August 10, 2002

India's seamers feed a healthy England habit

It came as no surprise that overcast conditions at the picturesque Trent Bridge ground on the second day of the second Test made for exaggerated swing. What was a bit unnerving, though, was the fact that all the swing on display was of the blade of Michael Vaughan's bat. Brandishing willow with grace and power of which some thought he was incapable, Vaughan won over many doubting critics with his strident innings of 197. The sheer majesty of the knock, progressing at a rapid pace throughout the day, ever narrowing the gap between the England response and India's 357, made life terrible for India's bowlers.

To take anything away from Vaughan, considered by many to be not just the finest bat in the Isles, but also a future captain, would be a travesty of justice. But the Indians did their best to make you consider such a thought. The three seamers, a bit of a misnomer on the day, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar, fed the England batsmen with a steady stream of loose deliveries that it was surprising that the visitors did not surpass the Indian total on the day.

After the fine performance of Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and company at Lord's -- the feature of which was the sustained accuracy -- the Indian seamers produced the exact opposite. Apart from a two-over initial burst from Zaheer Khan, there was never a point in the day when the quick men threatened to dismiss a batsman.

Agarkar, high on confidence from his Lord's ton, looks well set to repeat the feat here - but with ball instead of bat. Conceding 42 runs from his 10 overs, the medium pacer was all over the place. To begin with, his length varied from overpitched to eminently cut and pull friendly. Spanning the arc from very wide of off stump to shaping down the leg, while carefully leaving out that area just outside the off where batsmen might have some trouble, Agarkar sprayed his skidders.

But it would be churlish to go on and on about Agarkar. After all, Nehra complemented him perfectly, and at times even outdid him for waywardness. How ironic that the man many believed could exhibit shades of Wasim Akram would turn in a performance of this kind. Akram, in these conditions, would have had batsmen ducking and weaving, and nibbling outside the off stump as though the finest titbits were on offer. No, it's time to face facts for Nehra and the team. The tall left-arm seamer from Delhi, who often looks no more than half fit, has not lived up to his star billing. Very much a rhythm bowler, Nehra appears lost just as soon as the ball stops swinging. Sure, his late inswing is a great weapon, but we hardly see any of it these days.

Just after the Lord's Test match, Angus Fraser said that it was not simply a case of putting the ball in the right place and hoping the conditions did the rest for you. "It takes a bit of skill," said the former England and Middlesex seamer in his typical understated fashion. And what happens when the ball is simply not doing anything? The true masters of this art then begin to make subtle changes - in pace, in the angle of delivery, in anything that they can reliably control. Those that cannot yet stake claims to be masters of this art then resign themselves to keeping things tight. Nehra, with 97 from 20 overs, did neither.

Initial success in Zimbabwe suggested that Nehra might be the right man to take the Indian seam attack forward after Javagal Srinath retires. If recent evidence is anything to go by, it might be time for Indian selectors to bury the hatchet and send out an SOS to Srinath. The Karnataka medium pacer, who has signed to play for Leicestershire in the wake of his retirement from Test cricket, is due to arrive in England shortly. Discarded by the selectors for what was perceived as `picking and choosing matches' Srinath will now bend his ageing back at Grace Road. Surely he can be convinced that there is a greater national need?

If there was any joy for the Indians on the day, it was the moment when Mark Butcher gloved Harbhajan Singh up into the air for Parthiv Patel to catch. The 17-year old stumper from Gujarat had a forgettable first few moments on a Test field, being dismissed for a duck, but the joy on his face at snapping up Butcher was a spontaneous burst. Almost like the look you'd expect on the face of a little kid who was presented with his favourite treat... Oh hang on, this is a little kid, and what could be a better treat than a Test scalp?

Patel will no doubt pick a few choice paper clippings and file them away for posterity. But the seamers had better relagate this day to the same part of the brain where nightmares reside. A few more days like this, where they gift the opposition 341 runs from 83 overs, including 42 boundaries, and the selectors might just decide to banish the seamers themselves. Remember two gents by the name Amit Bhandari and Thirunavukarasu Kumaran anyone? Well, let's just say they once were hammered for 161 runs for 20 overs between them, against Pakistan in the Asia Cup in Dhaka in 2000, and never played for India again.