Subcontinental lessons for India's bowlers
For all the flaws in the Asia Cup, there is a positive for India: it provides their fast bowlers with the challenge of improving their bowling on cruelly lifeless subcontinental pitches. There will be no better place to learn than in Karachi: nine of the last 14 ODIs here have featured totals over 300, and three over 280. With this tournament in off-season conditions, the pitches have lacked the little life they usually do. The heat has rendered the bowlers even more ineffective and the evening breeze has rarely brought swing.
In all this the Indian fast bowlers, who look close to being the best bowling attack on helpful pitches outside the subcontinent, somehow lack the nous required to prise out wickets. It might be a harsh criticism but this is one of the weaknesses of an Indian team that has threatened the world order with its recent performances. "After all they are the same bowlers who did exceptionally well in Australia in conditions more conducive to bowling," Gary Kirsten, India's coach, said after the training session at the National Bank of Pakistan Stadium ahead of Wednesday's Super Four clash against Pakistan.
A case in point was RP Singh's transformation from being incisive in Australia to innocuous in home Tests against South Africa. Admittedly the pitches, bar the Kanpur Test, were not great, but that is the area where the great subcontinental fast bowlers manage to play a role. While Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar haven't played enough in the subcontinent, the statistics of RP, Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan are revealing: in 30 ODIs in Asia RP has given away runs at 5.43 per over, while in 10 matches in Europe his economy-rate comes down to 4.50. Zaheer's economy-rate of 5.10 in Asia comes down to 4.47 in Africa and 4.67 in Australia and New Zealand. In England and Ireland, though, he has given away runs at 5.01 per over.
In Tests, the contrast becomes even more stark. RP averages 47.33 in Tests in the subcontinent, as opposed to an overall 39.10. The corresponding figures for Zaheer are 37.46 and 33.60. Although Sreesanth has more consistent stats for ODIs, he averages 38.84 in Tests in Asia. His overall average is 31.46. Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, two of the greatest bowlers to have come from the subcontinent, managed to stay just as good in Asia as outside - their stats in fact were better in Asia.
"The wicket is very flat," Kirsten said. "It is not easy to strike on this wicket. But yes we have come up with certain ideas on what we need to do. We have spent some time with the bowlers, and we believe in these bowlers. We need to do some hard work on these wickets, and we are sure the bowlers will do that."
This new crop of Indian fast bowlers is an antithesis of their predecessors, who were good at home, but were unable to use the conditions as well as opposition bowlers when away. One of the reasons could be that most of the current lot were picked at a fairly young age, not having had to bowl for hours on flat pitches in domestic cricket. There are tricks to be learnt in domestic cricket that they might have missed out on. Also, their forte has been the conventional swing, as opposed to reverse-swing. And in the subcontinent conventional swing at times doesn't even last ten overs, which in part explains India's problems once the ball in 30-overs old.
These bowlers have now been thrown into the worst possible conditions for pace bowlers. In 72 overs so far in the Asia Cup, they have given away 398 runs, and have taken only six wickets between them. They haven't looked like getting early breakthroughs at all, but surely by the end of this they would have learned a thing or two about bowling in the subcontinent. Wasim and Waqar are doing commentary, and shouldn't mind their brains being chewed either.
India were the favourites going into the tournament, and going into the final stages they have lived up to the billing. The only concern has been the bowlers, and if they do manage to win on Wednesday, it will be a sweeter feeling if it's the fast bowlers who set it up.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo