June 15, 2011

Munaf, a product of Indian conditions

Slow, low playing conditions may force India's bowlers to sacrifice pace, but they also make them smarter, says Aakash Chopra

"When Munaf Patel came here in 2006, he had some pace, now he is spinning the ball!" Those words from the legendary Andy Roberts are discouraging, but not surprising. Munaf may have lost pace since his international debut, but to say that he may now just be spinning the ball is exaggeration. What concerns me though is a bigger question: what is it that coerced Munaf to denounce speed and become an understated version of the ferocious fast bowler, that too when he was touted to be India's answer to Lee and Akhtar?

I saw the first of Munaf when John Wright called him for a nets-session during an India camp in Bangalore, in 2003. At the time Munaf hadn't played first-class cricket. Yet, his considerable pace had not only prompted a call-up from the MRF Pace Foundation, where he'd impressed everyone, but had also caught the eye of one of the national selectors who in turn informed Wright about his extraordinary potential.

Munaf ran in hard and bowled with pace. Even though he lacked some direction at the time, he managed to make an impact. This fast-tracked his promotion, for India couldn't afford losing a genuinely quick bowler to the rigours of domestic cricket. He made his first-class debut for India A against New Zealand in Rajkot. Once again he bowled with pace, took a few wickets, but a lack consistency proved to his bane. Everything was happening at break-neck speed for Munaf - from bowling bare-foot on the fields of Gujarat, to rubbing shoulders with the best cricketers in the country and being hyped as the next big thing in Indian cricket.

Just when you least expected it, though, the inevitable happened. Munaf's body hadn't been prepared for such hard toil and gave in. A spate of injuries pegged him back and stalled his progress. He was sent back to domestic cricket to take a bagful of wickets and, more importantly, prove his fitness to earn a place in the national team.

He did just that and was rewarded with a Test cap in 2006. I was in Mohali when he got those crucial three wickets on Test debut against England. By this time he had earned the reputation of being India's fastest bowler and he wasn't disappointing. He continued in the same vein for a while, before something mysteriously took away his pace. He'd not only dumped what had been his novelty, but also lacked control. He was taken for runs and also picked up a couple of niggles along the way. Consequently, he was dropped from the Indian team.

The demands of playing on dead and docile pitches made him reassess his plans for the future. He could have continued to bowl fast if he wanted to, however it wasn't about pace anymore but about playing for India for a long duration. It was around this time that he started sacrificing pace for control. When the team management could have made him think otherwise - assign him the role of bowling fast, be aggressive - he was left to his own devices. If only someone could have put an arm around him and told him to persist with his skill and not succumb to pressures, Munaf would've still been a fast bowler, perhaps one of his kind.

If you expect a player to put the team's interest ahead of his own, you must instill the necessary faith in him. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen often. So, when a player has to fend for himself, you can't blame him for being a bit selfish. Instead of working overtime to bowl quick, Munaf spent more time getting his lines and lengths right. Since he doesn't swing the ball much, he worked on cutters to go along with immaculate line and length.

By the time he edged his way back into the Indian team, he had transformed into a different bowler. He was no longer the firebrand fast bowler who would make the batsmen jump, but one who maintained a tight leash with his control and array of cutters. Would you blame him for sacrificing his pace to secure his position in the national side? It would be unfair if you did.

Fast bowling is a gruelling job in slow Indian conditions. How do you keep yourself motivated when the ball bounces twice before reaching the wicketkeeper? And when regardless of how fast you bowl, the batsman always has enough time to get behind the ball, since it loses its zing the moment it touches the surface? These conditions may have taken pace away from our medium-pace bowlers, but they have definitely made them smarter.

It isn't easy to drop pace and still be effective. Can you imagine Malinga or Lee still performing their magic if they bowled in the mid-120s? But Zaheer Khan and co do it with ease time and again, and in most conditions. If we want the likes of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav (people who can still clock 140 kph+) to not go the Munaf way, we must do enough to nurture these assets. Andy Roberts may have observed a thing or two about Munaf, but his comments reflect the stories of many Indian fast bowlers.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rahul on June 17, 2011, 19:17 GMT

    I remember watching the NZL tour game on tele, Munaf took the wicket of Steven Fleming on debut. But just like all other Indian "fast" bowlers he soon broke down and lost pace. All excuses aside it should now be an accepted fact that Indians can't bowl fast. They should model themselves on Kapil Dev or Zaheer Khan, both of them use great control on line and length with some swing to get wickets. And end of the day wickets are what counts, the days of fast bowlers intimidating batsmen are long gone.

  • Dummy4 on June 17, 2011, 10:57 GMT

    Well...People come up with examples of McGrath, Walsh and Akram. Guys...in their early days they werw bowling 145 + and they might ahve slowed down to mid 130s towards the end of their career. We are talking about Waz, Walsh and Mcgrath bowling in the mid 130s at 30 + Ages. But here we are discussing about Indian Bowlers in the Mid 20s bowling at 120s and that is a dangerous sign. For that matter, even Pllock was ineffective to the latter stages of hsi career when he was bowling in 120s....

    We are talking about the need of the swing bowlers to bowl in the early 130s and the Seam bowlers and Hit the deck bowlers to be bowling in late 130s and 140s for them to be effective. Even Prabakhar has pointed out the need for Praveen Kumar to step up his gas. A clear example of a bowler being ineffective was Shane Bond towards the latter part of his career. he wasn't the old thread one he fell into the 130 speed mode. Decent speed along with quile is the need of the day

  • Rizwan on June 17, 2011, 7:33 GMT

    This issue isn't that hard to address. Its not that slow low & flat pitches in India don't help the fast bowlers, if it was true then Pakistan or Sri Lanka couldn't have produced any fast bowlers too. Its the culture, Indians worship their batsmen, where the bowlers are overlooked despite being good many times. I read many comment here on this article that it doesn't matter if Munaf bowls at 70 or 80 mph as long as he gets wickets. But its not, he's not as good as Zaheer in tests, where it matters the most.

  • Dummy4 on June 16, 2011, 18:27 GMT

    Munaf did not make his first class debut in Rajkot against New Zealand,it was in Dharmasala.

  • Dummy4 on June 16, 2011, 17:54 GMT

    well to all guys asking for pace here just answer tis will u enjoy a kemar roach or zaheer khan tait or anderson and johnson or steyn ......ya pace excites but can u name a bowler who's skillfull and sheer pace gone are the days with wasim and waqar the last people i could remeber wit both art at the moment oly steyn excites but he s too worthless in flat tracks and dust bowls the most skill full bowler at the moment would be definitely zakkkk

  • M on June 16, 2011, 17:49 GMT

    While selecting the team let the selectors then consider Munaf and Zaheer along with the spinners and choose the best spinners for the team and choose a few other quicker bowlers.

  • Rimtu on June 16, 2011, 17:34 GMT

    India has lost several potential express pace bowlers to 'domestication' since Munaf was first heard of, through something a certain Steve Waugh had said. Ishant Sharma, VRV Singh comes to mind. Also I know few other 'Singh's had come and gone, who were 6'4" or taller fast bowlers. The Ishant Sharma that destroyed Ponting in Australia, is only alive in the memory of those who had seen him then. He was averaging 145+ kph, often touching 150+. And the way he was bowling, the speed seemed to naturally flow, i.e. each of his spells were of top pace. Now he's but a mere shadow of his past self, in terms of pace. I think it's not just the slow pitches to blame anymore, but a realization of heavier workload has also dawned on the fast bowlers. The faster you bowl, the quicker you retire, that's a fact. Which bowler in their right mind would want to have a career like Bond or Akhtar. They'd much rather be like McGrath. Bowl in 120s-130s, but be accurate, don't do anything crazy. kw: Longevity.

  • Dummy4 on June 16, 2011, 17:08 GMT

    Too much cricket for these players, specially fast bowlers. it's wearing them out. Not just Munaf but all fast bowlers across the globe.

  • Rizwan on June 16, 2011, 16:38 GMT

    @Bharat_Ajax, "Who is Andy Roberts??", Seriously?!

  • anik on June 16, 2011, 16:20 GMT

    whay all are saying mcgra, pollock, akram were sucful when they redused speed. yes from 150 they reduced to 140+not 120 and then may be to 130 AFTER TAKING 300 WKT AND PLAYING 70 TESTS AND 10 YRS. they were still fast at 30+ age not 25. Bharat_Ajax tells - does anyone knows roberts, yes any body who knows cricket or has seen it not IPL knows him and ask the cricketers they will say he is a far better bowler than kapil and has better recort,- avg, sr wkts/match. and somme told munaf and praveen is extreemly sucessful. is it we are not talking ODI they never paly test. thats why idia still plays sreesanth, ishant, zaheer not them. for bowling in test or getting bastmen out needs pace of 140+ atleast. and if swing swing it at 140+. if you ever think india ever has good fast bowlers look at sr rate or wkt/match even kapil avg is 29+, zahir 30, no one is below 25. and for some irfan in 2005 -06 was never good hewas good in 2003-04 in aus he was bowling at 140+.

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