Worries over the Indian pace attack
The batting, even without Sachin Tendulkar, can take care of itself, but what about the bowling? More specifically, what about the pace attack?
India goes into the new season with question marks of some sort or the other over each of its three premier fast bowlers.
Zaheer lasted a full season without breaking down and was the only bowler in the one day internationals against Pakistan who looked like he had a counter to Afridi's frightening ways at the crease, but in Tests, which is after all the real meal, there were not many wickets coming his way.
Irfan Pathan was world cricket's find of 2003, with a certain Imran Khan saying he was better than Akram at the same age, but by the end of the last season, the youngster had been dropped from the ODI team, the swing into the right hander gone and the pace down by more than a couple of notches.
Balaji did well in Tests but looked clueless in the ODIs every time a batsman targeted him.
Not one name to pencil in without much of a thought. Greg Chappell knows it. From the way in which the fast bowlers on the fringes were striving to impress the new coach during the conditioning camp for fast bowlers in Bangalore, so do they. The way things are, the distance from anonymity to the spotlight could be just a few good spells, at least for the most promising among them.
Balaji and Pathan have age on their side and can soak in a bad performance or two but Zaheer, the senior in the pack at 26, knows the coming season can make or break him. In spite of having a known supporter in captain Sourav, the quick from Baroda has not been able to do the kind of consistent damage that spearheads do, a point that won't have escaped a mind as incisive as that of the new Indian coach. Frequent breakdowns have not helped either. Nineteen wickets in nine Tests last season, at an average of 48.26 with a best of 4-95, are not what you expect from a bowler who takes the new ball for his country.
Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad aver that Zaheer is the best we have when he is fit, but the stats - 102 wickets in 38 Tests at an average of 37.64, tell a different tale. Just to put those figures in perspective, Chris Cairns, an all-rounder, ended his career with 218 wickets in 62 Tests at an average under 30. Kallis, who bowls only when he is in the mood these days, has 183 wickets in 93 Tests at 31.60. An injury-free season would have stilled the demons in his mind and proved that the body is willing to take the load but that, in itself, is no reason to celebrate. Unless he cranks up his pace a couple of notches, masters the in-dipper to the right hander and becomes better at keeping the pressure on the batsmen by denying easy runs, Zaheer is in big trouble.
The man, however, is trying his best to make his own fate. Andrew Leipus, who was at the camp, says Zaheer is extremely fit, the fittest he has ever been. For a man who was once described by Bruce Reid, India's bowling coach during the tour Down Under in 2003, as mentally lazy and as someone who didn't exercise hard enough, that is one big change. Being India's best bowler in the one-day internationals agaisnt Pakistan should ensure Zaheer a place in the squad for the tri series in Sri Lanka. The real test, however, would be the Tests that follow later in the season, something Zaheer would surely be aware of.
Though just two international seasons old, Pathan is more of a finished product than Zaheer, one capable of plotting the dismissal of a batsman and patient enough to wait till the right moment to strike. However, the ODIs last season were a nightmare - one wicket in three ODIs at an average of 160 - and there are many who fear that Pathan, much like Nehra a few years ago, may have lost his most lethal delivery, one that swerves into the right hander after pitching. Pathan himself says everything is fine. Very soon, we will know what to believe - his words or our eyes.
Balaji has his priorities right - he says he is concentrating on ways to contain batsmen when the field restrictions are in place - but there is something about the way he disintegrates when confronted by the Afridis and the Gayles in ODIs that suggests that he is more at home in Test cricket. England uses Hoggard only for Tests; perhaps it is time for India to think along similar lines. India can afford to experiment - the cupboard has never been this full.
If Zaheer is at his fittest, it is partly due to the fact that in Ashish Nehra, VRV Singh, RP Singh, Siddharth Trivedi, and Munaf Patel, there is enough backup strength for Greg and the selectors to turn to. The first left-arm pace bowler from India to pick up 100 Test wickets is smart enough to recognise a threat when he sees one. Pathan and Balaji, intelligent men both, too would start the new season a tad more nervously than they normally do.
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