In July 2011, India were still the No.1-ranked Test side in the world. Though they had lost at Lord's, the first two sessions at Trent Bridge – England limped to 124 for 8 from 51 overs – suggested that they wouldn't give up the mantle without a fight. Sreesanth, Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma had bowled beautifully in helpful conditions, but after tea, they gave Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann 73 runs in just 11.4 overs.
Immediately, press-box discussion focussed on how India had failed to bowl 'dry'. In the back row, someone listened to the debates and just smiled. A knowing smile. What did he think the problem was? "Lack of quality," he said. "Not good enough."
No theory, no elaborate explanation, just a slap-in-the-face statement. Later, when I asked him what he meant, he said, "Look at the first and second-change bowlers. That's the best indicator of an attack's quality."
Sourav Ganguly has written recently about India's attack lacking balance. England's win has partly been attributed to how well they 'bowled dry', denying India runs and building up pressure. The gent in the back row will tell you, however, that you need neither to win Test matches, dozens of them stretching across a generation.
Going by his yardstick, there are no great attacks in world cricket today. South Africa are the best team in the game right now. Their second change in Perth was Robin Peterson. In Adelaide, it was Rory Kleinveldt. Both are gifted cricketers, but any journalist that uses the adjective 'great' while describing them is badly in need of a dictionary.
Some will say that it's always been that way, that second-change bowlers are workhorses rather than legends. Look at the finest attack to visit Indian shores this century. Jason Gillespie took 20 wickets, and Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne 14 apiece as India were beaten 2-1 in 2004. They took wickets, and they bowled dry – Warne was the most expensive, conceding just three an over.
The fourth man there was the outstanding Michael Kasprowicz, whose cutters and other old-ball variations fetched him nine wickets while making him hardest to score off. That quartet was as complete as any we’ve seen – India crossed 300 just once in four Tests – but again, it takes a huge leap of faith to nominate Kasprowicz into the bowlers' pantheon.
Warne's presence alongside exceptional new-ball bowlers like McGrath, Gillespie and Craig McDermott also promoted the notion of variety. If the quicks didn't get you, Warne invariably did. That a great bowler is just that, regardless of whether he bowls pace or spin, was overlooked.
Now, every pre-match chat has captains talking about 3+1 or 2+2. You hardly ever hear one say that the four best bowlers will be on the park. As a result, you have ludicrous situations like Ahmedabad, where England played three pace bowlers on a treacle-slow pitch, or Nagpur, where India effectively played four spinners while ignoring a second pace option.
I can just imagine how the man in the back row would have laughed at it all. For much of his career, he took the new ball. By the time he finished, with 249 wickets from 60 Tests, he was second change. His strike-rate was 50.9. Of current pace bowlers who have played at least 20 Tests, only Dale Steyn takes wickets more frequently.
In 1979-80, he and his fast-bowling mates took 55 of 56 Australian wickets to fall, as their team won 2-0. The least successful of the quartet had a strike-rate of 61 – Warne’s career figure was 57.4. The leading wicket-taker on that tour would play only 27 Tests, during which he took 125 wickets and terrified countless other batsmen. He was replaced by the most lethal fast bowler of all – someone who took 33 wickets at 18.81 in a Test series in India.
For much of that golden age, the second change was a gentle giant. He took 259 wickets from 58 Tests. The one they all looked up to, the boss, played only 47 games and took 202 wickets. His strike-rate was the worst of the five (55.1), but those that faced him still speak in awe of the slow-fast bouncer combination with which he broke your spirit.
Michael Holding sat in the back row at Trent Bridge. Colin Croft took 16 wickets in Australia in 1979-80. Malcolm Marshall took his place. Joel Garner was the second change batsmen wanted to run from. Andy Roberts was the boss.
Variety? Not really, unless you're talking about different kinds of fear. Bowling dry? Why bother, when you could blow teams away instead. The greatest attack ever? Without a shadow of a doubt.
Story first published on: Thursday, 20 December 2012 18:11 IST