Indian hunt for speed merchants

Of all things cricket, nothing gets the adrenaline racing like a fast bowler steaming in. It’s not a sight Indian spectators have had occasion to enjoy more than sporadically.

Updated: July 10, 2012 17:47 IST
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Bangalore: Of all things cricket, nothing gets the adrenaline racing like a fast bowler steaming in. It’s not a sight Indian spectators have had occasion to enjoy more than sporadically.

Through the history of the game, the pace bowler has been the heart of the bowling unit of all teams. There have been a few exceptions – notably in the Indian teams that had the spin quartet of BS Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrashekhar and S Venkatraghavan to choose from – but for the most part, it was a given that every international team would have at least two pacers in its ranks, often three, and sometimes even more.

The success of Kapil Dev was hailed as the harbinger of a new age for India, one that would see a cluster of pace bowlers emerge in the land of spinners. However, only two Indian pacers in the last two decades have done well for more than the odd season: Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan.

Not that there haven’t been some memorable individual performances during that time. From Venkatesh Prasad’s ten-wicket haul in Durban to that Ishant Sharma spell at Perth, with S Sreesanth’s South Africa heroics and Irfan Pathan’s first few seasons in between. But sustained excellence at the international level? That’s been rare.

Across the border from India, Pakistan seem to have an unending supply of fast bowlers that make viewers go weak-kneed – through fear perhaps if they face them, but through awe mostly if they watch them.

Part of the reason could well be the virtuous cycle that success establishes for itself. A young boy in Pakistan will pick up the ball and want to be the next Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis or even Shoaib Akhtar. A young boy in India would rather pick up the bat and dream of being the next Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag or VVS Laxman.

But saying that a fast bowling legacy is needed to inspire more fast bowlers is a circular argument that gets us nowhere. If no legacy exists, it is possible to manipulate conditions at the ground level to create one. Fast bowling is the most physical of all cricket disciplines and requires far more from the body than either batting or spin bowling does. And as a young fast bowler, if you run in to bowl on pitches where bending your back may perhaps make the ball rise waist high, it won’t be long before you lose enthusiasm for the craft.

Not just pitches, there are outfield conditions to consider too. Make the outfield too hard or too soft and the stresses that running in and bowling fast create are likely to spawn injuries. Try egging yourself on to bowl that 140 kph ball when you know that if you plant your heel down hard while delivering the ball, you may end up spending weeks out of the game.

For a start then, what should be looked at is making conditions more conducive for fast bowlers to prosper – a good outfield, and a pitch that has some carry and movement.

The question of why it is important to create or have a healthy fast bowling legacy can arise. The answer is straightforward.

Through the history of cricket, every side that has dominated the game for any length of time has always had an outstanding line-up of fast bowlers. From Sir Donald Bradman’s Invincibles (Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller) to the West Indian teams of the 1970s and 1980s (Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts among others) to the recent Australian teams (Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee).

Even when India reached the top of the Test rankings, their rise had Zaheer as a major, if under-appreciated, factor. From his comeback in December 2006 till the end of India’s tour of South Africa in January 2011 (the last Test series that India finished as No. 1), Zaheer averaged 28.40, daylight separating him from the next best of 34.90 by Harbhajan Singh.

Worldwide, only Dale Steyn, Muttiah Muralitharan, Lee and Graeme Swann (narrowly) had a better bowling average than Zaheer during that four-year period. And this was after he had bowled more than half his overs in India and Sri Lanka, amongst the most punishing places for a fast bowler.

Zaheer as a bowler had reached the zenith of his craft, developing superb control allied to an almost telepathic understanding of how batsmen could be worked over. India’s batting might during its rise was such that they could rise to the top with one outstanding bowler – but they still needed that one outstanding bowler.

India were blessed with an outstanding array of batting talent together – but they can’t bank on that happening all the time. And with a normal batting line-up that does not have a once-in-a-lifetime quality to it, more bowlers are needed to keep India competitive.

The new century hasn’t been a particularly happy one for pacers. The overall pace bowling average and economy rate in the 1990s was 29.74 and 2.83 – figures that have grown to 33.11 and 3.20 since January 1, 2000. A combination of poorer quality of bowlers and pitches that offer less are probably the reason for the decline.

When the world was turning to pace bowling, India was the great bastion of spin. With pace bowling stocks waning, it is time for the bastion of spin to try and become the home of speed.

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