World Cup 2019: How India grew into a fast-bowling nation
“When my name comes on the big screen it says medium pacer. I say ‘who you talking to?’ I show them I can bowl 90. I think they should put some respect on my name, that medium pace should go to fast.” That’s Andre Russell, the West Indies all-rounder, eloquently pointing out that the gap between medium and fast is spelled RESPECT. In England this summer, this has been especially true—this World Cup has belonged to the men who bowl fast, and it has been defined not by swing or seam movement, but by raw speed.
At the end of the group stage, the wicket-takers list is thickly populated by fast bowlers—the top ten are all pacers, and the first spinner on the list, Yuzvendra Chahal, comes is at 18.
That there’s an Australian quick, Mitchell Starc, heading that list is only to be expected. That there are two Pakistanis, two Kiwis, and two English bowlers—one of whom, Jofra Archer, is originally from Barbados, the land of fast bowlers—is run of the mill.
But here’s what signals a true cultural shift: Both of India’s pace spearheads—Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami—are on that list, and even that is not surprising. After all, India went into this tournament boasting a fast bowling attack that was held in even higher regard than it’s batting. Jasprit Bumrah leads the ODI bowlers’ rankings (and he has lived up to that billing). Mohammed Shami, originally in the squad as back up to Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, grabbed his opportunity when Kumar had to sit out a couple of matches with an injury and now boasts of the best strike rate—15.07—of all bowlers at the tournament.
All three of India’s pacers are express quick, if hitting the 90 mph or 145 kph mark is what separates the quick and the rest.
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India could have had even faster bowlers at the World Cup, if, say, Navdeep Saini—who was on the standby list for the Cup squad, and was in England as a net bowler for India—had more experience. Saini clocked a 152.85 kph delivery at the 2019 IPL, faster than the fastest ball by Archer, who has lit up the World Cup with his speed.
Bumrah, Kumar, and Shami are not aberrations when it comes to speed—there is a long line of genuinely fast pacers waiting in the wings, waiting to step up on the big stage. Till 2017, only three Indians featured on the list of fastest bowlers at the IPL—Varun Aaron, Ishant Sharma, and Umesh Yadav.
In the last two IPLs, apart from Bumrah, Shami, Kumar, Sharma, Yadav and Aaron, eight other Indian bowlers crossed that bridge of respect from medium fast to fast. Some of them hit 150 consistently. Two of them, Khaleel Ahmed and Mohammed Siraj, have already played for India. Four of them—Saini, Ahmed, Deepak Chahar and Avesh Khan—were with the Indian team in England as net bowlers for the World Cup.
India is no longer the land of medium pace. There is no longer the need to look enviously at the neighbour and endlessly debate why Pakistan is so good at producing an assembly line of fearsome quicks.
India is now a fast bowling nation.
To go beyond the enigmatic adage that ‘fast bowlers are born, not made’, beyond the difficult-to-prove theory that you need to be big and beefy to be an express bowler (Bumrah, Shami and Kumar are all lean and of average height), take a trip with 20-year-old fast bowler Shivam Mavi, who made both his Ranji and IPL debut last year.
A short trip, made 11 years ago when Mavi was 9, from his home in a village near Meerut to the Wanderers Cricket Academy in Noida. Mavi came with the dream of being a batsman, in the mould of Sachin Tendulkar. But what caught coach Phool Chand’s eye was Mavi’s fluid bowling action.
The more side-on action developed into one ideal for outswing bowling, and Mavi soon had a new hero, Dale Steyn. At 1.75m (5”9’), he is relatively short for a fast bowler, and those shorter, Steyn and the late Malcolm Marshall being great examples, are master outswing bowlers. Mentoring was at hand, with senior Uttar Pradesh pacers Sudeep Tyagi, Anureet Singh and Parvinder Awana training along side.
Mavi, described as aggressive but calm, wanted to join Indian cricket’s growing band that wants to bowl fast, not medium-pace.
“It has become a trend in India, everyone has started saying 150, 150 (kph),” Chand says, sitting in his small office adjacent to the ground. “Mavi’s best is 149.9”, he points out, with the it-can-be-better air of a tutor.
That delivery was part of a lethal package Mavi and Rajasthan’s Nagarkoti delivered in the 2018 U-19 World Cup win in New Zealand. Speed is a natural gift, sure, but first that gift has to be spotted. Then it has to be nurtured and polished; and then there is the tricky part of helping the young bowler protect the body from the extreme stress it has to endure for bowling fast. In the U-19 set up, under the outstanding mentorship provided by Rahul Dravid, Mavi and Nagarkoti got their first taste of that grooming.
Mavi was not in the original line-up, but he grabbed a chance to play in seam-friendly Lahli, Haryana, taking five wickets. That got him into the camp, where he shone in a practice game against the main eleven. Dravid was watching, and asked for Mavi to be drafted into the final squad.
Both Nagarkoti and Mavi were snapped up the same year by Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL, but both suffered injuries that kept them out. Nagarkoti, who suffered a back injury, has not returned to competitive cricket. His rehab over at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, he has just started bowling again. Mavi too has completed rehabilitation at NCA for a back injury.
In the past, young and injured pacers settled for reduced pace but not anymore.
“I’m sure I will bowl faster,” Mavi declares, sitting in the Wanderers Academy office on a hot day in June.
Mavi’s litany of injury woes could have derailed him, but Dravid’s support, he says, has ensured the Indian cricket board’s full backing.
Mavi’s litany of injury woes could be the case of any aspiring fast bowler, but Dravid’s support, due to his talent, has ensured Board’s full backing.
Mavi says that the IPL too has been a major influence on his bowling; there was inspiration there—“Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, they injected new life into Indian fast bowling,” he says. “Aaron has returned from seven injury breaks without reducing his pace.”
Quick route of IPL
IPL has become the light at the end of the tunnel for many young pacers, mostly from modest families, and they do have their escape-from-obscurity story. The most famous one of course features Bumrah himself, who, as an unknown 20-year-old in 2013, having played just a handful of age-group matches for Gujarat, was spotted by then Mumbai Indians coach John Wright during a domestic T20 match. Wright watched just two overs from Bumrah before he decided to make him an offer to play for Mumbai Indians. Once he joined, Bumrah was mentored at the nets by none other than Lasith Malinga. Now look at his yorkers go.
The IPL has fundamentally shifted the pathway for promising cricketers to blossom into their own. Some of the world’s best coaches and former cricketers now scout them out (Wright, along with TA Sekhar, is still scouting for Mumbai Indians). Then they get a chance to train with and learn from some of the best in the game.
Paras Mhambrey, head of fast bowling at NCA and attached to India A and U-19 teams, points out that most fast bowlers come from the hinterlands, with limited access to good coaching.
“Khaleel is from interior Rajasthan, Mavi is from interior UP, Avesh from interior MP,” Mhambrey says. “These guys playing IPL has given them the opportunity to compete at that level against top batsmen, sharing experience with international bowlers, interacting with different coaches. A lot of ideas emerge, and helps you grow as a bowler.”
Then Delhi captain Gautam Gambhir fought officials to get the untested Saini, who comes from Karnal in Haryana, a cricketing backwater, into the Ranji team after a friend told him about his raw pace, and then he was signed by Delhi Capitals for the IPL. Chahar, 26, was rejected by the Rajasthan Cricket Association academy director Greg Chappell in 2008. But he made a sensational first-class debut two years later, capturing eight for 10 runs to rout Hyderabad for 21. He is the Chennai Super Kings opening bowler. The gift of being fast is now of immense value in the IPL, the way it has been in Pakistan with its famous tape-ball cricket league.
“A batsman’s tapasya (struggle) is long. He struggles to get into the team—needs to score runs for four-five years to get into contention,” Chand says. “But in India if a bowler can touch 140 kph, he can even play within a year. Those who can bowl faster quickly grab the selectors’ attention. If he is a good fielder and batsman too, then he can hope for India selection.”
Dravid, the mentor
Mavi has been coached from early, but acknowledges that the finishing school, in terms of ideal action and nutrition was the NCA. “When I started, I never knew there would be so much competition for fast bowling, I just used to bowl,” he says. “We got professional trainers at NCA who told us what our weaknesses were. Shoulder for someone, core for someone else, and they worked on us. Once you improve your weak areas, naturally your pace will go up.
“I keep talking to Nagarkoti to make sure we don’t get dejected because of injury. Frustration will only harm us.”
Mhambrey says that technology at the NCA now enables them to manage each bowler with the kind of individual attention that was missing before.
“We’ve software to monitor every bowler; everything is logged, number of balls bowled, or the work they put in.”
Mhambrey, 46, a former fast bowler who played briefly for India but has invaluable experience as a coach at the domestic level, sees a brave new world: the Indian team being hailed for its potent pace attack and IPL franchises loosening their purse strings for quicks has boosted motivation. More exposure tours for junior teams too have made a difference. “The path we have taken, when Rahul Dravid took charge (as junior coach)—maximum exposure,” Mhambrey says. “The challenge is to play away when conditions are not in your control—batting or bowling on a seaming track.”
Because of the IPL, the funding for state teams at the Ranji level has also increased, as has the way training is set up at that level.
“We had no training structure, physio or trainer,” Mhambrey says. “It is good to see the progress. Every team can now afford physios and nutritionists and trainers. These guys are a lot more aware in terms of diet.”
With the introduction of professional fitness coaches, training methods and philosophy have changed too. “Earlier, it was mainly about running, gym was a no, no,” Mhambrey says. “Now what kind of fitness work you do is tailored to the type of bowler you are.”
Karsan Ghavri, former India pacer of the 1970s and early 1980s, remembers a time when he was head of the now-defunct BCCI bowling academy in Mohali. He had agonised in 2011 that there was not one bowler who could touch 140kph.
“This is the new age where we can match any country in quality and variety of our pace attack,” he says.
In other words, RESPECT.