Mohammed Shami (L), Bhuvneshwar Kumar (C) and Ishant Sharma in action during India's tour of New Zealand. (AP Photo)
His long hair blowing back in the wind, he steamed in again and again at the third batting net as India trained on Monday at Seddon Park ahead of the must-win fourth One-day international against New Zealand.
Ishant Sharma initially struck the 'body' a few times before aiming at the 'toe'. The struggling paceman, dropped for the third ODI in Auckland on Saturday that ended in a tie, was back honing his skills against the cardboard dummy. A team official put the target up every time it toppled over.
The irony was hard to miss. Left to purvey their trade in the shadow of their batsmen, India's largely under-rated pace bowlers have had their moments while playing abroad. On pitches affording movement and bounce, they have been encouraged to produce the aggression that seldom pays off on home pitches.
But in the last two ODI series, in South Africa and New Zealand, they have sold something akin to what Ishant was taking aim at. If he struggled with his line, length and pace in the defeats at Napier and Hamilton, Mohammed Shami lost control in Auckland.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar was dropped after proving expensive in the first ODI in Johannesburg and never played again in South Africa as the team management looked to inject pace. But he has eased back into his usual role, keeping things tight despite a lack of sheer pace. On a good Eden Park pitch, he still beat Jesse Ryder with movement to bowl the left-hander cheaply.
While the youngster has comeback strongly, the same can't be said about the other pacers. And they have not been helped as MS Dhoni's practical approach is proving to be a vote of no-confidence in them. The inability of the bowlers to provide quick breakthroughs, and an inability to hit the deck, has only convinced the World Cup winning skipper.
In the last five matches, India have lost twice each in South Africa and New Zealand, after Dhoni elected to bowl each time. He has defended this tactic overseas, pointing to the current ODI rules (introduced in October, 2012) that offer little protection to the bowlers as only four fielders are allowed outside the 30-yard circle. It was five, but the change was made to inject more excitement – read aggressive batting -- in the wake of the T20 upsurge.
“Would it be wise to ask the batsmen to bat first and give the bowlers something to defend?” Dhoni asked after the Eden Park tie, defending his policy to chase targets. “In a way you may say we are taking some pressure off the batsmen by doing that. But the other way is we might ask the batsmen to give 325-340 runs to the bowlers every time they bat, it doesn’t matter where you are playing.”
For the bowlers to be effective in New Zealand conditions, they have to hit the deck, keep it just short of good length and look for wickets in the early overs instead of trying to contain the batsmen.
Dhoni had admitted after the second ODI that bowlers leaking runs does put pressure on the batsmen. “Unless it is a very seamer-friendly wicket, more often than not we have gone for runs as has been the case with most of the other teams.”
But it is more damage limitation by India, looking to defend the World Cup in New Zealand and Australia early next year, than dynamic play. And Kiwi skipper, Brendon McCullum, is waiting for his luck to change with the toss.