Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie

"The modern player is adaptable and able to move from format to format - that's part of the skill of a professional cricketer"

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'If the batsman doesn't think they can score off the front foot, you're bowling too short'

Ahead of the India-Australia Test series, Jason Gillespie rates the fast bowlers on both sides and breaks down their key areas of focus

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Pat Cummins, Jasprit Bumrah, Mitchell Starc, Mohammed Shami and Josh Hazelwood. Regardless of who wins the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the results in the Australia-India series will be driven by those fast bowlers. Pace, swing, discipline, variations, aura, resilience will be on show as the two attacks pit themselves against some of the greatest batsmen in modern Test cricket: Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, and possibly David Warner, if he turns up fit.

What makes these fast bowlers so good? What can we expect from them? How will the pitches behave? Former Australia fast bowler Jason Gillespie, currently head coach with South Australia, and the Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash League, weighs in.

Not sure you saw it, but Pat Cummins' first ball to Virat Kohli this tour, in the first ODI in Sydney, was a brilliant delivery: banged in on length, in the channel. Kohli nearly edged it, then gave a wry smile. A foretaste of things to come this summer?
I didn't see that specific ball, unfortunately. But I'm assuming that that smile that Kohli gave was "Jeez, welcome to the crease!" He was probably expecting a couple of looseners and maybe a couple of freebies. But Pat Cummins, just the professional that he is… hasn't he grown into a wonderful, wonderful fast bowler? After having some injury issues in the past, where he missed a lot of cricket from when he made his Test debut, now we are seeing the very best of him. He's at the peak of his powers.

Cummins (1), Mitchell Starc (7), Jasprit Bumrah (9), Josh Hazlewood (11) and Mohammed Shami (13). The numbers are each bowler's ranking on the ICC Test bowling ladder. Will this Test series be driven by bowlers?
Well, you are asking a former fast bowler if this is going to be a bowlers' series! We are seeing some wonderful fast bowlers in cricket at the moment. Australia has always tended to have good depth in fast bowling. You couldn't say that for India in the past, but now India has developed a good bank of fast bowlers and that's a testament to the coaching programmes and the talent.

Bumrah has certainly made a name for himself over the last few years. Ishant Sharma has been around a long time now and is continuing to learn, evolve and improve. The second half of his career has been extraordinary. And Mohammed Shami - I really enjoy watching him bowl. The seam presentation when he releases the ball is dead upright - the ball comes out with wrist and fingers behind it. So he gives the ball every opportunity to swing or seam.

Length merchants: Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are adept at getting batsmen stuck on the crease

Length merchants: Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are adept at getting batsmen stuck on the crease © Getty Images

Help us draw a sketch of the main fast bowlers. Let's start with Cummins.
He has got pace. He has height, so he gets good bounce. His wrist position is great. He can get the ball to move off the straight, and if anything, it moves away from the right-hand batsman. But his real strength, and it is probably similar to Hazlewood, is his discipline with his line and length. He and Hazlewood are quite similar in that they hit the bat very hard, they hit the stickers quite often, which makes it uncomfortable for batsmen.

They hit such a good length that batsmen feel that they might be able to score off the front foot, but it's not quite there for them to do that. And you see they get a lot of nicks behind the wicket, with the batsman playing from the crease or looking to get forward, which suggests to me that they get their lengths right in Test cricket and that creates that indecision.

Everyone talks about top of off stump or thereabouts - these guys are a master of that off-stump, fourth-stump line and length. They are brilliant. So I sort of put them kind of together in a way. I think Pat, on average, is probably a little bit quicker than Josh, but both are incredible bowlers.

For Bumrah, this is his second Australian tour. It is amazing to see that this is only his third year in Test cricket and he's already known as one of the best bowlers in all formats of the game. He's just played 14 Tests and he's got 68 wickets at 20.33. He is beyond being the X-factor, isn't he?
He can swing the ball, he gets movement off the pitch, but that's from the presentation of the seam, which he does very well. Him, as well, because of the height and bounce he gets, batsmen feel like [the balls] are hitting high on the bat. He gets a lot of awkward bounce and you can see that batsmen are sometimes a bit hesitant to get on the front foot.

And he seems to rush batsmen, doesn't he? They seem to not have much time against him. And he's got the most unique bowling run-up and action. That's what we love about our sport, that it doesn't matter how you do things. If you can perform a skill, everyone can perform it in a unique way. We've seen wonderful bowlers, the likes of Jeff Thomson, Bumrah, Lasith Malinga, [Muttiah] Muralitharan - all have unique actions, but they can get the job done for their team. [Bumrah] creates indecision and that's what makes him a tough customer to face.

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Bumrah is a master of variations in T20, but he has also managed to translate his white-ball skills into Test cricket. Do you remember that slower ball he dumbfounded Shaun Marsh with at the MCG in 2018?
Yes, yes. The slower ball and the yorker probably don't get bowled very much in Test cricket, do they? They are obviously big weapons for bowlers in one-day and T20 cricket, but they're probably not used very often in Test cricket.

That's Mitchell Starc's point of difference. He bowls a lot fuller than most bowlers in Test cricket. He goes for runs but he creates wickets. He bowls a lot of yorkers. And that's what Bumrah does: he bowls his changes of pace from time to time, and occasionally throws in those yorkers as well, which batsmen may not be looking for in Test cricket as much as they are in T20, for instance. So it is an underused ball in Tests for sure.

You come from an era where discipline was very important. Are bowlers not shy anymore about bringing in variations?
Variations have always been there. The absolute basics of the game don't change. Like, if you bowl off-stump, fourth-stump line on a good length often enough, you will be rewarded. But basically the difference between a good first-class bowler and a Test bowler is the discipline with that line and length and managing that off-stump, fourth-stump line and pace. If you have both those attributes, you are going to be close to being a Test cricketer. If you are bowling over 140kph an hour and you can hit a disciplined line and length and get a little bit of movement either through the air or off the pitch, you are going to be a tough customer.

Starc is one of the most dangerous weapons Australia have in their arsenal in all forms of the game. He has recently remodelled his action. Can you break it down? And what advantage does it give him?
He has just changed his gather: his bowling hand, rather than going out well in front of his body, is kept a bit closer. I'm not exactly sure why he has chosen to do that. It probably just feels like he is a bit more in control in his delivery stride and looking for a little more consistency at release.

I'm a huge fan of Mitchell Starc. He is a wonderful bowler. Yes, he can sometimes miss and go for runs. But I look at his strike rate - that for me is really important for fast bowlers - and it's under 50. So he is taking a wicket in a Test match at less than 50 balls per wicket. The great Glenn McGrath struck at 51 or so. Mitchell is taking wickets regularly and he is a real weapon for his captain, for his team.

Lethal weapon: since the start of 2019, Starc has taken 46 wickets in 17 Test innings at a strike rate of 37.4 and an average of 20.69

Lethal weapon: since the start of 2019, Starc has taken 46 wickets in 17 Test innings at a strike rate of 37.4 and an average of 20.69 © Getty Images

And he bowls differently, as I said just before: he bowls fuller than most Test bowlers, he looks to attack the stumps, which when he gets it wrong he can overpitch and go for runs. But he creates wicket-taking opportunities. He gets a lot of bowleds and lbws and nicks off the front foot. And he has a quick bouncer, but his pace and movement through the air are his two big weapons.

I'm happy if he goes for a few boundaries, but give me that strike rate any day. I don't mind that, because he is creating opportunities for wickets and the aim of a Test match is to take 20 wickets. You can have a great economy rate and all that, but if you are not taking wickets, you are not winning games.

What about Shami? In 49 Tests, his average is 27.36, 180 wickets. He's usually someone who runs in tirelessly with any ball, at any time in the day.
When the ball is new he can get some movement either through the air, or if the seam is still pronounced, a little bit of movement off the pitch. With the seam presentation that he has, he gives himself a chance to swing the ball conventionally, and a chance to reverse-swing when the conditions suit.

He has got a wonderful work ethic: his last ball of the day is still as energetic and as fast as his first ball the day. He will be a captain's dream - he just runs in and does his job. So the captain knows exactly what he is going to get - a wholehearted performance, and a disciplined line and length. He can bowl long spells because he's fit and strong.

One man who's missing from this Indian attack is Ishant Sharma. You know each other well, and you've played a role in his success. Clearly India will miss him. His replacement is going to be one of Umesh Yadav, Navdeep Saini and Mohammed Siraj. If you were the coach, who would you play from these bowlers?
That's a tough one. I'm a big fan of Umesh Yadav - he has that pace and aggression. So I tend to think that's the way India will go. No disrespect to the other guys, but [India] will go with Yadav's experience. And, yes, he can sometimes go for runs, but you want to encourage him to bowl fast. That's really important.

Play 08:15

Gillespie on the Australian and Indian fast bowlers

You mentioned Ishant. He came to Sussex for a short stint back in 2018. And I was really impressed. And why I was impressed is because he has played a lot of international cricket but his work ethic was outstanding. He was willing to listen and learn as much as he could about bowling in England. He took advice from a number of players and coaches, he practised really well. He showed all the young Sussex bowlers what it takes to be an international cricketer, that there's no substitute for hard work. He worked incredibly hard.

He got off the plane and within 24 hours he was bowling for the best part of two hours in the nets and out in the middle. And I know some of the Sussex players were a bit surprised that he bowled so much, but he wanted to get into rhythm and feel good and get himself ready for the next game. I was so impressed with his attitude. And it is not a surprise to me to see him have success in the last few years because he is very open to learning and listening and trying to improve. He keeps looking to get better. That's all you can ask.

The pandemic has added some variables. One is fresh pitches. How do you think the surfaces at each of the four venues will behave, considering barely any cricket has been played there?
The first game is in Adelaide and it's day-night Test with a pink cricket ball, I know India doesn't have as much experience as Australia with that, but I think they'll be fine. It will take a little bit of an adjustment. The surface at Adelaide, before the drop-in pitches, was very much a batsman's wicket and took some turn late in the game. And there was some reverse swing and the like for the seamers. These days they leave a little bit of grass on it, particularly in day-night Tests, and it is more bowler-friendly. That will be a good Test to kick off the summer. All the surfaces will play really well.

In 2018 you pointed out that length remains key in Australia. Will that change, considering both the bowling attacks remain the same as in that series?
In general, length is always the key. The advantage that India have is getting some practice matches in, so they can adjust lengths to Australian conditions, which is really important, because sometimes visiting teams come to Australia and get carried away with the bounce and carry, and sometimes bowl a little bit too short. You have got to encourage the batsman to think that they can score off the front foot or at least defend on the front foot. If they're not doing that, you're bowling too short. And that's going to be the Indian seamers' biggest challenge - to make sure they get their length right.

Is that length six to eight metres from the stumps?
Roughly that. I look at where the ball goes past the batsman. The length you should be looking to bowl is just below the bail height on off stump and fourth stump. If the ball is swinging, you are probably looking to bowl the length that hits the batsman's knee roll. But if it's not swinging then you are looking more [to hit] the top of the flap of the pad. That's probably as short as you want to be. Outside of that, your short ball has got to be head height. Rest of the time you want to be getting that delivery fuller.

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And the same on drop-in pitches in Adelaide and Melbourne?
Yep. I would be consistent, keep it nice and simple.

How much does reverse swing come into play on drop-in pitches?
It's a bit more challenging. On traditional surfaces where you have other wickets on the square, where it's drier and there is dirt, the ball naturally deteriorates. With a drop-in pitch, it goes from the pitch straight onto the longer grass, so the ball doesn't deteriorate at the same level. So it is a bit more of a challenge to get the ball to reverse swing, but you've got to just keep it dry and maintain one side of the ball as best you can, and let the other side deteriorate naturally.

Have you ever coached with a pink ball?
Yeah, at Sussex a couple of years ago we played a pink-ball four-day game. It only lasted two days, in fact - Jofra Archer got bags of wickets. It was a pink Dukes ball. So it was different from the Kookaburra one.

How different is a Dukes pink ball from a Kookaburra pink ball?
It's very similar to the difference between the Dukes [red] cricket ball and the Kookaburra [red] cricket ball - there is more lacquer, it seems, on the Dukes and a slightly more pronounced seam. The Dukes ball overall probably lasts a little bit longer. Maybe because they are used in England, where the conditions probably aren't quite as harsh as Australia. That's probably the main reason why the Kookaburra ball deteriorates a little bit quicker.

As a coach what are your thoughts about playing pink-ball cricket more frequently?
I wouldn't want day-night Tests to be played all the time. One in a summer is plenty; it's a bit of a novelty. We have seen it's probably not as suited to English conditions, because at the height of summer it doesn't get dark until quite late, so really the lights don't necessarily have a huge bearing on the game. There's really no need to play cricket with a pink ball in the UK.

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But it has certainly been great in Australia and certainly at the Adelaide Oval, where it's been proven to be quite popular. You will have to ask players how popular it is with them, but certainly from broadcasters and the public it has had a big tick.

The other significant challenge for both teams is that neither has played Test cricket since the beginning of the year: Australia's last Test was the New Year's match in Sydney, and for India it was in March. The majority of the players have had ample time in white-ball cricket, though. Will that matter?
The players will adapt well. The Indian players have been out here in Australia for a little while now. They have just completed games against Australia A, so they should be well and truly acclimatised by now. And Australian players, some have been playing Sheffield Shield cricket and some who are going to play the Test matches have been participating in these Australia A games against India. So I expect the Test series to be fine. Players are match-fit and ready to go. And there will be no excuses. The modern player is adaptable and able to move from format to format. That's part of the skill of a professional cricketer: the mindset of being able to adjust to different conditions, and also different formats.

Another thing they have to adapt to is the bubble - which you too are experiencing now in the Big Bash League as coach at Adelaide Strikers. What has your experience been when it comes to motivating your players while living in a bubble?
As much as anything, we just have to make sure that all the players and staff have their mindsets right. Their welfare is the most important thing for me as a coach. The cricket will take care of itself, but being separated from family and friends, living a restrictive life [is tough]. And to be fair, we are not too bad in the bubble here in Australia.

As I'm talking to you, we are in Hobart in Tasmania and it hasn't been too bad. There are some restrictions - there is mask-wearing and there's minimising contact with people outside of our bubble - but we still have a bit of freedom. We are able to sort of go out of the hotel and move around, just not allowed to sit down in restaurants and places like that. We can get a takeaway coffee, and if we do need to go to a supermarket, for instance, we just need to make sure that we are wearing a mask. We can't go on public transport and things like that.

So even if there are restrictions, because of the freedom of movement players have in a country like Australia, it's easy for them to relax at the end of the day?
Absolutely. I don't think it's going to be too much of an issue. Players don't tend to do too much during a Test match. You are at the cricket all day playing, and when you get home, a lot of players are going back into their room, winding down. They will have something to eat and watch some television, read a book. Keep it pretty low-key.

"Ishant got off the plane and within 24 hours he was bowling for the best part of two hours in the [Sussex] nets and out in the middle. His work ethic was outstanding" © Getty Images

As a coach, and a former bowler, how do you set up Steven Smith?
Jeez, you're asking a tough question. He's a wonderful player, isn't he? I'm sure a lot of coaches, a lot of teams, are trying to work out just how to be effective bowling to Steven Smith. It's a combination of getting your line and length right and getting your field set appropriately. And then it's just being as disciplined as possible.

But look, it is also understanding that he is a good player. You have to be at your best to compete with him. He is human, and he will make mistakes. You've just got to put the odds in your favour by being as ruthless with your discipline, with your line and lengths and get those appropriate fields. And that gives you the best chance to be effective against Steven Smith.

Could India do well to dial Neil Wagner? He got Smith four times in the last series, all the dismissals off short balls.
Yep. Neil Wagner bowls bouncers. But I'm not sure India will implement that. I think their first plan will be very simple: disciplined line and length, on and around that off-stump, fourth-stump line, on a good length, and hopefully bring the wicketkeeper or slips into play. But if that doesn't quite come off, they might have a period where they decide to focus on the short ball to Steven Smith. They might have varying plans, whether it be a short-ball plan or bowling very straight, or really hanging the ball out wide of off stump and getting stuck in the off side. But I think the first plan will be trying to keep as many dismissals in play as possible.

Let's sign off by you being McGrath - what's your prediction?
Well, Glenn would always do four nil. Look, Australia are the favourites because home advantage is a big thing. And, also, the loss of a couple of key personnel for India throughout the series. I'm going to say Australia will win two or three of the Test matches.

Especially after Kohli leaves?
We know when Smith and David Warner missed a year of cricket how much Australia felt those losses. India will equally feel the loss of not only their premier batsman, but also their leader. So that that will have a little bit of an effect.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo