Something's got to give
Why do we love to hate Ajit Agarkar? If you're serious about Indian cricket this is a question you must ask yourself before it is too late - for him. He's Bombay Duck, for his run of noughts against Australia home and away. Television commentators who are looking for a line to fill the time say, "he bowls a four ball every over." What should we believe?
To a cricket writer statistics are like an internet connection - when you need it, you'll do anything to get it; the rest of the time it's just something you use for fun. But without malice, without making a decision, let's look at what Agarkar has achieved as a bowler in limited-overs cricket so far. In 174 matches, he has picked up 263 wickets at 27.44, at an economy rate of 5.06, which is more than acceptable in these days where 300 isn't a safe score in the sub-continent.
Compare that with some other Indian fast bowlers. Agarkar's most recent contemporary, a man who has been accorded far more respect, Javagal Srinath, played 229 matches for 315 wickets at 28.08, at an economy rate of 4.44. Less runs per wicket, but a wicket every 37.8 balls to Agarkar's 32.5. Then there's the king of them all, Kapil Dev, who picked up 253 wickets from 225 matches at an economy rate of 3.71 - well in keeping with the times when 250 was a safe score - but a strike rate of a wicket every 44.2 balls. Agarkar has four wickets or more in an innings more than any bowler in Indian one-day cricket history, forget just fast bowlers, Anil Kumble included.
If you kick it down one notch and bring in Venkatesh Prasad, Manoj Prabhakar and the currently active Zaheer Khan, it gets better. Prasad played only 13 matches less than Agarkar but fell short by 67 wickets. Prabhakar only just got past 150 wickets. Zaheer is the only one who has played in a similar era, and he has 150 wickets at 29.11, from 107 matches, with a strike rate of 35.3, still behind Agarkar.
If he bowls so many loose balls and is so inconsistent, how can the combination of Agarkar's bowling average, economy rate and strike rate be better than anyone else who has bowled quick in Indian cricket? It's an enigma, but don't tell Ajit that, because he hates that word more than anything else. It was never Agarkar's fault that he was projected as an allrounder. He batted up the order for his club side, and made hundreds - today he may be wishing he didn't - for his bowling is being discredited on the basis that he should have been an allrounder.
Recently I was on a television program, and for suggesting S Badrinath should have found a place in the Indian Test team because he scored 636 runs at 79.50 in the last Ranji season, and averaged more than 50 in this year's Duleep Trophy, and began this year's Ranji campaign with 136, I was castigated for being parochial and supporting a Tamil Nadu cricketer, being from the same state myself. It was, of course, rubbish. But no more than the fact that writing in defence of Agarkar makes you a Bambaiyya.
But, if honest self-assessment was the key, then you would talk less of his boundary balls as how he has bowled in the last few ODI series. In West Indies, he was head and shoulders over the next Indian pacer, taking nine wickets at just over 18 from five games as opposed to Irfan Pathan's six wickets at a shade under 30.
In the next series, the DLF Cup in Malaysia, he took only one wicket less than Munaf Patel, who ended up on top of the charts. But in the Champions Trophy, Agarkar only played two of three games, and thought he wasn't top of the pops, he didn't disgrace himself. And now in South Africa, he's sitting on the bottom of the pile.
He got to 50 ODI wickets faster than anyone in the world, beating one DK Lillee at the post. The question that must be asked is whether Agarkar has failed Indian cricket, or whether Indian cricket has failed Agarkar. Therein the enigma is laid to rest.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo