Ishant Sharma was India’s most experienced specialist bowler in the first ODI against Pakistan. He has played all of 48 matches and taken just 65 wickets. India’s two most experienced “bowlers” were the part-timers Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag, and Sehwag doesn’t bowl anymore. Yuvraj is the leading wicket-taker with 109 wickets, and the only one who has taken over a hundred wickets.
While there has been plenty of hand wringing over replacing the likes of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in the batting line-up, the bowling attack has already undergone a radical change.
Just a few years ago India could draw on Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan, backed up at various times by Sreesanth or RP Singh or Munaf Patel. It was an attack that could take wickets practically anywhere in the world and under any conditions. On 30 December, only two of India’s four specialist bowlers had played more than a dozen ODIs and none of them had played more than 50. In an age where Tendulkar retired having played 463 games, that is a staggeringly inexperienced attack to field.
To be fair, until recently India could still count on Harbhajan and Zaheer. But their loss of form and fitness has caught the selectors unawares. While R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have shown the ability to take wickets in home conditions at least, thereby mitigating the loss of Harbhajan to some extent, Zaheer’s absence is the biggest blow.
Zaheer was the unchallenged leader of the bowling attack. It was him the players turned to when they wanted advice on how to bowl to a particular batsman or what field to set. MS Dhoni prefers to let the bowlers pick their fields and only steps in when he thinks something isn’t working. Zaheer was the general leading the troops.
Without Zaheer, it is no surprise that India can seem devoid of ideas in the field. In the final T20 game against Pakistan, India had the match won with one ball to go but Ishant still contrived to bowl a wide. It didn’t matter in the ultimate analysis, but all he had to do was bowl at the stumps to end the match. That he was not aware enough to do so suggests that India have not filled the leadership vacuum created by Zaheer’s absence.
It is hard to see how this attack can take 10 wickets in ODIs, leave alone 20 in Tests. Teams that don’t take wickets don’t win matches.
In the short term, India will be hoping that Zaheer gets back to full fitness in time for the series against Australia that starts in February. But India cannot rely on him forever and neither Ishant nor Umesh has so far shown the ability to step into his shoes. Aside from Ishant’s fitness concerns, he is yet to demonstrate the ability to take wickets consistently. And while Umesh is fast, he has miles to go in terms of experience and understanding of the game.
What India needs then is someone to fill the gap between Zaheer and the time the next generation is ready to steer the car themselves. Joe Dawes, the current bowling coach, can iron out technical problems, but India needs someone who has been successful at the international level and who can be a resource for the bowlers when they have questions about tactics or strategy. This applies to the spinners as well.
Having a mentor will allow the players to mature faster and also give them the confidence to develop their own thinking out in the middle so they can adapt when the situation demands it. Without one, the bowlers run the risk of losing confidence and developing bad habits (Ashwin struggled with his line against England after the first Test and could have used a friendly chat). If that happens to this young bowling side, India can expect their lean run to continue for the foreseeable future.