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Bowl India, bowl...fast

A lot is going to depend on how India's pacemen do as spinners may not pack a punch, writes Kadambari Murali.

cricket Updated: Dec 25, 2007 00:05 IST
Kadambari Murali

Whatever the batters do or however many runs they put on board, finally, whether India win even one Test in this series


will come down to taking 20 wickets in a game.

Given the general lack of success that finger spinners have had in Australia; and the fact that captain Anil Kumble will have the responsibility of leading the side in addition to trying to do his bit on largely unhelpful tracks, a lot is going to depend on how India's pacemen do.

Or, more precisely, what India's two main left-armers, Zaheer Khan and RP Singh, do. Despite the general talk of the bowling department being India's weakest link, the Australians are taking no chances and are viewing the duo with some wariness.

That bad, bad ball
On Monday, Michael Clarke specifically pointed out that the Australian batsmen had made it a point to use the bowling machines to work on the spots (or, more precisely, the angles) that left-arm seamers would bowl to. However, as he also mentioned, they've recently played Chaminda Vaas in the two Tests against Sri Lanka and that will definitely help.

If the Aussies have done their homework, which they certainly would have, they have probably been working on playing what is, at present, the most potent delivery in the arsenal of both India's pace spearheads - the ball that jags back in sharply to the right-hander.

Interestingly, RP, a veteran all of seven Tests old, calls this one a "stock ball" now, a delivery that he can produce at will. This is interesting because at the other end is Zaheer, a man who has become far more dangerous since he returned to international cricket after developing the ball that swings in to right-handed bats or darts back in after looking like it will hold its line.

Zak, the man
In fact, over the years, Zaheer's performances have been crucial to India's Test wins abroad since the year 2000 (see graphic).

India have won 16 Tests abroad in this time (more than all their total Test wins abroad before this period). Zaheer has featured in 12 of them, with 54 wickets at 23.48. Very interestingly, even if you remove the six wins in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in this period, Zaheer still has 29 wickets at 23.55.

The significance of that difference becomes clearer when you see Irfan Pathan's statistics for that same time frame. Pathan has quite outstanding figures of 49 wickets in seven wins abroad in this period, at a phenomenal average of 16.76. But when you remove the games against the two weakest sides, he has 10 wickets in three Tests at 37.

Pathan is looking more in control from what he was a year ago and is bowling with more pace and verve. Yet, his utility to the team at this point is more because of all his all-round capabilities, not a strike bowler. And with Dhoni coming in at No. 7, India's batting, on paper, looks very strong.

2-2 or 3-1?
Even while Kumble says he's not quite sure of the combination he'll go in for at the moment, the fourth bowler's spot is likely to be a toss-up between young Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan, depending on whether Kumble goes with what he is expected to (traditionally) do at the MCG wicket, or opt to gamble on experience and India's traditional strength.

Plus, there is one school of thought that says a rookie bowler, whether it is Ishant or the completely untested Pankaj Singh, will find it tough to handle the occasion - the pressure of playing to a packed and vociferous Melbourne crowd in a Boxing Day Test.

What goes for both Ishant and Pankaj is their height; they are both tall bowlers who can hit the deck hard, something bowlers need to do in Australia.

The Aussie conundrum
The problem often faced by bowlers when from the subcontinent when confronted by Australian wickets rich in pace and carry, is a propensity to get over-excited. It is obviously a big encouragement when the ball goes a lot deeper and carries very nicely to the keeper, as it's a rarity in our part of the world.

Therefore, there's a tendency to pitch it slightly shorter, wider, letting it fly to the keeper. On the flip side, if they don't get that length just right, they are likely to be taken to pieces. The Aussies, born and bred on these wickets, all play the horizontal bat shots very well and will cut and pull almost with disdain.

What happens now is that to compensate for being taken to the cleaners, a bowler could bowl much fuller and that doesn't help either.

Things might be okay when the ball is newer but with the Kookaburra, which loses its shine very quickly, they would have to get that back-of-a-length ball that consistently hits the deck hard once the shine is off, to try and get something from the track - because there will just not be anything from the air.

This is where experience will probably play a big role. Someone like Zaheer is unlikely to get carried away, a greenhorn just might. And finally, that could make all the difference to India.