Fast bowling is India's weakest link
RP Singh and Ashish Nehra have both had their moments in South Africa. Nehra was superb in the 2003 World Cup and RP in the 2007 World Twenty20, and this year's IPL in the same country was the stepping-stone for both their comebacks. If these memories and history can be of any good, they need that goodness in big quantities, in quantities big enough to share it with the other pace bowlers in the Indian squad - Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar.
India's fast bowlers have been the weakest link in their quest to becoming the best ODI team in the world. In addition, they have been a liability in the field too - since the days of Kapil Dev, Madan Lal and Chetan Sharma, India have struggled to find a fast bowler who's athletic and sharp in the outfield, except for Ajit Agarkar.
Over the last five years or so, India have tried 13 pace bowlers, and all three long-term captains over this period have failed to figure a way out when the pressure is on and the pitch is flat. They have failed to defend 300-plus totals more often than any other team - five times. They can argue that one of those defeats, to West Indies in Kuala Lumpur in 2006, was made easier by the Duckworth-Lewis method, but they had leaked 141 runs in 20 overs by the time rains arrived.
There is nothing inherently wrong with these bowlers. Zaheer Khan and Ishant are pretty fine in Tests; Nehra, RP and Praveen can be a handful in helpful conditions; and Munaf Patel and Sreesanth have struggled for consistency. Venkatesh Prasad, India's bowling coach, has worked hard with them, and the results have shown in Test cricket, also in swinging conditions. On unhelpful pitches in limited-overs contests, though, they fail to produce that one delivery that needs no assistance from the pitch: the yorker. The inability to bowl it on the blockhole regularly has been a chronic problem.
During the recent Corporate Trophy, RP's approach while bowling to the unknown Sufiyan Shaikh in the death overs told a lot about his bowling at the death. Shaikh scooped him three times in one over, over the wicketkeeper's head, exposing all three stumps early enough. RP, on his part, continued serving Shaikh length balls.
The current captain, MS Dhoni, is greying fast. In a two-year stint, his seamers have given him enough to worry about. On one such occasion, when India allowed Sri Lanka to recover from 36 for 3 to come within striking distance of chasing 257, he admitted he had to become despotic at times with his bowlers. "You give the bowler the opportunity and say you bowl according to your plan, to your field, but at times when it doesn't work, you turn from a democratic captain to a monopoly. You become like a king and say no more powers, this is the field and you bowl according to the field." The clarity of thought, he said, was lacking, especially during the Powerplays and the last 10 overs.
Stats confirm the story: since the start of the Kitply Cup in June last year in Bangladesh, India have given away 7.45 runs an over in the last 10 overs of an innings, which is worse than the other two major subcontinent teams - Sri Lanka (6.55) and Pakistan (6.96). Australia and South Africa, over the same period, haven't played much on the subcontinent, and average 6.83 and 6.82 an over respectively.
In Zaheer, Dhoni found a sort of bowling captain, to whom he didn't need to dictate plans. When the heat was on, Zaheer was given a free hand in setting fields for himself, and sometimes for youngsters like Ishant. With Zaheer injured, though, Dhoni is on his own again. Under the lights at the R Premadasa Stadium, you have no business threatening to lose while defending 319. Yet in the Compaq Cup final, India just about scraped through, thanks largely to Dhoni's other go-to man in ODIs, Harbhajan Singh. Poor in the field, unimaginative with the ball, RP, Nehra and Ishant leaked 128 runs in 19 overs between them.
These bowlers are an antithesis to the Kapil Devs and Javagal Srinaths: they all have better records outside Asia. The former subcontinent greats mastered bowling on low and slow pitches but struggled outside. This new crop can be as good as the best when the pitch assists them, but when it comes to bowling in the subcontinent they could learn a lesson or two from the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Bracken, who outperformed the Indian fast bowlers in the seven-match ODI series in 2007-08. A 25-9 win-loss record over the last year and a half flatters the Indian bowlers, and is a tribute to Harbhajan and the batting line-up that has carried them through.
For a change now, it's the batting that is under more visible pressure. On top of that, India are without Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj in the Champions Trophy. The pitches will assist the fast bowlers, and while the world focuses on the unsteady middle order, Ishant, Nehra, RP and Praveen won't find a better time to return the favour. If they still remain the captain's biggest worry, it could point to issues larger than just bowling in the subcontinent. Their fielding? Well, India will have to do with what is available.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo