Mukesh, Prasidh ready to step up and be counted
By including pacers Mukesh Kumar and Prasidh Krishna in the squad for South Africa, India have their transition plan in place
If Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara’s exclusion from India’s Test team for the tour of South Africa points to a change of guard in the batting department, the pace bowling unit is also in the throes of a gradual transition. It may not be as apparent because Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj are at the peak of their powers, preying on deficiencies in the opposition collectively and skilfully as part of a three-pronged pace attack.
But beyond the tried and tested trio, India are in the process of finding a fresh crop of pacers — depth in this department is essential to sustained excellence in this format. The first steps in this long-drawn-out transition were taken in January 2022 when Ishant Sharma — 105 Tests old — was dropped after India’s previous tour of South Africa. And now with Umesh Yadav also falling out of favour — the last of his 57 Tests came at the World Test Championship (WTC) final against Australia at The Oval in London in June — it has become imperative for the Indian think-tank to seek new options. Also remember that Shami is 33 while Bumrah is 30 and essential to India across all formats.
For the tour of South Africa, involving two Tests at Centurion from December 26-30 and at Cape Town from January 3-7, it is Prasidh Krishna and Mukesh Kumar that the selectors have gone with. While neither is likely to start the first Test at this stage, their readiness will be put to the test in case Shami’s ankle issue isn’t resolved. Shami's selection in the Test squad according to a BCCI media release last week is subject to fitness.
Between Prasidh and Mukesh, there’s just the solitary Test appearance. That belongs to Mukesh, who made his international debut across all formats on the tour of the Caribbean in July-August.
Belonging to the Gopalganj district in Bihar, Mukesh’s story is no different to the umpteen youngsters from small towns who decide to navigate the bustling streets of a metropolis in search of a better life. Having made the 700-km journey to Kolkata along with his father in 2012, he became a part of the Bengal team in 2015. Even then, he had to plug away tirelessly for many seasons to get noticed by the national selectors. His first-class record — 151 wickets in 40 matches at an average of 21.62 — is a testament to his consistency as well as perseverance.
Did his coaches and teammates at Bengal believe he will make the grade for India?
“Oh absolutely. There is no question about it,” said former India opener Arun Lal, who was Bengal coach from 2018 to 2022. “I felt he should have played for India long ago. For some reason, he went just under the radar. Even his statistics in 2020 were one of the best in the country — his economy, strike rate. He has this uncanny ability of providing breakthroughs when you need it. He is a coach's delight.”
Mukesh bailed Bengal out of many tricky situations, said Lal. “On many occasions when Bengal were up against it, in the second innings when we had conceded the first innings lead, he would give breakthroughs with the new ball. If ever there was a partnership that was really tightening the screws on you, he is the only one who could come up with a wicket-taking delivery. On a flat track, he would bowl an unplayable ball. As a human being, he is fantastic. He comes from very humble beginnings. He has fought his way up. There is not an iota of arrogance in him despite knowing that he is the lynchpin of Bengal’s attack.”
It’s seam more than swing that Mukesh relies on. “Nothing is in the air. Maybe he will swing a few deliveries with the new ball, but otherwise it's all off the pitch. That's why he's so effective. He bowls around the 135kmph mark. You give him the last over of the day and he will give his heart out,” Lal added.
Prasidh will also be eyeing an opportunity to utilise the pace and bounce in South Africa. Having been identified as a Test prospect a few years ago, the 27-year-old from Bengaluru could have also made his debut in the Caribbean if not for a career-debilitating back injury that kept him away for a year. While he was expensive in the recent T20 series against Australia, it is believed that Prasidh’s skills are ideally suited to the longest format. It's an assessment hard to dispute when you consider he has 49 wickets in 11 first-class matches at a strike rate of 37.8.
If they are given an opportunity in South Africa, results may depend on the swiftness with which they find the right lengths. India’s pacers seemed to err in this regard two years ago, allowing the hosts to comfortably chase targets in excess of 200 in successive Tests.
“The length generally has to be a trifle shorter than India. Mukesh is the ideal bowler for that. He is not the kind who's going to pitch it up to you to get driven and get an edge. He gets you out when you are defending the ball,” said Lal.
Even if they don’t get game time in the Test series though, just observing how Bumrah, Shami and Siraj go about their task can be vital in their education and elevation to the next stage.
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