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September 10, 2003
The last in our series of articles examining how the Indian team is shaping up for the coming 2003-04 season. This one focusses on the pace attack.
It may be true that fast bowlers are born, not made, but even those who have the natural ability to bowl fast take a few years to mature at Test level. This year, observers of Indian cricket will feel that the years of apprenticeship served by Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra at Test level are finally over, and that they will take wickets at more than three a game - which is what they average so far - and make a decisive impression on the team's fortunes, especially abroad. Sourav Ganguly will be hoping that Javagal Srinath hangs around for one more season to give them company, especially since his experience would prove invaluable when India tour Australia in December. If Srinath confirms that he has more Test cricket left in him, the Indian pace-bowling attack will have a settled look about it, while still leaving room for the best of the other contenders; if he calls it a day at last, then a place is immediately open for the contender with the most ambition. Zaheer, Nehra and Srinath are certainties for selection, if available; Wisden CricInfo sizes up the other contenders.
Agarkar has been in and out of the Indian Test side for four seasons now. He had already taken over 50 one-day international wickets by the time he made his Test debut, and this made his inability to translate his obvious promise into good Test match performances all the more disappointing. His 35 Test wickets have come from 16 Tests, and his bowling average is over 46. Only the promise of his batting has kept him in the side in situations where another bowler could have been chosen. There are still those watchers of Indian cricket who think Agarkar is a long-term prospect as third seamer. This season might present his last chance to show that this may be the case.
Salvi was a fringe bowler for the Mumbai team a year ago, but last season he took 28 wickets in 6 games in the Ranji Trophy, 29 in 5 on the A tour to the West Indies, made an assured one-day international debut in Dhaka, and took another 14 wickets on the A tour of England. By all accounts, he is now ready for Test cricket. His high-arm action and accuracy have already earned comparisions to Glenn McGrath's bowling style, and his ability to generate bounce from a good length is a special attribute. Of all the contenders not to have played a Test match yet, Salvi is the best prospect.
Balaji has taken the same route to national contention as Salvi, with impressive performances in domestic cricket over the last season and then good A tours of West Indies and England. He made his one-day international debut against West Indies last year and was given a brutal introduction to the rigours of international cricket by Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds, but the experience will have done him no harm, and in fact he returned to domestic cricket to apply himself with renewed vigour. Balaji was the main reason for Tamil Nadu making it to the Ranji Trophy final last season, with six consecutive five-wicket hauls.
Irfan Pathan Jr
Just 19, Pathan is one for the future. A tall left-arm bowler - Indian cricket has no shortage of those right now - Pathan has combined with Zaheer Khan and Rakesh Patel to make up perhaps the best of the country's pace attacks at domestic level. He was the top wicket-taker on the recent A tour to England, with 17 wickets at just over 28. That two other left-arm fast bowlers are already part of India's Test make-up may actually prove to be a help to Pathan - there will be much to learn from bowling in conjunction with Zaheer at state level, and he can make progress steadily instead of being picked before he is ready.
Yohannan's has been a mystifying story. He was picked out of near-obscurity to spearhead the attack two seasons ago in the home series against England, after a disappointing performance by the Indian seamers in South Africa - Zaheer, Nehra and Agarkar among them. In his first game he looked immediately at ease on the Test match scene, dismissing the English openers in both innings, and his height and physique seemed to mark him out as a heir to Javagal Srinath. But he has only played two Tests since, for one more wicket. Yohannan has been on a number of tours now without breaking through into the side, and his inability to crank up his pace by a few more yards is said to have gone against him.
Bhandari is nearly 25, and the oldest of all those profiled here bar Agarkar. He has been in national contention for a few years now - he made an unmemorable one-day international debut as long ago as 1999, against Pakistan - and will perhaps be feeling the need to take the step up immediately a little more urgently than the others. Bhandari is not as quick as some of his rivals but moves the ball about, and took 16 wickets on the A tour of England at just under 30. If he keeps up the good work in the Challengers and the Irani Trophy, a national call-up may not be very far away.
Other dark horses who could possibly be called up are Rakesh Patel and - this appears more likely - the 22 year-old fast bowler who has made such a stir lately because of the pace at which he reportedly bowls, Munaf Patel. Patel is yet to play a first-class match, but if Javagal Srinath hangs on for another season, then the Indian pace attack will have a stable look to it, and this could encourage the selectors to gamble on raw speed when they sit down to decide on the back-up bowlers.
Karsan Ghavri: Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar and Javagal Srinath form quite a formidable pace attack at the moment, one even capable of troubling the Australians on a hard, bouncy track. Zaheer and Nehra in particular can put any side under pressure. Among the contenders, the first person to strike my mind is Aavishkar Salvi. There are some other good young fast bowlers around - Irfan Pathan, for example, or L Balaji - but they will have to go through the grind of domestic cricket before they get into the top league. There is a bowler called Shabbir Ali, who plays for Bengal and is in Bangalore bowling to the Indian players. He is quite promising. A lot of credit goes to the MRF Pace Academy, which is producing these young fast bowlers.
TA Sekhar: If Javagal Srinath stays on for another season, then the Indian pace-bowling attack appears quite stable, with Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra to support him. Among the other contenders, I would be inclined to give Munaf Patel a go. We could be taking a number of fast bowlers to Australia, and I think we could afford to pick Patel even if he is a largely unknown commodity, purely because of his pace - no batsman is ever entirely comfortable playing that kind of speed. That leaves another fast bowling slot, which will perhaps be contested by Agarkar or Salvi. Whether the selectors go for experience in the form of Agarkar or the promise of Salvi is their prerogative.
Atul Wassan: Aavishkar Salvi is ready for Test cricket. It is time we dispensed with the services of Javagal Srinath, who in any case has been unprofessional about whether he is prepared to continue playing for India, leaving everyone in suspense about the matter. I think Ajit Agarkar has it in him to serve India with both ball and bat at Test level. I would pick him as my third seamer.
Chandrahas Choudhury is staff writer of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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