September 12, 2014

What the Indian calendar is doing to its bowlers

R Ashwin and Ishant Sharma's lack of first-class experience and consequent decline in skills speak volumes about the BCCI's skewed priorities

Indian bowlers' first-class exposure shrinks visibly once they make it to international cricket © AFP

In his Cowdrey Lecture, Sir Ian Botham singled out the IPL as being "too powerful" and concluded that its continued existence was a threat to the game. Botham wondered how it was that the best talent in the game was available to the IPL for two months in the year without any compensation to the boards who brought these players into the game. The BCCI's Sanjay Patel responded swiftly, reminding us about Botham's association with the convicted felon Allen Stanford.

Be that as it may, Botham's point about the IPL taking two months - a sixth of the calendar year (not counting the Champions League) must cause cricket fans to fret, especially Indian fans, irrespective of their disposition towards T20. I have made my view of the 20-over slogathon clear in the past. T20 offers little to the bowler. Little bowling, little respect, little opportunity to get batsmen out (mainly because batsmen care less about protecting their wickets than they do about slogging boundaries).

Alex Kountouris spoke about the consequences of T20 on recovery times and adjustments that had to be made to conditioning programmes. Fitness is one thing. Skill, while undoubtedly dependent on fitness, is another.

I will use as examples R Ashwin and Ishant Sharma, who are, in my view, poster children of the IPL age - one in which being selected for India marks the end of any opportunity to bowl a substantial number of overs anywhere other than in Test cricket.

Since the IPL began, India have conceded 41.7 runs per wicket in Tests outside the subcontinent. At home they have destroyed inexperienced line-ups from New Zealand and West Indies on turning wickets, but they have struggled against the one decent, settled batting line-up they faced, England.

The calendar prepared by the BCCI has prevented Ashwin and Ishant, the two brightest bowling talents on the Indian scene in the last eight years or so, from playing any reasonable amount of first-class cricket since they made their debuts for India. The last time Ashwin bowled in a domestic first-class match was in December 2010. He made his Test debut in November 2011.

Graeme Swann also went through a first-class drought after he became England's premier spin bowler. This was thanks mainly to central contracts, which remain controversial to this day. Swann bowled 483 first-class overs in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 combined. But unlike Ashwin, Swann had a decade of first-class experience (nearly 4000 overs) to fall back on. Ashwin's total first-class experience is 1400 overs.

Compare that with India's greatest left-arm spinner ever. Bishan Bedi played first-class cricket for 20 seasons, from 1961-62 to 1981-82. In the 1970s, in the peak of his Test career Bedi bowled 8726 overs and took 1016 wickets in first-class cricket. Add 196 Test wickets to this in 2532 overs, and the secret of Bedi's perfect action and relentless accuracy becomes clear. Imagine if Bedi had the luxury of bowling after Kapil Dev or Zaheer Khan or Javagal Srinath at their peak, with a batting line-up of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman to post competitive runs. His career Test record of 266 wickets at 28.7, despite having no fast-bowling support to speak of, is phenomenal.

Bedi bowled 11,240 overs in first-class cricket. Shane Warne bowled 5658 first-class overs to go with his 6744 in Tests. Anil Kumble bowled 4323 full overs in first-class cricket (3000 of them between 1989-2000) to go with his 6775 in Tests.

Ishant's story is similar to Ashwin's. In 2007, Ishant bowled 309 overs in 17 first-class innings. He was selected to play for India that year and famously dismissed Ricky Ponting at the end of a long, testing spell in Perth in early 2008. In the next six years he has bowled a mere 330 overs over 21 innings in first-class cricket. During this time, he has bowled 223 overs in the IPL over 62 innings. Since 2008, a combined 12-plus months of IPL cricket, with all its attendant travel and living out of a suitcase, has brought Ishant a mere 223 overs of experience, in spells of two to three overs. Let us set aside the fact that this is not high-quality experience. Add his commitments for India in limited-overs cricket and T20 cricket to this and you have a cricketer with a healthy bank balance but limited bowling experience. Ishant made his first-class debut in 2006. In eight years he has bowled 828 first-class overs (excluding Tests). Here is how this compares with some all-time great fast bowlers.

First-class overs by bowlers in their first eight years (exc Tests)
Bowler Number of first-class overs
Ishant Sharma (2006-14) 828
Malcolm Marshall (1978-85) 4646
Glenn McGrath (1993-2000) 1705
Kapil Dev (1975-82) 1694
Wasim Akram (1984-91) 1900
Waqar Younis (1988-95) 2481
Dale Steyn (2003-10) 1233
Dennis Lillee (1969-76) 1995

You get the picture. Keep in mind that these bowlers were already world beaters by their third or fourth year in first-class cricket.

Dale Steyn's record perhaps comes closest to Ishant's. Steyn has played in every edition of the IPL (only three games in 2009, but at least ten each in the other six editions). Consequently, given his central role for South Africa in Test, ODI and T20 forms, Steyn has bowled less than 100 overs in first-class cricket since the end of 2007. In five formative years (2003-07), he bowled over 1000 overs. He played only eight ODI games for South Africa until 2008. Steyn's early years reek of careful planning at a time when South Africa's fast bowling resources were not particularly strong.

Dennis Lillee's first eight years included an injury-related break for most of 1973. Glenn McGrath's first-class bowling tapered off as his Test career blossomed. In more recent times, even the injury-prone Ryan Harris bowled 283 first-class overs in 2013 to go with the 304 he bowled for Australia in Tests. As a rule, great bowlers bowl an enormous number of overs outside Test cricket, especially in their formative years. This work gives them the basic control, balance and speed, which means they don't bowl one bad ball every over and can concentrate easily over three or four full spells against top batsmen in a Test match day.

Workloads in the 21st century are a far cry from what they used to be in the 1950s and 1960s. Fred Trueman, the first man to take 300 Test wickets (they cost him only 21 runs apiece) bowled over a thousand overs every year from 1959 to 1962, and 13,918 in 21 years of first-class cricket to go with 2431 in Tests. Even by today's standards, Ishant and Ashwin are dismally inexperienced even though they ought to be in the prime of their bowling careers.

It is hard to blame them alone for the choices they have made. The BCCI selects teams and organises tournaments. As unpalatable as it might be, the fact remains that the IPL and allied tournaments take up a huge chunk of the year while offering very little in return for bowlers. From a bowling point of view, 60 overs over two months is a poor deal, though financially it is undoubtedly excellent. Varun Aaron has played 21 first-class games since his debut for Jharkhand in November 2008, totalling less than 600 overs. His lack of control should not be surprising. Umesh Yadav has bowled just over 1000 first-class overs since he made his debut for Vidarbha in the same month as Aaron. In this time, Umesh has played 75 T20 games and 60 List A games.

In the present set-up, India will find top-quality fast bowling despite the BCCI, not because of it. They might win a World T20 because of the BCCI, since the board has created a fine competition in this format for Indian players to participate in, but it will not win any world-class competition that has a serious role for bowling. A World Cup win every 28 years seems about right, since this is probably a reasonable frequency with which a top-quality fast bowler comes through in a set-up that doesn't care about developing bowlers. A series win in Australia or South Africa requires more than one quality fast bowler.

The average county player in England can play 16 first-class games, 10 T20 games and 12 40-over games in a season. The average domestic cricketer in India can play eight first-class games (unless his team makes the knockout stage of the Ranji Trophy and/or he makes the zonal team), 20 T20 games, and an assorted number of 50-over games depending on selection for tournaments like the Challenger Trophy. More importantly, the average county player also gets an off season.

Despite the fact that the weather in India allows cricket to be played in many more months of the calendar than in England, players in India play less cricket than players in England. If the BCCI is not willing to expand the Ranji Trophy, then it ought to encourage India's fast men to play four-day games in England in April and May instead of 20-over games in India. Bowling prospects who are 19 or 20 years old today must have at least 2000 overs of experience by the time they are 26-27. Test cricket cannot be the place for this training, as it has been for Ishant and Ashwin.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here