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So, what's in fashion this cricket season? It isn't a particular brand and its gear, neither sporting a tattoo, nor a flashy hair style -- our generation-next cricketers have moved beyond such fads. The in-thing that I talk of is, bizarrely, a whole new understanding of the game, a version which is difficult to make sense of by old-school boys like me. What's alarming is that most seem to be swearing by this new, warped philosophy that pace is an "over-rated virtue" and that genuine fast bowlers are fools to invest time and energy in honing this skill.
Educating me on the subject of "neo-cricketism" has been a fast bowler, in his late teens, with the ability to generate great pace for his age. This kid regularly made the batsmen, even the much senior batsmen, jump and hop. In fact, on first seeing him, and having been thoroughly impressed, I'd marked him as 'one for the future'. The kid went on to play first-class cricket in India and I kept hearing good things about him. Well, my last rendezvous gave me an opportunity to know him closely and decipher the workings of many young minds like him even better, not particularly to my pleasure though.
For starters, he's no longer obsessed with pace; in fact he's lost a lot of it, voluntarily.
"Voluntarily?--who in his right mind would want to do that. Wasn't it supposed to be one of the most potent weapons in a fast bowler's armoury?" I snapped like a nagging parent!
To that the kid, with an I-know-it-all look, informed me, "Have you had a look at the surfaces on which we play our cricket in India? C'mon, you were there for the Ranji final last year, weren't you? Almost every bouncer bowled reached the wicketkeeper, who was standing no further than 10 yards from the batsman, in two bounces. Bowling quick is no longer a boon, but a bane!"
Alarmed by such talk, I still persisted, "That was just one game. Not all the games are played on such surfaces. I've heard that the BCCI has given directives to most curators around the country to make greenish pitches. Moreover, there's an apparent dearth of bowlers who can bowl fast, and hence they are priceless. India reveres good bowlers!"
Not in a mood to back down, like most kids of his age, he continued, "How many endorsements did Zaheer Khan get after his sterling efforts to win the World Cup for India in 2011? Wasn't his performance at par with many others in the team? The batsmen who didn't even play all the games in the World Cup are seen in adverts more often. To say that we revere fast bowlers is false."
I decided it was time to use the IPL card, for it was a sure shot way to lure this boy to change his mind. "There's the IPL and we don't have many Indian fast bowlers. We all know that in T20 cricket bowlers are worth their weight in gold. Anyone who can bowl four economical overs regularly is worth a lot more than the ones who can score at a strike-rate of 150."
This was bound to work, I thought secretly. "Check your figures", he said with a smirk. "Even the best bowlers in the IPL, the likes of Lasith Malinga and Dale Steyn are worth no more than a million, but even some second-rate batsmen are taking home close to 2 million." This one had just backfired badly.
Time for a role reversal, for getting angry wasn't helping, and both logic and lure had also given up the quest. So, this time like a patient parent, I started all over again, "Point taken but it isn't always about the money, son. Since there are many good batsmen around, the easiest and the quickest way to play for India is to bowl fast. If you're able to do that, selectors will surely fast track your progress and you'll be an India player in no time. You just need to clock 145 consistently (as if clocking 145 is a joke, but I needed to sound convincing)."
He smilingly, as if looking through my naïve tactics, replied, "You don't have to bowl fast to play for India anymore; in fact I heard the (former) chairman of selectors Kris Srikkanth, while explaining the non-inclusion of Umesh Yadav, say that speed is an 'overrated virtue'. But before you point out Umesh and [Varun] Aaron, let me remind you how unreasonable and cruel it is for people to expect bowlers in India to bowl fast. Even if you prepare good pitches on which the ball carries nicely to the keeper, would it take away from the fact that a bowler is expected to bowl 50 overs in a week? There are only three days between two first-class games, and if I want to feature in all of them (I should if I want to get enough wickets to get noticed), it is imperative for me to cut down on pace. If I want to bowl at 100% every time I bowl without cutting down on the number of overs and matches, I'll get injured. Most bowlers in the country have mastered the art of bowling effectively at 70%. Moreover the SG Test ball we use in the Indian domestic circuit is more rewarding to the bowlers who, instead of hitting the deck hard, release the ball."
Suddenly, it felt like I was making a case for fast bowlers in vain. In the ideal world, I would've wanted him to never give up pace. But he was probably right. Today it is more about being a 'smart' bowler than a mere 'fast' bowler--such are the changed dynamics of "neo-cricket" in India.
The boy is now looking to work on his batting, and perfect the yorkers and slower-ones. These currencies are worth a lot more in the IPL market than the ability to just bowl fast, he updates me.
This fad among the fast bowlers isn't a fad after all, I am afraid. It's a risky philosophy to develop, a larger debate between 'what's good for the player' and 'what's good for the game'. And that's a precarious one to handle. Even more precarious for Indian cricket.
© 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.