India v Australia, 4th Test, Nagpur, 5th day November 10, 2008

No more spin-reliant

India's fast bowlers comprehensively out-bowled their Australian counterparts played critical roles in both the victories that sealed a 2-0 series win


Zaheer Khan bothered Matthew Hayden with several away-going deliveries before nipping one back into him © Getty Images
 

Ishant Sharma has achieved what no Indian fast bowler has achieved since Kapil Dev in 1983 - he won a Player-of-the-Series award at home. The skill with which he and Zaheer Khan used the new, and particularly the old, ball ensured that pace played as crucial a role as spin did in regaining the Border-Gavaskar Trophy from Australia.

Ishant finished the four Tests with 15 wickets at an average of 27 while Zaheer's 11 cost 43 each. They aren't outstanding stats but India's fast bowlers comprehensively out-bowled their Australian counterparts - who averaged nearly 47 per wicket - and played critical roles in both the victories that sealed a 2-0 series win.

Ricky Ponting singled out the third day of the Nagpur Test as the passage during which the match turned in India's favour. Australia were 189 for 2 and looking to score quickly but Zaheer and Ishant bowled with tremendous discipline to back up Mahendra Singh Dhoni's restrictive eight-one field. Their lines seldom wavered from wide outside off stump and their lengths rarely allowed Australia the freedom to cut or drive. They sustained their accuracy and maintained high energy levels for long periods: Zaheer and Ishant bowled nine-over spells on the third morning and a total of 31 out of 53 overs in the first two sessions. Australia ended up scoring only 166 in 85.4 overs and lost eight wickets.

Zaheer's stock ball to the left-handers is the one that comes in, while Ishant attacks the batsman with pace and bounce. India's strategy on the day allowed neither of them to do either. "They curbed their natural instincts according to the requirements of the team," Dhoni said. "They didn't stop after four overs, usually you see fast bowlers stopping after four or five-over spells. They wanted to bowl more. I think it was the fast bowlers that really did it for us."

They did it for India in Mohali too and helped their team take a 1-0 lead. They used the conditions at the PCA Stadium to telling effect and got the ball to reverse-swing as early as the tenth over, nearly 60 overs before the Australians managed similar movement.

Ishant had shown the ability to adapt to conditions quickly in Bangalore where he used the slower ball on a sluggish pitch as a surprise weapon to pick up wickets. In Mohali he bowled cross seam with the new ball in order to roughen it up as soon as possible - the first step towards achieving reverse-swing. The deliveries with which Ishant bowled Ponting and trapped Shane Watson lbw in the second innings were among the best of the series. Zaheer used the movement with brutal effect on the final morning, when he bowled full-length deliveries to annihilate Australia's tail.


Ishant Sharma troubled Ricky Ponting through the series © Getty Images
 

Perhaps Zaheer and Ishant's most significant contribution to India's campaign was the manner in which they neutralised the threat posed by Australia's two most dangerous batsmen. Matthew Hayden and Ponting had only two scores of above 50 in the series.

Zaheer troubled Hayden with several away-going deliveries before nipping one back into the left-hander, dismissing him early in the first three innings of the series. As a result, the visitors had only one 50-run opening stand in four Tests. Ponting wasn't allowed to orchestrate Australia's innings like he usually does at No 3. Ishant was often brought on when Ponting began his innings and he succeeded in either dismissing the Australian captain - on three occasions - or denying him the momentum with which he likes to start an innings.

Once upon a time Indian fast bowlers were used primarily to take the shine off the new ball in home Tests. On a Mumbai dust bowl in 2004, India named only one fast bowler in their XI against Australia. Those times have passed. Zaheer and Ishant are a force in varying conditions; Munaf Patel and RP Singh are awaiting their turn; and somewhere Sreesanth is striving to regain his fitness. India are not spin-reliant at home anymore.

George Binoy is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo

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