Uneasy rests the crown of being the world’s best team on India, the land of Sachin Tendulkar and of many record-breaking batting heroics.
India, no doubt, has redeemed itself by returning home from South Africa with honours even, a first in its cricketing history, but amidst all the euphoria we should not forget one glaring drawback which could hurt India the most in its quest to consolidate its top ranking: the lack of penetration in its bowling.
The humiliating defeat in the Centurion Test showed that the team is over-dependent on Zaheer Khan. His return in the Durban Test transformed the bowling unit, but his fitness remains suspect. In the second innings of the final Test, he was not at his best and as a result India’s pace attack collapsed once again. Had Harbhajan Singh got good support from them, India could well have been celebrating a series win and not expressing relief at having held South Africa to a draw.
In alien conditions this has been a major problem with the Indian team over the years and despite having won a few matches of late outside the country, this problem persists.
Zaheer, who began his career as a hostile tearaway pacer at the beginning of the last decade, had to scale down his own pace and ambitions, dogged as he has been with injuries. Luckily for India, what he lost in pace he more than made up by his exceptional swing bowling. The same can’t be said of the rest.
A bunch of talented bowlers in the last decade or so began their career as genuine quickies but have faded away, becoming victims of too much limited-over cricket, lack of planning and, perhaps, loss of motivation because of getting too much too soon.
India’s most outstanding quick bowler, Kapil Dev, believes that “too much one-day and now T-20 cricket, lack of planning and focus and a system which could address these problems” has reduced our bowling to this state, despite a “wealth of talent”.
The post-Kapil era saw the emergence of many promising fast bowlers, many of whom bowled in 140-km range, like Munaf Patel, Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth, but could not sustain that pace for long. Who can forget Ishant Sharma’s spell in Australia, where he bowled with tremendous speed to raise hopes that India had discovered a gem! The same bowler today looks a caricature of himself. The same holds true for Sreesanth. There are times, like in this series, when Sreesanth looks a bowler who could run through any batting side but those moments are too infrequent as he lacks consistency.
Kapil feels sad because a player like Munaf Patel has lost his bite. “When I saw him first I felt he would be India’s spearhead. His excellent action helped him generate pace, but injuries and an inability to adjust to different formats of the game have resulted in his going into oblivion.”
Unlike the other cricket-playing countries, which have had two to three genuine pace bowlers operating in tandem for them, India has never had this luxury. In Kapil’s words: “I would have been a different bowler if I had the support of quality fast bowlers at the other end.” He says this as he knew he had to bowl 25 overs a day and to do so “I had to conserve my energy and would rarely go flat out in one spell”.
Kapil believes that Javagal Srinath was the only genuine quick bowler India has produced, someone “who never compromised on his speed throughout his career”.
Srinath himself gives a very interesting insight into India’s pace woes. He thinks the first disadvantage bowlers have outside India is having to bowl with kookaburra balls, which are not used in India. “These balls are different in texture, seam and even weight and the bowlers struggle because they are not used to bowling with them.” The second reason he gives is that “we have never had a settled pace attack in recent years. I had Venky (Venkatesh Prasad) and the two of us had developed a great understanding and would plan out a batsman by bowling to his weaknesses rather than bowling to our strengths”. But this understanding can, according to him, be developed only “if you bowl together for a reasonable period of time, which is not happening these days because of frequent breakdown of key bowlers due to injuries”.
And the third reason is that the bowlers “struggling to adapt between the three formats of the game, like what is happening to Ishant these days”.
The country’s highest wicket-taker, Anil Kumble, the man under whose stewardship India finally achieved its top Test slot, is not that pessimistic. He agrees there are concerns but hastens to add that “we should not immediately rush to judgements”.
Agreed, one should not, but given the fact that India would be playing Test cricket mostly abroad this year, the country needs to find a way, other than selling players to the highest bidder, to preserve its pacers. Otherwise the team would find it difficult to retain its place as the world’s top Test cricket-playing nation.