India in England 2014 July 7, 2014

India's bowling leader conundrum

The present Indian bowling line-up will tackle its first five-Test series without the proven guidance of Zaheer Khan, their bowling captain. India had unravelled without him in 2011. Will they do better this time around?

India will have vivid memories of playing cricket's 2000th Test match. Zaheer Khan was into his 14th over at Lord's when he cringed and clutched the back of his leg. The follow-through was aborted and he limped into the dressing room and was never seen on the tour again. India had lost their bowling captain on the first afternoon of a four-Test series.

It was not simply a case of a cog gone missing. Zaheer's injury contributed to the rest of the attack losing focus. They appeared deflated for the remaining 18 days of the series and England took advantage. Only once did Andrew Strauss' side fail to pass 300, as they trampled India 4-0 to snatch the No. 1 Test ranking.

"Test cricket can be a lonely place if things go wrong," says Allan Donald, South Africa's bowling coach. "And it is a long period of time when things go wrong. And the challenge is how you pull it back."

His message will ring starkly on MS Dhoni and his side as they prepare to tackle their first five-Test tour, and like 2011 there will be no Zaheer, who is recovering from a side strain.

Ishant Sharma is the only bowler remaining from the 2011 debacle and looks Zaheer's likely successor. Yet he struggled for consistency in line, length and accuracy in both warm-up matches and hardly looked like he had emerged as India's best bowler in the Tests against New Zealand.

"Once again not having a clear leader, someone who has been there before, done it before in those conditions [is the challenge for India]," says Eric Simons, who was India's bowling coach on the 2011 tour. Zaheer had been the focal point of the bowling plan three years ago, and when he was injured "we knew we were going to struggle."

Praveen Kumar, Zaheer's new-ball partner, bowled the remaining three balls to complete the over at Lord's and subsequently took on the mantle of lead seamer. He was India's best bowler with 15 wickets in three Tests before he too was sidelined, with an ankle injury picked up while playing football.

"In 2011 we were left with just three fast bowlers after Zaheer's injury," says Praveen. "There was always someone injured which put undue pressure on the rest of the two bowlers. So that was lesson learned, to keep yourself fit to last longer during the series."

India will need to last five Tests, compressed into 42 days, and their first response to this challenge was to pick six specialist fast bowlers along with Stuart Binny, a seam-bowling allrounder. Another notable improvement from the last trip is the freshness of India's bowlers. In 2011, Praveen and Ishant had come to England after a whole tour in the West Indies.

Simons is excited by the pace the current set of bowlers can summon and Praveen has tipped their youth to help them push harder. Both of them believe India's bowling has the correct "balance" this time.

In Test cricket, the game is played in the head over five days. Yes, skills have a lot to do with it but mentally you need to be very, very strong. The Indian attack needs to find that belief
Allan Donald, South Africa bowling coach

"The more balls you feed a batsman, the more comfortable you will feel and the more likely you will get his wicket," says Praveen, tipping Uttar Pradesh team-mate Bhuvneshwar Kumar to do well if he can adjust to the change in conditions. "He just needs to adapt to the lengths: in India you bowl back of length but in England you need to pitch it fuller."

Donald, who has coached Warwickshire, echoed similar sentiments and said the Duke ball will increase the threat posed by Bhuvneshwar. "Where he is going to be significant is not just with the new ball. The Duke ball swings for a long time - not just when there is a cloud cover, but also when the sun is out. And for Bhuvi, who swings it both ways, if he does it consistently he could be a handful."

Zaheer's absence will be felt. "He will be massively missed," says Donald. "He swings the ball nicely. He is a clever bowler. In South Africa last year, even if he did not take many wickets, he kept coming against us, he bowled long spells and he was in very good physical shape.

"You earn the right to be leader of the group. That is what Zak has done over the years. He has shown he has terrific skills. It is a wonderful feeling knowing you are the leader of the group. You are not talking about Zak the man. You are talking about Zak the bowler. The impact he has on a team in a dressing room, on the training ground, during a Test match and the skills he brings in - that is a huge thing that goes missing."

Ishant is the most experienced bowler India have but Donald asserts that alone does not hand him the responsibility of leading the attack.

"In Test cricket, the game is played in the head over five days. Yes, skills have a lot to do with it but mentally you need to be very, very strong. The Indian attack needs to find that belief. How do you build that belief? You can't depend on a certain individual. The quicker this attack bowls with each other the quicker they will find who the leaders are in that group."

Donald said the process of finding a leader was not straightforward. "Is it in Bhuvi's make-up to be able to take that role? He is not that type of person. He is a very quiet guy, does what he needs to do. Then you look at Varun Aaron, who is very much brash and very much willing to lead from the front, but the process of how he sets himself up is very important at the moment. It can be very long days on flat wickets in July in England.

There are some pointers that a bowling coach can pick up on. Donald elaborates: "I look at characters. I looked at Morne Morkel. I looked at Dale Steyn. What do they bring to the team in terms of their character because that has a huge impact in the longer format of the game. When to engage, when to be aggressive, who is willing to take up the leadership role. Minor things like that."

Ishant has played 55 Tests. He has been India's workhorse for much of his seven-year career but there are aspects of his game that needs amending if he wants to be their go-to bowler.

"He needs to think like a Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock," says Simons. "He needs to think about patience, about not trying too much. He has the height, pace and variations. McGrath and Pollock did not try much but they were just patient. You will not get reverse swing in England like in India, so use your natural instincts and be consistent bowler that he should be."

Praveen said Ishant's confidence is another area that needs improvement. "At times the bowler is not sure if he is doing well. At such times he needs to speak to the right sort of people. Ishant now has a chance to play the senior bowler's role. He needs to think now that I am the senior and I need to take the responsibility and I need to bowl more aggressively.

"He has played a lot of cricket and there are ups and downs in a career. But he should have more confidence in him and inspire himself, and then go and play."

Along with the lack of a defined bowling structure, the visitors will be dented by the retirements of some senior batsmen who could have guided the bowlers on what kind of lengths and lines might trouble the opposition. "One of the things India are going to miss, and this might sound ironic, is the top Indian batsmen," says Simons. "They play a crucial role in guiding the bowlers on strategy.

"One of the things the fast bowlers need to keep in mind in England is to be patient. In England you play a bigger role as a seamer based on the friendly conditions but the key thing is to find and stick to the right line and length. And that is where a Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, would tell a fast bowler, to stay put. They would help the bowler think from the batsman's point of view."

It was for this reason that Duncan Fletcher and the team management sought Dravid to mentor to the team. "What people don't understand is that the bowlers think like bowlers. I want Rahul to talk to them and make them think like batsmen," Fletcher told last week. "That way they will know what areas a batsman likes and doesn't like, which will help them a great deal in forming their strategies. The problem is that the Indian bowlers don't bat or practice batting when they're playing domestic cricket. And so, while they understand their bowling, they don't understand batting."

It is an inexperienced attack that will bear the responsibility of taking 20 wickets over five Tests. Fletcher said that could work in India's favour but Donald has a word of caution. "You can't have a mentally weak guy, or attack, that just waits for one another to make the play. You got to have that courage and guts to be able to do that willingly, and every time the crap hits the fan."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo