March 15, 2012

The quest for three bowlers

Forget replacing Dravid; if India can find three world-class Test bowlers instead, they'll do very well for themselves

As a nation, India can't help but be driven by personalities. After the retirement of Rahul Dravid, everyone seems caught up in trying to find who his successor at No. 3 will be. For all you know, Indian cricket will never find anyone.

But you know what: it does not matter. If in the next two decades, India find three world-class bowlers instead, they may well win more matches than they have ever done; four batsmen averaging around 45 runs per innings and three bowlers averaging under 30, with a good strike rate, will win India plenty of Tests.

For the last decade or so India had four extraordinary batsmen playing for them at the same time. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS Laxman were undisputed stalwarts. (And don't forget Sourav Ganguly too.) They had outstanding records and their heroics did not come only at home. Laxman and Sehwag may have had a bad run of late overseas, but one should not forget that these two have played some great innings in other parts of the world. There have been very few instances in the history of Test cricket where a national team has boasted this kind of batting wealth at one time in a playing XI.

Having said this, why was India's Test record not as great as their strength in batting may have led one to expect? The obvious answer is that their bowling in that period has not been as rich as the batting.

India started to earn respect as a Test team when they began to post improved performances overseas after 2000, culminating in their becoming the No. 1 side in Test cricket. But even in their prime, India had never beaten Australia or South Africa away. The great No. 1 teams of the past who ruled world cricket for a length of time, like West Indies and Australia, went into the backyards of strong teams and hammered them in front of their home crowds. When you do this, you are not just ranked No. 1 in the computer rankings but also in the minds and hearts of the world's cricket followers. Australia and West Indies could do this because, along with good batting, they had terrific bowling attacks as well.

India will always have enough batting capital, and that is because Indians love to bat! I see this every time there are open trials held to select junior teams: the talent scouts ask the kids to form two groups, one for batsmen and the other for bowlers, and the batting group is always much bigger than the bowling one. India may not get replacements for the Dravids and Tendulkars, but because of this love for batting over bowling and fielding, there will always be decent batsmen coming through the ranks. Finding good bowlers is the challenge for India to stay at the top of world cricket.

It may seem like quite a hindrance, but it's not impossible for India to have three world-class bowlers playing at one time, like they had the four batsmen. And these need not necessarily be three fast bowlers; there could be a couple of spinners in there. Australia and South Africa are havens for fast bowlers, but after day three in a Test match - a critical stage - there is enough in their pitches too for a quality spinner to win a game for his side.

In overseas conditions, there is spin in the pitch - just not as readily available as in India. It has to be extracted, and for that there needs to be more "strength" behind every ball, which means the whole body has to go through the grind, not just the fingers and bowling arm

R Ashwin is a good recent example of an Indian spinner who did not quite make the same impact in Australia as he did at home, and that has been the general story, with a few exceptions, of Indian spinners overseas. When Nathan Lyon and Ashwin were seen together in the Adelaide Test match, it was clear to see that for those conditions Lyon was a better offspinner than Ashwin. In India, though, Ashwin will be in a completely different league and Lyon will watch in awe.

The important thing for Indian spinners to become effective in all conditions is for them to learn to use more than just their fingers and bowling arm. In overseas conditions there is spin in the pitch - just not as readily available as in India. It has to be extracted, and for that there needs to be more "strength" behind every ball, which means the whole body has to go through the grind, not just the fingers and bowling arm. To do this it also becomes imperative that you are strong and fit as a cricketer, with strong legs.

Any bowler can account for this need on his own by adopting a separate training programme for himself while playing in India. Playing stints in county cricket in England and local cricket in Australia will force him to do this as well.

It's no different for Indian seamers too. How often did we see in Australia a pitch that failed to respond to Indian seamers come alive when the big, strong Aussie bowlers had a go? Just running in and releasing the ball - which seems to be the natural style of many Indian seam bowlers - is not enough to get life out of foreign pitches, even though those are supposed to aid fast bowling.

While commentating for Sky Sports in England last year, I did a split-screen comparison of James Anderson and Sreesanth, both of whom rely more on seam movement than pace. The effort at the time of delivery that Anderson was putting behind his stock ball was clearly far greater than that of Sreesanth, who seemed to just run in and release the ball without straining too much.

Till Indian seamers do not get stronger and fitter, they will just not be able to put the amount of effort needed to find life in pitches that are not very lively. Even for a swing bowler bowling at 135kph, if there is a stronger body and a strong wrist behind the ball, the difference is magical. It's the difference between finding the edge and a batsman making a last-minute adjustment to play the ball with the middle of the bat.

Indian cricket needs someone to keep pushing bowlers to the next level, and frequent stints outside the subcontinent while not on international duty would really help. Granted, there are fewer kids in India who want to bowl, but let's be thankful there are some at least. India needs to make the most of them and give them more attention than ever. More than looking for the next No. 3, India need to begin their quest for three world-class bowlers instead. With Dravid gone, there is even more reason to.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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