India's premier pacemen — Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma — rattled rival teams and bagged 136 Test wickets. This is a fantastic statistic in itself, made even more remarkable by the fact that Bumrah, who claimed 48 wickets in nine Tests, was in his first year in Test cricket.
Deliveries crashing into the stumps before bat comes down, balls rearing off the pitch menacingly, batsmen weaving and ducking against bouncers or being beaten repeatedly by pace and swing: Playing fast bowling can be an ordeal, imposing not just a test of technique but also courage.
Till a couple of seasons ago, the Indian cricket teams had to suffer this whenever they played outside the subcontinent, without having the wherewithal to give it back as good as they got. This almost inevitably worked to their acute disadvantage where results were concerned.
But it was a different ball game in 2018, as the country’s premier pacemen — Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma — rattled rival teams and bagged 136 Test wickets. This is a fantastic statistic in itself, made even more remarkable by the fact that Bumrah, who claimed 48 wickets in nine Tests, was in his first year in Test cricket.
Critics, as well as present and former players are in fact saying that India’s pace attack is the best, most potent in the world presently, rivalled only perhaps by South Africa which also boasts of five-six quality fast bowlers.
Great teams can’t be forged without great fast bowlers as the history of cricket reveals. Don Bradman’s Invincibles had Lindwall and Miller. So much success of Clive Lloyd’s West Indies of the 1970s and 80s was built around Roberts, Holding, Marshall and Garner. Pakistan were most dangerous when Imran and Sarfraz were in tandem, followed by Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib Akhtar.
South Africa were at their best when Donald, Pollock and Ntini had teamed up. The formidable Aussie team between 1995 and 2005 had McGrath, Gillespie and Lee.
It would be premature to put India’s current pace attack in the same category unless they sustain this wicket-taking form for more years. On evidence so far, Bumrah, Shami and Ishant have shown the skill and desire. And there are several other quality fast bowlers like Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj and Khaleel Ahmed who are also vying for Test places.
Clearly, something unusual is happening in Indian cricket for fast bowlers to flourish with such success.
Which takes me back a little over five decades to the Test match at Bombay’s Cricket Club of India (CCI) against the West Indies in 1966-67, led by the peerless Sir Garfield Sobers, which I saw as an impressionable 11-year-old.
That match has remained etched in my mind for several reasons. High among these are Sobers’s all-round brilliance, Chandu Borde’s gritty 121 as other batsmen fell around him to the pace and fury of Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith, and unorthodox leg-spinner BS Chandrasekhar’s superb bowling which fetched him 11 wickets even as India crashed to defeat.
There is one other abiding memory too, an important link nonetheless in understanding how Indian cricket has evolved: India’s opening bowlers in this Test were opening batsman ML Jaisimha and debutant left-hand batsman Ajit Wadekar.
For writing this piece, I checked the match scorecard again and discovered that between them, Jaisimha and Wadekar were used for just 4.1 of the 226 overs bowled by India. I also recall Indian fielders would roll the ball along the ground while returning it to the bowlers to try and remove the sheen!
This was against cricket convention, but not quite startling now when you consider that the team had four spinners in Chandrasekhar, Durani, Nadkarni and Venkataraghavan. Did India not have even two decent fast bowlers, I had wondered then.
The answer is telltale if you examine the scoreboards of Test matches played in the 1960s and even 70s. Apart from Jaisimha and Wadekar, some other names that used the new ball for India include Pataudi, Kunderan (a wicket-keeper), and even Gavaskar!
I’ve picked the 1966-67 series against West Indies to highlight an epochal change in Indian cricket. This was the first series featuring Chandra, Bedi, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan. India’s famous spin quartet had been forged.
A year later, all four were to play in the same Test, at Headingley against England. Fast bowlers had become totally dispensable. There weren’t any of quality around anyway. Until the current proliferation of fast bowlers, Indian cricket was seen as by, for and of spin bowling.
Not without legitimacy either, for India has produced some outstanding spinners through the years. But this obscures the fact that in the early decades, it was fast bowlers who were the more effective.
In India’s maiden Test against England in 1932, the players to make the most impact were fast bowler Mohammed Nisar and his partner Amar Singh. Right till independent India’s first series, against Sir Don Bradman’s Invincibles in 1947-48, pacers (Nisar, Amar Singh, Lala Amarnath, Dattu Phadkar being the leading lights) took substantially more wickets than spinners.
Interestingly, post-Partition, Pakistan became identified with pace bowling and India with spin. Why and how did this happen, what changed the theme, as it were for India, has been the subject of debate for aficionados.
There is no pat answer. The subject needs greater research. One factor could be that pre-Partition, Lahore and West Punjab (which went to Pakistan) was the hub of fast bowlers. In east India, primarily Calcutta, medium-paced swing bowlers thrived, but sporting excellence in this zone was reflected more in football than cricket in that era.
The other major factor was the success enjoyed by India spinners in the 1950s, which made them heroes to emulate. The great left-arm spinner Vinoo Mankad helped India win its first Test (Madras, 1951-52 against England) almost single-handedly. A year later, he put up a monumental all-round performance at Lord’s that made him the toast of the cricket world.
In that decade, apart from Mankad, India also had Subhash Gupte, Ghulam Ahmed, Jasu Patel and discovered Salim Durani, Bapu Nadkarni and — till he gave up leg-spin bowling to concentrate on batting because of a back problem — Chandu Borde.
Spin was helping India stay in contention even if not many matches were being won. Reading about the exploits of Mankad & Co may have convinced a young Pataudi, after he was made captain as a 21-year-old, that the team’s prospects were best aligned with slow bowlers. On finding bowlers of the calibre of Prasanna, Bedi, Chandra and Venkataraghavan, Pataudi turned cricket convention on its head, making fast bowling in Indian cricket almost perfunctory.
It was not until Kapil Dev cut through this theme, arriving on the scene like a bolt out of the blue in 1978, that fast bowling was even discussed seriously in Indian cricket circles.
A terrific all-rounder, Kapil not only won matches with his superbly controlled swing bowling, but also compelled batsmen to wear helmets against him.
This made him an instant hero and forced administrators and captains to revisit the “spin only” credo prevailing in Indian cricket.
Transformational changes in sport can take a while to reach fruition though. The impact of Kapil’s influence began to be felt only from the 1990s with the arrival of fast bowlers like Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Zaheer Khan, and a few others.
Fast bowling was beginning to be valued again. Youngsters taking to the sport were seeing opportunity for career growth and rewards as India’s international assignments increased exponentially, and they were willing to bend their backs.
The last 12-15 years have seen a massive boom in fast bowlers in the country. What has triggered this? Sachin Tendulkar, who I spoke to on the sidelines of an event recently, highlighted better facilities (direct function of Indian cricket becoming extraordinarily rich), pitches that help fast bowlers in domestic cricket, greater awareness of fitness, application of sports medicine, and, not the least, the Indian Premier League.
The IPL, Tendulkar said, has not only created demand for fast bowlers, but also enabled young pacemen to share experiences and knowledge with accomplished bowlers from India or overseas. This has been of huge benefit to them.
I would add one more vital ingredient to this: the growing ambition of Indian players to succeed overseas, which is very difficult without fast- bowling resources. All these put together have made fast bowling “sexy”, leading to a massive spurt in talent coming from the remotest parts of the country.
India, suddenly, has become the repository of the best fast-bowling talent in the world.
Who would have thought this possible even five years back!
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