The Friday Column August 10, 2007

Can Zaheer and Co inspire more wins overseas?

India's lack of fast-bowling prowess has been the most glaring reason for their lack of success abroad. Recent results suggest they might be close to finding a solution

The challenge for Zaheer Khan and the other Indian fast bowlers will be to replicate their recent results more consistently © Getty Images

It's a well-accepted theory that to win Tests outside the subcontinent, one of the most vital requirements is that of a good crop of fast bowlers. A glance at India's record shows they have just 21 such wins - 18 if you exclude the three in Zimbabwe - in 157 matches. Check out their fast-bowling cupboard and you realise why the stats are so dismal. Over the years a Kapil Dev or a Javagal Srinath has emerged to carry the mantle of India's fast bowling, but they've been largely one-man acts (though Venkatesh Prasad briefly combined quite superbly with Srinath). In the last three series that India have played outside the subcontinent, though, there have been signs that they might at last be getting together a clutch of fast bowlers who can work together to exploit favourable conditions overseas.

The table below, which lists the performances of Indian fast bowlers (medium-pacers is probably a more accurate term to describe most of them) clearly shows how toothless they were in the 1960s and '70s. The advent of Kapil changed the equation completely, while some of the others, notably Chetan Sharma and Roger Binny, had their moments in England. The 1990s weren't as impressive, but in the last three years those numbers have improved significantly, with Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, Sreesanth and Munaf Patel all doing their bit.

India's fast bowlers in overseas Tests
Period Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
1960s 16 59 45.13 89.6 2/ 0
1970s 30 107 42.47 86.2 3/ 0
1980s 39 277 34.66 67.5 17/ 1
1990s 39 332 38.36 79.0 10/ 1
2000 45 426 34.20 61.3 19/ 2
Since Aug 2004 18 195 28.74 48.3 11/ 2

Those stats, though, include games against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh as well, opponents against whom most bowlers, especially Pathan, have helped themselves to plenty of easy wickets. Let's exclude those games, then, and concentrate only on matches played in Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies - venues which have traditionally been helpful for fast bowlers (though the pitches in the West Indies have slowed down considerably in recent years).

The next table looks at the performances of pace bowlers from all teams in the period from 1990 to July 2004. The stats for India's seamers during that passage of nearly 15 years explain quite vividly why India only won three Tests out of 49 in this time - one each in the West Indies, England and Australia. Kapil played a few games in the early 1990s - and had a terrific series in Australia - but during this period the fast-bowling attack was mostly spearheaded by Srinath. He had his moments, but as his overseas career summary shows, only in South Africa did he shine: in Australia he conceded 50 runs per wicket, while in England he leaked 40, hardly the kind of numbers you'd want from your leading strike bowler.

The comparison with the fast bowlers from the other sides shows just how wide the gulf was. Australia, South Africa and West Indies all took their wickets at less than 30 apiece, and even Zimbabwe's seamers did much better than the Indian fast bowlers, who were worse than all teams except Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Team-wise runs per wicket for fast bowlers in Aus, Eng, NZ, SA or WI from January 1990 to July 2004
Country Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Australia 133 1510 26.52 56.3 70/ 8
South Africa 94 1328 26.88 59.4 53/ 6
West Indies 116 1506 28.71 60.9 55/ 6
Pakistan 41 429 31.06 60.5 25/ 5
England 148 1743 32.04 62.0 69/ 5
New Zealand 91 996 33.42 66.8 39/ 3
Zimbabwe 14 122 37.85 77.0 2/ 0
India 49 418 40.46 79.1 16/ 1
Sri Lanka 28 200 42.85 79.0 7/ 1
Bangladesh 8 35 72.40 115.1 0/ 0

In the last three years, though, the rankings have changed considerably. To exclude the easy wickets against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, games against those teams haven't been taken into account in the table below. The sample size is admittedly small - India have only played nine Tests in those five countries during this period - but the numbers are encouraging: the only pace attacks that have done better in seamer-friendly conditions have been Australia and South Africa.

Team-wise runs per wicket for fast bowlers in Aus, Eng, NZ, SA or WI from Aug 2004 (excludes Tests against Zim and B'desh)
Country Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Australia 28 321 26.85 53.2 10/ 0
South Africa 24 349 30.36 57.2 14/ 4
India 9 94 30.50 55.4 3/ 0
England 30 387 32.70 58.2 12/ 2
New Zealand 15 155 35.26 61.8 6/ 0
Pakistan 12 117 35.93 56.8 5/ 0
West Indies 22 233 40.51 71.1 9/ 1
Sri Lanka 7 48 42.31 77.1 3/ 0

The table below lists all six Indian fast bowlers who have taken more than 50 wickets overseas. Pathan leads the way in terms of averages, but that's a misleading stat, for he has taken 39 wickets at 11.56 in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, and 26 wickets at 45.65 against the other teams.

The mantle of spearhead of the Indian attack has now passed to Zaheer, and his overseas numbers are improving rapidly - his rich haul at Trent Bridge has allowed his average to creep below Kapil's, who only averaged 32.85 overseas, compared to 26.49 at home. The challenge will be for Zaheer to maintain or better that average, and for the rest of the cast to keep a consistently high standard. The next few years, starting with the ongoing Oval Test and the tour of Australia, could reveal if the current crop of seamers are the real deal.

Indian fast bowlers overseas (Qual: at least 50 wickets)
Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Irfan Pathan 13 65 25.20 43.5 7/ 2
Zaheer Khan 34 120 31.25 55.2 5/ 0
Kapil Dev 66 215 32.85 72.2 12/ 0
Javagal Srinath 35 128 33.76 70.8 5/ 0
Venkatesh Prasad 22 69 36.46 73.1 5/ 1
Manoj Prabhakar 23 73 39.15 82.5 3/ 0

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo.