to this blow was sympathetic, and in the intervening years the game has been changed by the death of Phillip Hughes in November 2014. But Smith’s team has always been conscious of keeping speed and intimidation as part of their shot locker. As Smith himself put it before the series: “I still think that we have to play the game. Some people have some weaknesses to short bowling and you’ve got to use it. If they get hit, you have concern for them, but it’s still part of the game.”
From the perspective of the Australian coach Darren Lehmann, his desire for bowlers of top pace has been clear ever since he took the job, and was taken to an extreme when he dropped Peter Siddle in South Africa three years ago for letting his pace decline. Numerous bowlers have been sidelined for similar reasons in the past, but seldom so pointedly or publicly. Lehmann’s explanation at the time has always been his modus operandi when choosing the members of his fast bowling group.
“Unlucky for Sids because he’s done a great job for us over the last few Tests but we’ve gone for the extra pace,” Lehmann had said. “He’d like some more wickets obviously but it’s the pace drop. We need him bowling 140kph and at the moment he’s averaging 131, 132. He knows that, we’ve spoken to him and I’m sure he will be back bigger and stronger.”
In the previous Ashes series in England it was Australia’s reluctance to pick Siddle due to his lack of speed that actually proved costly, as he languished on the sidelines until the encounter was decided on a pair of seam-friendly pitches in Birmingham and Nottingham. Overseas, Australia have since gone on a journey of adaptability underlined by their improving displays in Asia, but they have always remained committed to a high-speed approach at home.
It has been important, as well, to ensure that the pace bowlers at Smith’s disposal maintain a high level of skill. A 145kph long hop is still a long hop – Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss dispatched plenty such deliveries in Mitchell Johnson’s more wayward years – but that same speed on a disciplined line is a far more challenging prospect. Siddle, Ryan Harris and Johnson proved that in a 2013-14 series that Lehmann’s coaching staff have been so eager to recall this time around. Now the next generation have combined velocity and accuracy with similar effectiveness – credit due to the assistant coach David Saker and his predecessor Craig McDermott.
“If the wickets are responsive to fast bowling it gives encouragement to young bowlers to bowl fast. If they don’t, well it is probably the opposite”
Trevor Bayliss, England coach.
“Certainly the extra pace helps but you’ve also got to be skilful with it and put the ball in the right areas and get the ball to move, and they’ve certainly been able to do that as well,” England’s coach Trevor Bayliss said. “I think the basic conditions … if the wickets are responsive to fast bowling it gives encouragement to young bowlers to bowl fast. If they don’t, well it is probably the opposite.”
One of the curious things about the series was that England, in winning all three tosses, enjoyed the better of the conditions on offer, especially when Smith declined to enforce the follow-on in Adelaide and opened up his batting order to a sharply swinging pink ball under lights.
Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood were able to slog through full days of bowling on day one in both Brisbane and Perth, maintaining their speed, accuracy and fitness for long enough periods to ensure England could never quite break free. Then when the fifth wicket fell in each innings, the liberal use of bouncers ensured that the visiting lower order was quite simply not a factor.
Joe Root, who has been unable to cope with the sustained barrage, was frank in conceding that he had entered the series knowing he and his bowlers needed to outsmart and out-skill the Australians, for there was no question about whether or not they could out-blast them. “We’ve got a very skilful, talented bowling unit but that’s probably one area where we haven’t got lots of resources in the side at the moment,” he said.
“We had to try and out skill them and we weren’t quite able to do it in these first three games. That’ll certainly be our challenge in the last two. We certainly haven’t been able to get the ball to move as much we’d have liked, and credit to the guys they tried absolutely everything. It wasn’t due to a lack of effort, we felt like we tried every plan, different fields, bowling straight, hanging it wide, every now and again a bit of bumper warfare. It felt like we didn’t leave anything to chance.”
Lacking that extra pace to mix things up meant that England were unable to pressure the Australians in general and Smith in particular after any early movement with the new ball had dissipated. Even then it was plain to see the contrast in bounce and carry when a few less kilometres of speed were behind it. At the start of Australia’s first innings, after Anderson and Stuart Broad had been made to hop around, the new ball in their hands looked like it was hitting a pudding relative to the pacy surface Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins had been operating on. No-one was better placed to exploit the difference than a ruthless Smith, with significant help from the Marsh brothers, among others.
News that Mitchell Starc is now nursing a bruised heel – quite often the forerunner to a stress “hot spot” or fracture – provided a reminder of the fine balance Cricket Australia’s medical staff, selectors and coaches have had to maintain to keep the pacemen fit. As was the case four years ago, they appear to have run a long-term plan that has paid off at the most important time in the team’s four-year Test match cycle.
“I think here in Australia it certainly makes a difference on the flatter tracks where there isn’t much sideways movement,” Smith said. “That extra air speed can make a big difference. We’ve worked really hard to ensure we had these three big quicks on the park and ready for this series. A couple of them skipped the one-day series in India. We knew what was coming up, we were preparing for this series and we wanted those big three on the park to do what they’ve done the last three Test matches. A lot of praise has got to go to the medical staff for ensuring those guys were ready to go and also the selectors.
“Starc and Hazlewood in particular have played some pretty consistent cricket for a little while now. The force that goes through their bodies bowling at 145kph plus it must take a lot out of you. I was tired after bowling a couple of overs here the other day and I don’t have any force going through the body. So I’ve got a new-found respect for the bowlers, the work they do off the park, the weights, the rehab, the fitness, everything they do to get themselves right to play Test match cricket and bowl at that pace consistently, it’s an incredible effort.”
In 2013-14, of course, John, Harris and Siddle were able to stay together for all five Tests. This time around the selectors and medical staff must deliberate on Starc’s fitness to ensure he is ready for the next major assignment: four Tests in South Africa in March. Starc has already insisted to Smith that he wants to be playing come Boxing Day, but if there is anything that has been proven by the way the Australian pacemen have been brought to a peak of effectiveness at exactly the right time, it is that great talent needs to be supported by sound management. Unlike Morant’s “Rule 303”, Australia’s “Rule 140” is anything but a snap decision.