Cricketing history is proof that India has never been a side reliant on its fast bowling arsenal. For decades, India rested on the laurels of the art of spin, and has been witness to groups of individuals who have mastered the art of flight, turn and deception. Indian cricket is slowly reaching a stage where pace bowling can be used almost as an antonym to everything that defines the current Indian side.
While most ponder whether Sachin Tendulkar should be replaced and who his successor will be, few manage to see a greater void that India will face in the near future. Zaheer Khan is 34 years old and slowly beginning to reach the closing stages of a pace bowler’s career. His fitness has been under the scanner for a long time now, especially after his recent injury scares. Zaheer’s injury in England last year cost the Indians dearly, and his injury scares before the ongoing series against England would have surely left some of the selectors worried.
The real reason for worry is not just that Zaheer means a lot to the Indian pace bowling department, but that he “is” the pace bowling department. India doesn’t seem to have chalked out a succession plan yet and they have been sending out all the wrong signs for the upcoming crop of pace bowlers. The second Test between India and England at Mumbai sent out the worst possible message for the pace bowlers in the Indian squad.
To start off with, MS Dhoni asked for a pitch that turned from day one. Such a demand shows that Dhoni has confidence in his spin bowlers, that he has confidence in the opposition’s pace bowlers and wants to negate them, and most importantly, it shows that he doesn’t think his pace bowlers can be effective in home conditions. The last point was validated by Dhoni going into the Mumbai Test with just one pace bowler in Zaheer.
Another big indication that India hasn’t established a successor to Zaheer’s position is the frequent shuffling of pace bowlers. The squad and the playing XIs selected so far during the England series raise a few pertinent issues. Ishant Sharma, who recovered from an injury and managed to take just three wickets in his opening Ranji Trophy match against Uttar Pradesh, was bizarrely drafted in to the side. Umesh Yadav’s injury coupled with a turning pitch forced Dhoni to go in with a spinner instead of Sharma or Ashok Dinda. Sharma was then given the nod to play at the Eden Gardens, despite it being Dinda’s home ground. Dinda was also the second-highest wicket-taker in last season’s Ranji Trophy.
Taking a step back, India has used 10 different fast bowlers over the last two years, with the likes of Jaydev Unadkat and Vinay Kumar playing just one Test each. And who can forget RP Singh being recalled out of the blue for the Oval Test last year, where he turned in the stellar line of 34-7-118-0.
Is any of this leading to a suitable successor in the pace bowling department? It is hard to say it is leading to a successor at all, leave alone a suitable one.
One way of filling the void Zaheer Khan will leave would be to use not one but two bowlers. Umesh Yadav has shown some promise with the old ball, but hasn’t been equally effective when the ball is new. What India needs to do is find someone who can swing the new ball and partner Yadav effectively. The likes of Kapil Dev, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan have carried the burden of the Indian pace bowling department on their shoulders single-handedly. Now, the time has come for India to look for a pair who can shoulder that load.
Unfortunately, tailor-made wickets that offer help exclusively for the spinners and a line-up that has Zaheer as the only pace bowler is detrimental to the cause of building the future Indian pace bowling department.