Last week, on June 25, it happened to be the 80th anniversary of India’s debut as a Test playing nation. India opened the bowling in that historic 1932 Lord’s Test against Douglas Jardine’s England with Mohammed Nissar, who some from that time and age swear was even faster than the legendary Harold Larwood. Oddly enough, Nissar, till date, remains, India’s first, fastest, and only genuinely fast bowler... give or take an Umesh Yadav, who, incidentally, has so far played exactly the same number of Test matches Nissar managed in his entire career.
But one should wait a while before placing Umesh in the same category as Nissar. If the disappointing history of Indian fast bowlers is anything to go by, Umesh could turn into a medium pacer sometime soon.
In October last year, Zaheer Khan was quoted in many a newspaper saying the Indian body is not designed to bowl fast. Considering the average height of the Indian male is a modest 5 ft. 5 inches, he may well be right. After all, it’s hard to strike fear in the hearts of opposition batsmen when you have to almost always look up to them to look them in the eye. Be that as it may, India’s inability to throw up very many, if any, fast bowlers also might have much to do with the way Indians think.
Most Indians are born accumulators predisposed to saving up for a rainy day. Fellows mentally geared to carefully plan for a settled tomorrow do not make good pace bowlers. Fast bowlers tend to be more adventurous in their ways. Sure, you need to be at least 5 ft. 9 inches tall, sinewy, and blessed with the little known fast twitch muscle fibers to have a decent chance of bowling fast. But what’s equally, if not more, important is to have a mind like, say, Virender Sehwag’s.
Sehwag bats like someone whose head is wired to bowl fast. He is a welcome anomaly among the great batsmen of this generation or, for that matter, any generation. Few batsmen with more runs than Sehwag possess the same devil-may-care, all-or-nothing approach to the task on hand.
To a lesser extent, Tendulkar does have some of Sehwag’s attacking instincts in him. Or, at least, used to. Tendulkar, too, had he been six to eight inches taller, might have made a fine fast bowler, albeit for a handful of years. After that, Tendulkar would, in all likelihood, have cut down his pace and turned into a Kapil Dev.
Sehwag, though, wouldn’t have bothered to take his foot off the pedal or any such thing. He would have gone for pace, ball after ball, sort of like Dale Steyn. These are not qualities one can site in the likes of Venkatesh Prasad or Irfan Pathan or Munaf Patel or RP Singh or Abhimanyu Mithun or most of India’s new ball bowlers that come and go with infuriating regularity. Sadly, Prasad, Pathan, Singh, Patel and Mithun are among a rare breed of Indian men who are built to bowl fast. If only they weren’t so conservative in their thinking they might have been more than just decent medium pacers.
Speaking of India’s most regretted ‘gone case’ in the fast bowling department, Munaf, Dennis Lillie, the outgoing coach of the MRF ‘medium’ Pace Foundation had this to offer by way of an assessment, "Munaf (Patel) is one bowler who used to bowl at 150 plus but someone had suggested him to slow down. To me, he had some natural gifts. Not many people are bestowed with such attributes.”
Now, one isn’t sure who told Munaf what, but the boy from Gujarat is a great example of what a majority of Indians excel at; prolonging one’s ability to milk a primary skill with minimum risk. Not surprising then that Munaf sacrificed the unreliable option of bowling fast, faster and fastest for the regular fruits of middling longevity.
Obviously, very early in his career, Munaf decided he’d rather be a boring line and length medium pacer than go for broke and become a thrilling fast bowler. Such a decision would sit very comfortably with most Indians, who happen to be among the most diligent savers in the world; which also might help explain why the average Indian is so obsessed with individual records.
No talk of India’s fast bowling stocks can be complete without an envious look across the border at Pakistan’s stocks in the same department. Generally speaking, Pakistanis are stronger and bigger than Indians, which does make it a tad easier for them to bowl faster. But they also tend to be a little more hare-brained.
Considering how hard it is to bowl swiftly under the hot tropical sun on the sort of wickets found in the subcontinent, you have to be a little mad to mindfully choose to become a fast bowler. This might be the other reason Pakistan is able to churn out an assembly line of aggressive speedsters, while the relatively more sensible, timid, and smaller Indians prefer to go ballistic from under a helmet with the security of a heavy club in hand.
The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.