Monday was the first outing of this long English summer for the touring Indian team. Whilst still in London ahead of their short trip to Ireland, they put in a good two hours of practice. At the same time, an increasingly familiar looking figure appeared at the nets. It was Arjun Tendulkar, who is now officially part of India’s Under-19 plans, and he bowled to the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma in the nets.
The junior Tendulkar is a medium-pace bowling all-rounder, or aspires to be, and there may come a day when his services are required at the international level. In fact that is true for any young and promising pacer who can bat to save his life, for Indian cricket is now accustomed to five full-time bowling options across all formats. With the ever-burgeoning fixture list, there will be a need for fresh pacers and all-rounders sooner than you think.
At first read, it would seem an odd statement because India haven’t really used many pacers in the last one year or so, especially in the limited-overs formats. In fact, they have only used five full-time pacers in ODIs and T20Is going as far back as the 2017 Champions Trophy in England. Here, let us rewind things with a little more detail.
In 32 ODIs since June 2017, India have used only five pacers (not counting all-rounder Hardik Pandya). It seems a healthy count, but only if all those five bowlers had been duly rotated. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Bhuvneshwar Kumar played 27 out of these 32 ODIs, while Jasprit Bumrah was his partner in 26 ODIs. So much so, in the last one year, there is only one instance of Kumar-Bumrah pairing being benchedor rested at the same time — against Australia at Bengaluru in September 2017.
That game is pivotal in this narration for two reasons. First, it was the last time both Umesh Yadav (eight ODIs since June 2017) and Mohammed Shami (three ODIs since June 2017) featured in an Indian ODI line-up. In that Bengaluru game, Shami went for 0-62 in 10 overs, while Yadav too proved expensive with 4-71 in 10 overs. It was the only game India that lost to Australia in the series, and the opportunity to trounce their bitter opponents 5-0 was squandered.
And thus, this is where the second point emanates. Kumar and Bumrah were back for the final ODI at Nagpur as India returned to winning ways and took the series 4-1. It underlined an increasing propensity to rely on only two pacers for a majority of the ODIs. Worryingly enough, this was also ignored because India were too busy with their experimentation at number four and with blooding in the two new leg-spinners.
It is not as if there was any particular cause for concern. That Kumar-Bumrah featured in 81 percent of all ODIs didn’t bother anyone, and for good reason. As long as the winning run continued, there was no need to change the pace combination, and India did well to win 24 out of 32 ODIs since the start of that Champions Trophy. Yet, the lack of options in the pace department is disconcerting.
It is nearly the same script in T20Is as well. In the same time period since June 2017, India have played 18 T20Is against West Indies, Sri Lanka (twice in bilateral series), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the season-ending tri-series in Lanka in March. Kumar and Bumrah featured in 10 and nine games respectively, and both were rested from that Lankan tri-series. It allowed the likes of Mohammed Siraj and Jaidev Unadkat to come into the picture.
Unlike the spin department, it is not as if India do not want anything to do with Yadav and Shami anymore. Shami was part of the ODI squad in South Africa, whilst Yadav is included in the ODI squad for ODIs in England now. Meanwhile, Shardul Thakur featured in three ODIs in the past one year, while Siddharth Kaul was on the bench during the home ODIs against Sri Lanka.
The underlying point is plain and simple. With just a year to go to the 2019 ODI World Cup, India need to figure out what their second line of pace attack is. That Kumar and Bumrah were fit enough to bowl in every limited-overs game last season (in addition to their Test and IPL burden) goes to show how immensely fit these two bowlers are. Perhaps, the much-criticized Yo-Yo Test has helped improve matters in this regard.
What happens, though, if one of them is unavailable for the World Cup next year? That tournament will follow on the heels of the 2019 Indian Premier League season, and we have seen how players can end up injured after six weeks of non-stop T20 action. Kohli missing out on the County stint with Surrey is a prime example herein.
Again, what happens then? The Indian team management hasn’t given enough overs to second-choice pacers, so much so that we don’t even know what the next-best pairing is. Yadav has been India’s most improved bowler across all formats in the past two seasons, and yet he is struggling to get a game in. Playing Kumar and Bumrah whenever fit and available to the team is par for course, and it is seen in how they were overworked during the South African tour.
The same thing won’t do, especially with Ireland up next. With all due respect to the opposition, it is high time the Indian think tank allows for evaluation of the likes of Yadav and Kaul, even if it means benching one of Kumar and Bumrah, or even both. It doesn’t help from a selection or bench strength point of view if the same two pacers are picked every game, whilst the other available options are resigned to the bench.
It is an experimental ploy that can further lead into the three-T20I series against England starting in Manchester. So that come the ODI series, India are fully equipped to field their first-choice bowling attack in what will be a proper dress rehearsal for the World Cup.