July 25, 2002

When in Rome... and when in England...

To sit in the 'Space Ship' that is the press box at Lord's, and watch Zaheer Khan lead the Indian bowling reminds you of just how much things are changing in the world of cricket. Gone are the days when most people thronged to the Marylebone Cricket Club in suits and ties, when the fax machines whirred noisily and refreshingly, when touring Indian sides were dependent purely on their spinners to do the job. Despite Javagal Srinath's early retirement from Tests, the Indian pace attack finally looks as it should - as an attack, rather than a set of reluctant trundlers.

Ajit Agarkar, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan sat out the warm-up match against Hampshire just before the start of the Test series. Quite a few eyebrows were raised. How can the pacemen go straight into a Test series without serious match practice? Well, John Wright was categorical in saying that they needed rest, and that they were prepared well enough with practice sessions that simulated real match conditions. The NatWest series showed that this was not quite true.

Beginning in conditions that aided movement in the air, both Nehra and Zaheer Khan sprayed the ball all over the place. A touch of nervousness? Striving too hard to make the best of conditions? Whatever the problem, it was left well behind as the Indians got down to the serious business of Test cricket at Lord's.

Zaheer Khan was always going to be the man to watch out for, with his strength and ability to get the ball to hold its line. Running in vigorously and building up to a crescendo as he takes a small leap before delivery stride and brings the left arm through with a quick action, Zaheer Khan certainly does not hold anything back. And it's this more than anything else that brought him 15 wickets in the Tests in West Indies and 14 in the NatWest series.

Unlike Zaheer Khan, Nehra is the sort of bowler to whom rhythm means everything. Not hitting the deck as hard as his counterpart, Nehra relies more on movement in the air. When she swings, and swings late, Nehra really becomes a handful. But as the best pacemen in the history of the game have said, the art of swing bowling is less understood than people would like. Countless columns have been written on the factors that make that five and a half ounces of leather swerve in the air as it careens down a 22-yard strip.

The condition of the ball, the moisture in the air, the direction of the breeze, the bowler's action, the wrist position at release, are just a few things that the experts will tell you about. But there are days, like today at Lord's, when things just don't go according to script for you. Nehra's no-ball trouble and a lack of control gave the home side breathing space.

Not so Zaheer Khan. Trapping Michael Vaughan in front of the stumps before England could get a run on the board, the lad bowled a spell of sustained hostility, recording figures of 6-4-5-1 in his first dig. Keeping the ball well up to the bat, Zaheer Khan kept the batsmen honest. Anil Kumble, doing a fine job coming in to the attack in the 19th over, had Butcher caught close to the bat. Then came Zaheer Khan's next swoop. Playing inside the line of the ball, Graham Thorpe lost his off stump in the 30th over. At 78/3, England were in a position they would not have anticipated, having won the toss and elected to bat.

But then, that's the beauty of it. While there's a script in the back of the mind, it's seldom followed out in the middle. The cast in the drama this English summer has an unusual compostion. With the hype of 'Bombay Dreams' sweeping London, it's ironic that the sobriquet coiners will not have the opportunity to wax eloquent about the magicians from the East, the tweakers, the Turbanator and what have you.

Instead, it's back to straight up and down, wicket to wicket medium pace that India will fire at England. Sure, this Lord's wicket looks like it will take spin more than some others have in the past, and Harbhajan Singh might have been a shade more useful than the expensive Agarkar, but the writing is on the wall. Ganguly means business and he believes that his pacemen can do the job for him.

With hindsight, he might wish that he had the services of Harbhajan. If proof of that was needed, it came when Virender Sehwag was brought on to bowl his offies, even as India's third seamer bowled just 11 overs out of 90 for 49 runs. Agarkar has had a forgettable day, and he'd better pull up his socks for Ganguly to have the freedom to implement his pace plan effectively.