Will the Indian pace gamble pay off?
Indian skipper Sourav Ganguly says he is getting fed up with being repeatedly asked why India does so badly abroad. This Indian team is certainly better prepared and, with the constant drilling of the failing into their minds, better motivated to unravel the puzzle that has flummoxed so many of their predecessors. One of the components of India's strategy is to bank on a five pronged pace attack in Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Debashis Mohanty, three of whom are likely to figure in the playing XI.
Only for the second time in almost 70 years of Test cricket is India taking five seamers in a touring party. The team's last overseas trip to Australia in 1999-2000 provided the previous instance, with Srinath, Agarkar, Mohanty, Venkatesh Prasad and Thiru Kumaran forming the quintet. Despite the rarity of the occurrence, Ganguly believes it's a good sign for Indian cricket. "The pitches in Zimbabwe are going to seam around. It has always been the case. It's winter in Zimbabwe and it's going to be cold and damp. So we have picked the team according to conditions," he says. Not to be outdone in the mind games, Zimbabwe captain Heath Streak expressed surprise at India's gamble. "This time we are going through a prolonged winter. The weather is very dry. So the Indian seamers will not get the help that they had received during their last tour and India will not be able to achieve anything with their medium pacers" he said.
The more pressing concern is that Indian seamers have not often been able to make effective use of the perceived advantages outside the subcontinent. Take Kapil Dev, India's most accomplished fast medium bowler in history. Kapil was truly at home on the bland domestic wickets where he averaged 26.49 in 65 Tests compared to an average of 32.85 in 66 Tests away. Even excluding the Tests in Pakistan and Sri Lanka from the away figures to consider only matches outside the subcontinent, Kapil still averaged only 30.78. However his averages in Australia (24.58) and West Indies (23.11) were both better than his average in India.
That cannot be said of Srinath, India's prime speedster of the last decade, who is also the prime example, or should we say culprit, of repeatedly failing to exploit conditions abroad. Srinath actually sports a better average in India than any other country he has played in (barring Bangladesh). Exactly half of his 50 Tests were played at home, in which he has 95 wickets at 25.17. Srinath's tally away is comparable at 90 wickets but collected at the much higher cost of 34.96. Indeed narrowing the focus exclusively to Tests outside the subcontinent serves to knock down his average further to 35.75. His Karnataka colleague Venkatesh Prasad whose Test career took off in remarkable fashion with brilliant tours of England in 1996 (15 scalps at 25) and South Africa in 1996/97 (17 at 25 apiece) also emerges with an inferior average abroad.
The results suggest that despite favourable onfield conditions, several other factors, all of them unfavourable, have to be indexed into the bowlers' performance. Even seasoned performers like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis tend to lift themselves better in the familiar environs of home. The lack of acclimatisation especially on tours that are getting shorter and shorter, the homesickness, the harsh climate and intimidating crowds all have to be surmounted which is what makes touring such a formidable challenge to overcome.
The ability to keep focused and remain positive even in difficult situations separates the great from the merely good. That is where team spirit can play such a defining role in raising the level of individual performances. "The very essence of living together, doing things together, and constantly being a unit abroad against all comers tends to bring touring parties together" wrote Dennis Lillee. In the past,Indian touring parties have tended to form regional cliques but coach John Wright has been unremitting in his efforts to alter the tectonics of team relationships by emphasising a spirit of togetherness which was the theme of the recent camp in Bangalore.
Sized up through the cold prism of statistics, India's seamers, like their spinners, have been more successful at home. But they have the edge over their slow bowling colleagues abroad, at least in the not too distant past. In five of India's seven away series in the last decade (barring the two one-off Tests in Zimbabwe) seamers have headed both the averages and wickets tally among specialist bowlers. The fact that Kumble and Harbhajan grabbed 12 of the 20 Zimbabwean wickets in the Harare Test of 1998 is a sobering reminder not to hedge all our bets on pace alone. Perhaps it doesn't really matter in the end for on such a short tour, the bench strength, whether spin or seam, is likely to be competing to carry the drinks rather than for a place in the eleven.