July 23, 2010

The case of the missing teeth

With a bowling line-up like the one they have at the moment, India look anything but the No. 1 team they supposedly are

Among the many delights of being in South Africa for the FIFA World Cup final was the opportunity of sharing a dinner table with Adam Gilchrist. Inevitably the topic moved to Australia's current predicament (not a particularly unpleasant one, given they still win a lot of games) and just as inevitably he was asked what he thought was the most significant reason for it.

"Two" he said, raising his fingers like he might be asking for leg and middle. "Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne."

The query came immediately: not Gilchrist himself? "No, that's been the most seamless actually. But it's the bowling that wins matches and those two - actually make it those three, because Jason Gillespie was outstanding - were just special."

I thought of that when I saw Sri Lanka always had a bowler for the occasion in Galle. Two strike bowlers made the difference; ironically, one playing his last Test and another back after a lengthy layoff from five-day cricket. That and the fact that they had five bowlers to share the workload. Gilchrist is right. As we all know, it is the bowlers who win matches, especially if the batsmen do them the favour of setting it up by scoring more than 500.

India lost the Test for a few other reasons as well, but eventually it was about the bowling. The spinners don't always get too much help on the first day, but they will be the first to put up their hands and say they were disappointing. When you play four bowlers you really cannot afford for even one of them to have a bad match. If two do, and the other two are patchy, you are in big trouble.

And so India add one more chapter to their rather voluminous tome on first-Test disasters. Interestingly not everyone is in favour of playing more than one warm-up game, which does strike me as a bit strange. With India's middle order having had no cricket since the IPL, they needed as much time as they could get in the middle in the tour game in Colombo. It didn't help that they watched four hundreds being scored off their bowlers. Indeed, three men in their mid-thirties may well have looked at each other and asked themselves which attack they would much rather have fancied playing.

But while India need to find a solution to getting their lead batsmen coming in cold, that is only part of the story. India are now the No. 1 Test team by the ICC rankings and cannot offer that as the reason for a defeat. Champions must have an air about them, and while this series could still end differently, India don't have the aura of world champions.

Inevitably on the subcontinent the toss is a huge factor but this one in Galle didn't seem like such a bad one to lose. There was a lot of cloud around, the wicket had a tinge of moisture in it, and the openers would have been on guard. But in the first hour, which so often determines which way a game goes, India's bowling was atrocious. The newcomer, Abhimanyu Mithun, was steady but Ishant Sharma looked like he needed some dusting. He did bowl a wonderful spell on the third morning, but that only highlighted the opportunity missed at the beginning. With this kind of line-up, opposition openers aren't going to spend too many sleepless nights.

India might still pull it back in the series. Sri Lanka without Murali might not have anyone to provide both the bulk of the overs and the wickets, and India's batsmen might look a little less rusty, but it comes back to taking 20 wickets. In the absence of Zaheer Khan - and considering he has a shoulder injury, I fear India might have to start getting used to that for a while - this was the best attack India could put on the park. There isn't a bowler back home who could claim he belonged here. In fact, such is the paucity of bowling options that if there was one good enough, he must have been hidden well.

For India to come back into this series the batsmen will have to put up a mountain of runs.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Alok on July 26, 2010, 19:01 GMT

    India's back-up bowling has been primarily blamed for the debacle at Galle. However, the last line, "For India to come back ... batsmen ... mountain of runs", indicates that batsmen failed to score adequately at Galle, and hence if India are to bounce back, batsmen must plunder runs! I cannot figure out how can one largely blame the bowlers for the loss if 10 innings out of 20 yielded single digit scores? Isnt cricket a 'team' game? Why is the loss at Galle not a collective team failure? Gritty batting by the Indian tail draws no reference - if only the frontline batsmen had shown such resolve? What are the other reasons that are only referred to but not elaborated? Why is the failure of an out of sorts captain and poor overall batting performance not mainly responsible for the loss? Moving on, to bounce back and hold on to its #1 test match team status, the entire Indian team has to outperform - its not just about bowlers or batsmen.

  • Mehdi on July 26, 2010, 18:49 GMT

    I am 100% sure, India will not win the 2011 World Cup unless miraculously they include some real good pace bowlers in the squad. Irfan should be given one more chance, as well as munaf.

  • Mehdi on July 26, 2010, 18:31 GMT

    Sri Lanka is a balanced team. There is a scarcity of good pace bowlers in India, it always have been like that. Two world class pace bowlers to come out of India are Kapil Dev and Zaheer Khan. At present you cannot just ask Zaheer to perform all the time without having another to carry on the other end. To be honest, even Bangladesh have better pace bowlers than India if you don't include Zaheer Khan. Keep in mind it is the fast bowler that wins test matches.

  • Dummy4 on July 26, 2010, 16:27 GMT

    Good solution to this, don't play test matches, play more T20..

  • KISH on July 26, 2010, 13:16 GMT

    I agree that India's bowling doesn't create sleepless nights for the SL batsmen. However, it is easy for any home team to win the toss in a placid wicket and bat to pile up the runs. Even the Australian bowling line-up would have struggled in those conditions. As a result, I believe we are all missing the point. The point is, it is the batsmen who needs to be blamed. THEY JUST DON'T HAVE IT IN THEM. This is proved time and time again. Once in every 5 or 6 test matches they may deliver. But, that is JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH. They should know how to bat well when the team is facing a deficit and also how to dictate terms when they are batting first. Time and time again, they fail in those two important aspects. Always, the blame comes on the bowlers. Had these batsmen scored 500 plus in the first innings, Mithun, Ojha and Harbhajan would have been talked about. Because, the Sri Lankans would have been under pressure and would have lost wickets. BATTING IS JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

  • Dummy4 on July 26, 2010, 5:04 GMT

    i think the first test disaster is mainly a consequence of constant persistance with ishant sharma.other than a few good spells in the australia test series,i have never seen him bowl better than a club cricketer.my view is give another chance to someone of the likes of nehra or agarkar.surely they wont disappoint.even dinda who looks aggressive can be tried out.

  • Shahid on July 25, 2010, 23:21 GMT

    Too bad BCCI can manipulate and force other boards to convert their ODI series to test matches in their own home turf so that they could stay at meaningless number 1 ranking but they just can not manipulate their fast bowling. BCCI need to pay attention to find and groom the right talent instead of taking manipulation approach. Indian team can not survive for much longer at the top of the ranking with the current apporach.

  • Shahid on July 25, 2010, 23:06 GMT

    It's a no brainer that a strong bowling attack is the backbone of a team. Average batsmen can score big against an average bowling attack but best of the batsmen are consistently troubled and fail against a world class bowling attack. Bowling has been India's main trouble for years. Many promising bowlers have come and gone, to name few, Irfan Pathan, Balaji, Sri Santh, Munaf Patel, RP Singh, and the list goes on. I'm afraid Ishant Sharma will be on that list soon, perhaps he already is for the one dayers and T20.

  • Rtn on July 25, 2010, 22:28 GMT

    It's funny to see so many Pakistani fans getting riled up about India's No. 1 ranking. While people in India themselves do not take the ranking seriously, cricket followers across the border can scarcely conceal their jealous thoughts. Well, for all those across the border - we know our team is not in the class of Aus of 90s or WI of 80s. We got the No. 1 position because we were consistent through a period of 4-5 years, starting from Aus tour of 2003-04. We either won or drew most series away (at least won a Test in all series abroad, not blanked 3-0 in Australia) and outright won most series at home. Does not make our team a great one, but surely it is consistent when other teams are not. Look at Aus, they even managed to lose to Pak - now that is a Test result unlikely to happen again in the next 15 years! Get your own team in shape and let Indian fans criticize or praise their own team.

  • pragadesh on July 25, 2010, 13:46 GMT

    india will come back strongly

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