Ishant, Kumar, Yadav find pack mentality
West Indies were the pioneers of the fast bowling pack mentality in the 20th century. England have been the flag bearers of that method in the new millennium. It is a strategy where three or more fast bowers operate in tandem and work with each other to a pre-set plan. The batsmen get no respite. They are bombarded not only by short-pitched balls, but also tested with cunning swing, while being lured into playing a false stroke by length deliveries. Within quick time the deadly pack has successfully cast a spell over the batsmen, who are clueless and their end comes in desperation.
On Thursday, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav operated with that bowling pack mentality for the first time since they have been playing together. Such was their dominance that India had the match in the bag after just 22 overs. In those 108 minutes, the trio had punched their opponents with such ferocity that Sri Lanka could hardly stand up to the count. The Sri Lankans were not physically wounded but had been mentally disintegrated - not with words, but with balls of fire.
Cardiff woke up to overcast weather as was forecast days ahead of the match. Thankfully, apart from the early morning faint drizzle, Sophia Gardens remained mostly unaffected. But it was perfect weather for a fast bowler: overcast and humid with a light breeze. If you failed, you were not a fast bowler.
A good start was the key. Like he has done on every occasion this tournament, Kumar remained precise. Not even 6-feet tall, Kumar possesses a supple and straight wrist, which he uses cleverly by maintaining a tidy length. Allied to good pace in the region of 85 mph (135 kph), Kumar has the priceless ability to swing the new ball both ways. Coupled with the angles and the fuller lengths, he pushed the batsmen on the back foot straightaway. Kusal Perera did not last long as he chased a delivery that left him. Even an accomplished batsman like Kumar Sangakkara played out a maiden, circumspect to the movement Kumar was generating.
At the other end Yadav was his usual self, bowling fast and hitting the deck hard. In the group stage Yadav had failed to maintain a firm grip over the batsmen due to an inconsistent line and length. But today, he recovered fast after being punched by Tillakaratne Dilshan for couple of successive boundaries in his second over. His immediate response was an accurate bouncer, which beat Dilshan for pace. The next ball was a perfectly aligned yorker, which Dilshan dug out, but only just. Later Yadav bowled two maidens to Lahiru Thirimanne.
It was now Ishant's turn. His form had been patchy. In the tournament opener, against South Africa, he had been short and was the most expensive bowler. But he came back in the next match against West Indies by bowling an aggressive line, but once again leaked runs in the victory against Pakistan. But today he remained accurate throughout. Mainly he stuck to pitching short on the off stump, posing a lot of questions to Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene with balls that were pitched short of a length and seamed away late.
With the first ball of his fourth over, Ishant bowled from slightly wide of the crease. Jayawardene knew the plan: the ball was going to come in and then leave him. Yet like a snake charmer, Ishant got Sri Lanka's best batsman out of his comfort zone, forcing him to play at a delivery that opened him up before nearly taking an edge. Jayawardene scolded himself for getting tempted.
Ishant maintained the control when he returned for his second spell late in the innings when the pitch had become flat. He continued banging it in hard and made a mockery of the hard-hitting Thisara Perera, who remained muted against the short-pitched delivery and was caught in the deep going for a duck.
"If you are bowling in good areas then no batsman can threaten you," Ishant said. "That is what we have done in the last five games. And that is what we will do in the final."
Discipline is a key component behind any successful bowling pack and the Indian fast men have never been consistent for long periods of time. Today the first extra came in the 20th over. Such high standards convinced MS Dhoni to set Test-match like 7-2 fields. But for such a plan to work the bowler cannot falter as a loose ball down the leg side, even by an inch, releases all the pressure created in the preceding over. Perhaps Joe Dawes, the Indian bowling coach, can enjoy a nice drink tonight, considering he had focused individually with each seamer on Tuesday on getting the right lengths in the nets.
Yet it is easy to get carried away. Obviously the conditions were favourable in the morning. And for the bowling pack to succeed it is imperative that every bowler understand the plan and works collectively towards that. To succeed there are some rules: you work for each other; you make sure you understand each other and each other's strengths; you carry forward the good work of your partner.
Variety is the other key factor behind a successful pack. Take England's fast bowling group in the 2005 Ashes. Andrew Flintoff hit the deck and seamed it, Matthew Hoggard swung the ball, Steve Harmison added height and pace and Simon Jones became an expert in reverse-swing. Their relentless attack subdued the otherwise dominant Australian batting. Today Sri Lanka suffered the same fate.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo