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Is India’s Current Pace Bowling Attack The Best In The World?

With India now scheduled to extensively tour overseas this season, the focus will be on how the bowlers perform on foreign soil.

At the beautiful HPCA stadium in Dharamsala, where the mountains in the background provide a spectacular backdrop, the sun was bestowing all its glory on them, making it a glorious afternoon. Out there in the middle, a gruelling series against Australia hung in the balance. Much like they had done right through the series, Steve Smith’s men once again seemed to be in a position of strength. Or so it appeared, until Umesh Yadav armed himself with the new ball and produced a spell that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Bowling with real venom, the Vidarbha Express made light work of the Australian openers, David Warner and Matt Renshaw, in a sensational spell. He tortured them, bowling full and short, making them hop and jump with his well-directed bouncers, before sending them back for quick showers. Complementing him from the other end, Bhuvneshwar Kumar then decisively turned the game India’s way, getting rid of Steve Smith who, for once (and also at the most crucial stage of the series) had his furniture disturbed playing across the line.

Indeed, this might well have been Umesh Yadav’s coronation ceremony, as the ace in India’s pace bowling pack. For too long, there had been a yawning gap between promise and performance; he was immensely talented, yet frustratingly fallible.

To be sure, what Yadav did with the ball that memorable afternoon was the stuff dreams are made of. Rarely had an Indian fast bowler looked so pleasingly brutal. Besides, it was heartening to see that the 29-year old simply had too many weapons for the opposition. And, even as he went about his business with merciful quickness, Yadav was consistently bowling at 140 kph.

Once, in India, it was almost unthinkable to have fast bowlers who practiced violence by terrorising batsmen and leaving a trail of destruction behind them. From Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Dilip Doshi, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh to the current Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, India has been known as the land of spinners. Perhaps, unlike other top bowlers around the world, it was just not in our psyche to bowl fast, send the stumps flying or cause any damage to head, chest, shoulder or wrist. In other words, it was very un-Indian (un-Gandhian, even) to imagine having pacers who could target the batsman’s body as much as his wicket.

It was on the tour of 1978 to Pakistan that India discovered a raw, lanky pace bowler — a tough Jat with a heart as big as a buffalo — from Haryana, who showed an inbuilt ability to rebel against adverse conditions in the sub-continent. That was probably a big shift in the way young bowlers in the country would think. Once a certain Kapil Dev arrived on the scene — and turned the world upside down, leading an unfancied Indian team to stun Clive Lloyd’s West Indians and win the 1983 World Cup — India’s cricketing fortunes changed for the better. Suddenly, there were many kids who idolized Kapil Dev and wanted to bowl fast. “In India, pacers are like ‘bandwa mazdoor’ (bonded labourers) while the batsmen are like landlords,” Dev would famously say, every time someone asked about the lack of quality pacers in the country. The point he was making was that fast bowling is all about blood, sweat and tears, which was not everyone’s cup of tea.

Dev laboured for 17 long years (1978-94) in an eventful career, during which he eclipsed Sir Richard Hadlee’s world record as the highest wicket-taker in the world, finishing with a tally of 434 Test wickets from 131 Tests. What makes his contribution stand out is the fact that most of his wickets came on docile subcontinental pitches, and without any support from the other end.

Once Kapil Dev called it a day, Javagal Srinath, with strong shoulders and a high-arm action, kept the kids in India interested in bowling quick. He was a bowler who, on his day, could clean-up the opposition – the 6 for 21 he took against South Africa in Ahmedabad in 1996-97 was a spell that will rank among the best by an Indian pacer in the fourth innings of a Test match.

In his career, Srinath featured in 67 Tests and took 236 Test wickets, at an average of 30.49. As it happened, it was in 1996 that the Speed Gun was used for the first time in cricket, and during the 1999 World Cup in England, Srinath was clocked at 154.5 kph.

It was also around the mid-90s that everything about India, most notably its mindset, began to change. The Finance Minister opened up the economy, the Sensex zoomed northward, Sachin Tendulkar brought in huge revenue as an adoring nation watched every move he made on their television screens, and the Indian pacers seemed to have gotten rid of their inferiority complex.

Not only were they bowling fast, but someone like Zaheer Khan, who took over the baton from Srinath, underlined his credentials as among the world’s best bowlers. In a career spanning 14 years (2000-2014), Zaheer played 92 Tests, claiming 311 wickets at an average of 32.94. Indeed, Khan will go down as the greatest left-arm pace bowler to play for India. Though he was laid low by injuries towards the end of his career, Khan-much like good wine — got better with age and experience. In fact, one can safely say that no Indian bowler has been as good with reverse swing as him. He had excellent control and could bowl fast yorkers at will, and during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, he was clocked at 146 kph. Such was his brilliance on the 2007 tour of England that two of England’s celebrated pacers, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, have acknowledged how he helped to fine tune their skills. Towards the end of his career, his body betraying his heart and spirit, Khan did well to pass on his wealth of experience to several young Indian pacers, some of whom are now heading the pace department.

Interestingly, if the mid-90s saw India opening itself to the world, the year 2008 was as big a turning point in Indian cricket as the 1983 World Cup victory. The introduction of the Indian Premier League had a ripple effect on Indian cricket and cricketers. While there can be no denying that the IPL offered big money to our celebrated cricketers, it also meant professionalism of the highest order. Young, unknown cricketers from different parts of the country got a great platform to showcase their talents and send a message to the Indian selectors. The IPL brought in high-profile coaches and trainers. More importantly, it gave the Indian players an opportunity to play with and against some of the greatest names in the game. Sharing the same dressing room and spending time with the greats off the field has proven to be a great learning experience for our cricketers.

Another important plus that should be credited to the IPL is that it has improved the overall fitness level of our cricketers. Diet and training had not been given as much importance prior to the IPL, but all that changed, with Virat Kohli himself leading the way by following a strict diet and training methods. As a result, he is now the world’s best batsman. Now, almost every player is very particular about his eating habits and his training methods. A case in point is Ashish Nehra who, incidentally, made his debut a year before Zaheer Khan, in 1999. Dogged by injuries throughout his career, the 38-year old Nehra has now found a new mantra to be on his feet.

Catching up with him during the India-England T20 series early in the year, I was surprised to see the amount of work he puts in just to keep playing the short format of the game. As I went looking for him at the team hotel, I came across MS Dhoni, who told me, “If you are looking for Ashish paaji, he must be in the (swimming) pool or the gym or exercising.” When I did meet Nehra the following day, he said, “I know you were looking for me. But I need to spend four-five hours every day looking after my body if I want to keep playing. I stay away from cellphones and TV, and all I do is to make sure that I follow my daily training regime. That means I don’t have much time for other things.”

Such a high level of dedication and commitment has also seen Bhuvneshwar Kumar coming of age as one of India’s premier pace bowlers. Umesh Yadav had the great Wasim Akram as his bowling coach at the Kolkata Knight Riders, and Morne Morkel as his new ball partner. Similarly, Kumar shared the dressing room with Dale Steyn and Ashish Nehra. Both he and Bangladesh’s Mustafizur Rehman have made the most of the opportunity. For the Indian pacer, doing the right drills in the gym has now given a cutting edge to his bowling. “I used to work out in the gym before, but I never felt that it had an impact on my pace. After starting to do power training, I could see that I was getting stronger, and my pace was increasing,” says the Uttar Pradesh bowler, whose pace has gone up from 125-130 kph to 135-137 kph in the home series against South Africa. “(Mohd) Shami, Umesh (Yadav) and Ishant (Sharma) are better than me when it comes to reverse (swing) in Indian conditions. But, I know if the conditions suit swing bowling, I will be better,” says Kumar, making a fair comparison with his team mates.

 On his part, Shami has the likes of Australian Pat Cummins and South Africa’s Chris Morris as IPL team mates and, of course, the old war horse Zaheer Khan in the Delhi Daredevils dressing room. Shami had made an instant impression with his pace and guile on debut, picking up 9 for 118 as a 22-year old against the West Indies in 2013. Those were also the best figures for an Indian pace bowler on debut. Till the time his knee started complaining ahead of the final Test against England, late last year, the 26-year old Shami had established himself as the spearhead of the Indian attack. He uses the new ball very well, presenting an upright seam, moving the ball both ways and constantly asking questions of the batsmen. For someone who bowls consistently at 140 kph, he is also good at reverse swing — a gift he received from Zaheer Khan when he first came into the Indian team — and his bouncer has been effective too.

Ishant Sharma is the seniormost member of the Indian pace department, having made his debut way back in 2007. Since then, the 29-year old has survived the grind of Test match cricket, featuring in 74 Tests and picking up 215 wickets at an average of 36.47. What this 6ft 4in bowler brings to the table is his ability to bowl long spells. He is fast and accurate, bottling one end up. In doing so, he not only maintains pressure on the batsmen but also picks up important wickets. Besides, he’s not short of aggression and, much like his captain, he’s always game for verbal volleys.   

Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya have set the IPL on fire with their exploits for Mumbai Indians, and their performances gave them a shortcut to the Indian team in limited overs cricket. While the 23-year old Bumrah has impressed, firing yorkers at 140 kph with pinpoint accuracy with his unorthodox action, Pandya is an explosive  batting allrounder, who can work up good pace in the middle overs. Jharkhand’s Varun Aaron (who clocked 152.5 in an ODI against Sri Lanka in 2014), Punjab’s Mohit Sharma and a few other impressive new kids on the block (like Shardul Thakur, Basil Thampi and Ankit Rajput) will ensure that Team India have enough bench strength for various formats of the game.

However, with India now scheduled to extensively tour overseas this season, the focus will be on how the bowlers perform on foreign soil. This is also why there is the promise of riches to come, following India’s spectacular triumph against Australia in Dharamshala. To better the likes of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, that too when the series was on the line, is as good as it gets.

Umesh Yadav’s tally of 17 wickets from 4 Tests, at an average of 23.41, is the best series haul for an Indian fast bowler since January 1, 2000.

In the event, almost 40 years since Kapil Dev proved to the world that India can produce a great fast bowler, the land of spinners can also boast of having the best pace attack in the world. When someone like Shane Warne says so, there’s a very good reason to believe it.