India's fast bowlers take the leap of faith
- In the 67 Tests captained by Kohli, India has averaged 25.26 runs per wicket, making this the top bowling team any captain has had in the history of the game, better than the Hansie Cronje-led South Africa team, West Indies under Viv Richards and Steve Waugh’s Australia
“Just the way these guys bowl together, it’s just a hallmark of our team getting a result from that position, not just in this game but also in the last two-three years.”
Hours after his fast bowlers delivered a massive 113-run victory at Centurion on Thursday, Virat Kohli was understandably filled with pride with what his team has achieved at home and away. He now has 40 wins as India captain with a win/loss ratio of 2.5, trailing only Steve Waugh (4.55), Clive Lloyd and Ricky Ponting (both have W/L of 3) on the all-time list. Most of these wins have been orchestrated by a fantastic lineup of bowlers who don’t get to play every Test together. But Kohli’s continued insistence on fielding five specialist bowlers means India are always armed with the right kind of attack, home or away.
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In the 67 Tests captained by Kohli India has averaged 25.26 runs per wicket, making this the top bowling team any captain has ever had in the history of the game, better than the Hansie Cronje-led South Africa team (25.84), West Indies (25.97) under Viv Richards and Steve Waugh’s Australia (27.45). Unlike most of the earlier teams that have relied heavily on pace, India have a balanced roster in both pace and spin, something very few teams have achieved—Saqlain Mushtaq during the pomp of Wasim Akram-Waqar Younis and Shane Warne in that great Australian team of the 90s and early 2000s being some of the distinguished exceptions. India’s home supremacy is still driven by their spinners, but in recent years the fast bowlers have come together to wrest advantage irrespective of the pitches or the weather.
It can be traced back to 2018, when Jasprit Bumrah made his Test debut in Cape Town. India have won nine Tests outside the subcontinent since then—all engineered by the quicks. Since 2018, India’s pacers have the best average (23.46) and second-best strike rate (47.1) among all Test playing nations, home or away. Only South Africa have a better strike rate (45.1) because they have played more Tests at home, where pacers thrive. That makes India effectively the best fast bowling team in the world. Most of that is Bumrah and Shami’s doing. Bumrah has a better average (21.04 to Shami's 26.13) and more five-wicket hauls abroad (six to Shami's three), but their strike rates (47.5 for Bumrah and 47.9 for Shami) are nearly identical, and it's what makes them such a fearsome pair away from home. Every time they play together, they give the team a splendid chance of getting breakthroughs from either end through sustained and relentless pressure. Centurion is the most recent defining moment in the history of Indian Test cricket, with fast bowlers taking 18 of the 20 wickets for a first ever victory for India at the venue.
Kohli thought the game could have been wrapped earlier had Bumrah not been unavailable for the bulk of Day 3 because of a twisted right ankle. “We just spoke about it in the change room.. the fact that he (Bumrah) didn't bowl much at all in the first innings probably allowed the opposition to get 40-50 extra runs,” Kohli said.
To Kohli’s advantage, he has also had fast bowlers who have successfully played the role of the third seamer over the years. If Ishant Sharma was his go-to guy earlier, it’s Mohammed Siraj now. Sharma may not be in the reckoning now but he has been an unusual story of a fast bowler who got better towards the end of his career. At the end of 2017, his career average was 36.55; it’s 32.4 now. His career strike rate is 61.6 but since 2018 it has been 46.7 away from home. Bumrah’s rise was meteoric, but Sharma too played a crucial role—returning five wickets at Centurion (2018), six in Birmingham (2018), eight at North Sound (2019), five in Wellington (2020) and five at Lord’s (2021). Interestingly, Sharma had a better strike rate at home (44.7) in the last four years, with a best match haul of 9/78 against Bangladesh in India’s first pink ball Test at home, in 2019. India’s approach towards fast bowling at home too has been a crucial factor behind their overall dominance. Since 2018, India’s pacers have averaged 18.14 at home, England coming closest at 26.09. This highlights a marked shift from the theory that fast bowlers at home are good enough for just opening spells or to take the shine off the ball for spinners to grip it well. In the home series against South Africa in 2019, spinners accounted for 32 wickets but pacers too took 26 wickets.
Umesh Yadav is a great example of India’s balanced approach towards utilising fast bowling resources. If Shami and Bumrah have led the attack away from home, India have ensured they get enough rest during the home series when Yadav and Sharma take over. Yadav, with his ability to swing the new ball and also reverse the old ball, is perfectly suited for India’s abrasive pitches. In fact, no India pacer has taken a greater proportion of their wickets at home than Yadav (98 at home, 58 away) who has a strike rate of 29.1 in India since 2018, also the best among all pacers to have bowled at home since then. Proper identification of roles has allowed India to devise an evolving fast bowling attack equally good at home and away. And the results are pouring in.