Fast bowlers August 31, 2010

Five fast men

Two from India's first Test, one from the era of spinners, a 90s stalwart, and a noughties hero make the quick bowlers shortlist

For years the question asked most often about Indian cricket was, "Where are the fast bowlers?" or its variation, "In a country of a billion people etc." Despite the recent accomplishments of a Zaheer Khan or the sporadic successes of a Sreesanth or Ishant Sharma, fast bowling is not seen as an Indian thing, and Indians console themselves with a dose of pop psychology. This is the land of spin, they tell themselves, the seat of the triumph of brain over brawn. We prefer subtlety and cunning to brute force, they say, and thus make a virtue of necessity.

The few successful fast bowlers, therefore, have a place in folklore that is a tribute to their bucking the system, as it were.

Yet it wasn't always so. Before Indian wickets began to actively discourage fast bowling, and many captains did likewise, Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh authored the finest first 20 minutes of any debut country. At Lord's in 1932, they reduced England to 11 for 2, Nissar clean-bowling both openers, who had only the previous week established the world-record partnership in first-class cricket.

Amar Singh's 7 for 86 in Chennai in the next series stood as a record for an Indian opening bowler till Kapil Dev went past it half a century later. In between, India had shine-removers rather than fast bowlers, although the likes of Ramakant Desai, who bowled an awkward bouncer, Karsan Ghavri and Madan Lal did prosper for a while. But it was those who succeeded Kapil - Chetan Sharma and Manoj Prabhakar initially, and then Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, who carried the mantle.

The successes of Kapil and Srinath made it inevitable that India should find a new generation of quick men. India sometimes played with three seamers and a single spinner, and not one was a bits-and-pieces man. After the retirement of Anil Kumble, the question became: "Where are the spinners?" The faster men began to rule. A change from the days when a wicketkeeper opened the bowling, and such tearaways as Ajit Wadekar, Sunil Gavaskar, Tiger Pataudi and ML Jaisimha underwhelmed the opposition with their pace and swing.

The candidates

Javagal Srinath
If Kapil Dev inspired a generation of fast-medium bowlers, it was Srinath who shepherded them through the highs and lows. Not having watched Nissar in action, it is difficult to be certain, but Srinath was probably the fastest bowler India has produced. His 236 wickets from 67 Tests came at a better strike rate on the less helpful home wickets.

Kapil Dev
Held the world record, 434, for the most wickets, and in the years following the retirement of India's great spin bowlers carried the bowling attack on his broad and willing shoulders. Kapil's bowling was as much art as heart. He put both to good use for a decade and a half, with only occasional support from a brigade of lesser mortals who shared the new ball with him.

Zaheer Khan
Statistically second only to Kapil, with 242 wickets from 72 Tests, Zaheer discovered the joys of the yorker early, and continues to be the best of the pack of left-arm seamers who made their mark post-Srinath. Can take credit for a Test series win in England, where he was Man of the Series with 18 wickets in 2007.

Mohammad Nissar
Headed the bowling averages on India's first tour of England, in 1932. According to CB Fry, Nissar was faster than Harold Larwood, who in six months' time was to run through Australia in the Bodyline series. A strike rate of 48, even if only over six Tests, hinted at what might have been had his pace and stamina been at India's service in later years.

Amar Singh
Had the most wickets on India's first tour, 111, and in Wisden's judgement was "the best bowler seen in England since the War." Walter Hammond was more poetic, saying Amar Singh "came off the pitch like the crack of doom". Singh's 51 was India's highest score in their inaugural Test. With better support from the field, India's most potent new-ball attack might have surprised England.

We'll be publishing an all-time India XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your fast bowlers click here

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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