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The strength of our fast bowling department or the lack of it is a serious concern and must be, in my view, addressed at once. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time and two consecutive failures, first in the World T20 and recently in Zimbabwe, just reinforced the gravity of the situation.
A lot of critics felt that one of the major reasons behind not winning a single match in the Super Eights of the World T20 was the absence of an extra quick bowler on seamer-friendly conditions in Barbados. And perhaps, it was an apt assessment. Understandably, not many could either understand or approve this rather baffling decision made by the captain. His lack of faith in a rookie could perhaps be the only reason that somewhat explains the move of not playing a fast bowler. I refuse to believe that he couldn't assess the pitch conditions accurately.
But why was a rookie picked to play in the World T20 anyway? What happened to the players in whom the selectors had invested their trust in the lead up to the world event? Well, obviously, selectors have lost faith in the Ishants and Munafs of Indian cricket. Point taken! But do we have their replacements ready? If the recently concluded tri-series is anything to go by, we are far from it. The second string of fast bowlers looked far from impressive.
That brings me to the million-dollar question: where are the fast bowlers? One look at the domestic season's statistics would tell you a completely different story. Eight out of the top ten wicket-takers in the country are fast bowlers. And it has been the case for the last few seasons. So, either the standard of batting is extremely poor in the country or the conditions are helping the quicks. In this case, it is the latter, for the domestic circuit is still producing enough quality batsmen who aren't found wanting even at the highest level. That leaves us with a simple conclusion - the conditions in India favour the quick bowlers! Yes, that's what is happening in first-class circuit in India.
There's a genuine attempt to make sporting tracks by the state associations but unfortunately, leaving grass and making it seamer-friendly is their idea of a sporting track. Since the quality of spin has gone down at domestic level and Indian batsmen are at ease against spin, most teams prefer a seamer-friendly track than a turning pitch.
An ordinary spinner may not survive but an average quick bowler can definitely thrive in India at the domestic level. The SG ball used in first-class cricket, if maintained properly, swings the entire day, which means fast bowlers are never out of action. Bowling longer spells is a good thing but this SG ball adds another dimension to it i.e. bowlers who release the ball are more effective than the ones who hit the deck hard. It's an open secret that you need to hit the pitch hard to be successful in international cricket unless you swing the ball, like Irfan used to initially. Also, the gap between two first-class games is only three days which leads to two things. One, the bowlers tend to preserve themselves and learn to bowl at a lesser optimum level, say 70% of their total capacity which explains relatively quick bowlers becoming medium pacers in a season. Secondly - the tracks need to be doctored a lot to give them assistance which leads to inflated figures.
Hence domestic tournaments may well be presenting a warped picture of a fast bowler's performance and hence cannot suffice for an appropriate yardstick to go by while picking one. Then there's the IPL in which a bowler is tested properly, or so they believe. After all, the pressure of the format and bowling to quality players would separate chalk from cheese. But sadly, that's not the case. You need to bowl only four overs in two or three spells in a T20 game which is too small a canvas to project the true colors of a player's temperament and talent. In any case, going for eight an over is par for the course which is almost blasphemous in fifty-over format.
Fast bowling is a physically gruelling job and demands high level of fitness. This is a rare breed which must be protected and nurtured. Identifying your best bowlers from the available options is the first step and then constant mentoring and monitoring is the need of the hour to have a big enough pool to sustain the hectic international calendar.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.