January 19, 2013

Swing to win, India

Bowlers who can make the ball talk are what India should be looking to unearth

When Rahul Dravid retired from Test cricket, I remember saying that instead of fussing over who would be the new No. 3 to fill Dravid's big boots, India needed to find three world-class bowlers instead.

A strong batting side can save Test matches but a good bowling attack will win them for you. Pakistan are a good example. When they were a winning team under Imran Khan, they were one of the few to challenge West Indies in their prime. Pakistan did not have a world-class batting line-up - Javed Miandad was more or less the only batting great they had, with an average of over 50 - but they had truly world-class bowling.

Granted, India's batting on current form is a serious worry, but I still think the selectors and those holding the reins of Indian cricket need to be scouting for bowling talent.

India has a strong, deep-rooted batting culture, and they will keep getting top-class batsmen along the line, without trying. It is a land where a Sunil Gavaskar retires in 1987 and a Sachin Tendulkar arrives in 1989. This, however, is not the case with Indian bowlers. They need all the help they can get to become viable international bowlers, for they are trying to emerge from a batting culture.

With Laxman and Dravid gone, and Tendulkar and Sehwag to follow, I know a lot of people are worried about India's batting, and rightly so, but if India are to regain that No. 1, spot and stay there longer this time, they have to find better bowlers than they had last time.

Just one Zaheer Khan is not going to be enough. And finding three world-class bowlers in a batting-friendly environment is not going to be easy; in fact, it will be very tough, and all focus, ideas and energies will need to be diverted to that one goal.

Four weeks ago, after the home series loss to England, I was quite pessimistic about Indian cricket's future. Yes, India's batting had failed once more, but it was the bowling that depressed me more. But today I feel slightly different and that is because of the arrival of Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

Not for a moment am I suggesting that India have found a sensational bowling talent who will single-handedly take them right back to the top in Tests. All I am saying is that with a little work on him, by someone who really knows about bowling swing on the subcontinent, he can be a good Test seam bowler in all conditions.

What really excites me is that Bhuvneshwar is not a freak talent who has come through the Indian domestic circuit, one who cannot be replicated. In fact, he can be the seam-bowling prototype for others to follow and for Indian cricket to invest in.

He is a bowler with a natural Indian bowling action (not one modelled on the Australian pace manual), who bowls at a decent pace, around 135, swings it both ways, bowls it full, and critically, is a good athlete.

Granted, India's batting on current form is a serious worry, but I still think the selectors and those holding the reins of Indian cricket need to be scouting for bowling talent

Bhuvneshwar's impressive skills suggest that India with its dead pitches and its triple-centurion batsmen can still produce fine bowlers, and that makes me hopeful about the future of Indian seam bowling. With three improved versions of the current Bhuvneshwar, India may have a bowling attack that can take 20 wickets overseas.

And this is not just an ex-cricketer's fantasy; I am convinced that with the right guidance this can become a reality. I have seen a couple of young bowlers in domestic cricket who are in the Bhuvneshwar Kumar mould: Siddarth Kaul of Punjab and Ishwar Pandey of Madhya Pradesh look like they belong in the same genre. Talk to a few senior batsmen in domestic cricket, like Amol Muzumdar and Aakash Chopra, and they may have two more names for you.

It is interesting to look at all the major overseas Indian triumphs after 1980: the 1983 World Cup win, the mini World Cup win in Australia in 1985, the Test series win in England in 1986, Leeds 2002, Adelaide 2003, Wanderers 2006, Nottingham 2007, Perth 2008, and Durban 2010. You will find that the bowlers who made the important match-winning contributions were Kapil Dev, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, Chetan Sharma, Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, Ajit Agarkar, RP Singh and Sreesanth: all typical Indian medium-pacers, who bowled it full and swung it around - none express, and none a spinner.

Batsmen around the world today hit the ball harder than ever before, but they are also more susceptible when the ball is pitched up and it swings late than batsmen of earlier generations were. This is India's chance to seize, to find bowlers who do just that. If an Umesh Yadav comes along, bowling at 145, that is a bonus, but it would be more pragmatic for India to look for more bowlers like Bhuvneshwar.

And yes, come what may, do not allow them to cut down on their swing so as to try to bowl quicker. Make them feel proud to be swing bowlers, or else India may be left with more bowlers like Irfan Pathan, who, in the endeavour to get faster, lost his precious, god-gifted swing.

With the disappointing spinning talent coming through these days, maybe it's time for Indian cricket to move away from spin and to make swing the new king.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here