July 19, 2012

Who after Zaheer?

Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma are the likeliest candidates, but there are a few others who can be contenders, provided they are nurtured carefully

How have India been so dominating at home for such a long time? It's because their spinners have always had the upper hand over batsmen who are not so proficient against quality spin bowling on low, slow and turning surfaces, while India's batsmen counter the opposition's spin bowling with ease. And since conditions in India make fast bowlers ineffective, the hosts hold the aces while playing teams from outside the subcontinent. But this hypothesis is no longer all true.

Since Anil Kumble's retirement from Test cricket, at home, the pace bowling attack, led by Zaheer Khan, has taken 105 wickets at 33 runs apiece, with a wicket every ten overs, while spinners took 158 at 35.5, with a wicket every 13 overs. In overseas Test matches in the same period, fast bowlers took 201 wickets, while spinners took 108.

India's climb to the top of the Test rankings wasn't thanks to dishing out dustbowls, for their best chances of winning, even in India, are on decent batting surfaces. Zaheer played a pivotal role in shaping India's ascent in both ODIs and Tests, and one of the key reasons why India's tours of England and Australia over the last year were so abysmal was their less-than-potent seam bowling attack.

Zaheer's injury in the 2011 Lord's Test and his subsequent absence sucked the life out of India's bowling. Even his presence in Australia made little difference because the other quicks were not up to the mark. To be fair to him, Zaheer's body has started showing the toll of 12 years of international cricket. In recent times he has been able to make the initial breakthrough with the new ball, but once the ball has got old, he has looked to bide his time till the second new ball becomes available. While the strategy worked for him - he was India's best and most consistent bowler - it didn't help the team, because the opposition always batted for a day and a half.

If India need to plan for the future, they must start preparing for life beyond Zaheer. His absence, like it did in England, should not mean the end of India's chances. Here are five bowlers likely to take the baton from him in Test cricket.

Umesh Yadav
In 2010, when I played with and against Umesh, he generated a lot of pace but bowled only two lengths: too full or too short. So, despite the pace, others got more wickets. While his deliveries carried nicely to the keeper and looked impressive from the outside, Umesh didn't get the length right to either induce an edge or get lbw or bowled dismissals.

Come 2011, he was a different bowler. He not only consistently pitched the ball in the good-length area, drawing the batsman forward, he also swung the ball away from the right-handers. He used the bouncer sparingly but effectively. He was ready for Test cricket. It came as no surprise when he troubled some of the best batsmen in Australia with his pace. Umesh is the most likely candidate to spearhead India's fast-bowling department. His desire to keep improving, refusal to sacrifice pace for control, and sensible attitude will hold him in good stead.

Ishant Sharma
What struck me about Ishant when I first saw him play for Delhi was the bounce he generated off the surface and the wrist position that gave him accuracy. He could happily bowl to a 7-2 off-side field and never drift to leg. That aspect stood out on his first tour, to Australia in 2007-08, where he became Ricky Ponting's nemesis.

While his basics - action, the head and wrist position, and run-up - were already in place when he first played for India, he needed to constantly evolve to enjoy the same success over the next few years. He needed to find ways to take wickets, for bounce and carry don't fetch you wickets unless used effectively.

You might be surprised to know that among Indian fast bowlers, the 23-year-old Ishant is already fourth, behind Kapil Dev, Zaheer and Javagal Srinath, in terms of number of Tests played. He can no longer be regarded just as a bowler with a lot of potential, as Sanjay Manjrekar says here; it's time for him to assume the responsibility of leading the bowling attack in Test matches and translate that potential into five-wicket hauls more often. For that he needs to start pitching the ball a lot fuller, with his wrist right behind the ball, because it will give him the best chance of getting movement off the surface and finding outside edges more often.

India's bowling coaches over the last few years must also take responsibility for Ishant's lack of growth. He is still young and loves to bowl, so if he is mentored well, Ishant can turn it around for himself and for India.

Varun Aaron
Along with Umesh, India have unearthed another fast bowler who can hit the mid-140kph mark consistently. I first saw this bowler from Jharkhand in a Ranji match on a docile pitch. While he didn't take a bagful of wickets (blame the pitch), his pace and rhythm caught one's eye. I had heard a lot about his bowling and he didn't disappoint.

I had also heard about his history of recurring injuries. To see an Indian bowl fast is a delight, and I prayed he would remain fit for long. Miraculously, he managed for one full season and was rewarded with an India Test cap soon after. That's where the honeymoon ended, for he has been sidelined with an injury after a very brief stint at the top. For Aaron to be a real Test contender, he needs to find ways to remain fit. He will also have to make the ball move in the air and off the surface, for he will soon realise that pace alone is an overrated virtue.

Parvinder Awana
Awana has had a few good domestic seasons - 113 wickets at 29 - but more than the stats, it's the way he bowls that impresses me. He has a strong action, good wrist position, and hits the deck hard to extract lateral movement off the surface.

Thanks to the SG Test ball used in domestic cricket, there are quite a few swing bowlers in India, but not many who rely more on seam movement than swing in the air. Those are the ones most likely to succeed with the Kookaburra ball on hard, bouncy pitches outside the subcontinent, because once the shine fades, the Kookaburra doesn't move much in the air.

Awana isn't the finished product yet but the BCCI and India's chief bowling coach should step in and nurture his talent.

Ashok Dinda
Dinda briefly flirted with the highest level before falling away. He seemed to lose his sense of purpose after a couple of good seasons in the IPL, but thankfully he's back on track. Dinda is not express but is sharp enough to make his presence felt. More importantly, he is fit and has the stamina to bowl long spells - he bowled a 17-over spell in the Duleep Trophy final last year. He may not have done exceptionally well for India A in the West Indies, but his performances in the previous first-class season should keep him in the loop.

Shami Ahmed was one of the few bright sparks from that A tour, but since he has only played nine first-class matches, I'd like to wait before forming an opinion about him. In any case, he must not be treated the way Jaydev Unadkat was - promoted to play for India after just one good A tour. The premature exposure seemed to have done more harm than good for young Unadkat.

Then there are Praveen Kumar and Munaf Patel. While Praveen was magnificent in England (the last Test series he played), after his elbow injury he has been a pale shadow of his former self. Munaf doesn't seem keen to be a part of the longer format anymore.

As for Vinay Kumar, his unimpressive Test debut in the fast bowlers' haven of Perth must have pushed him to the back of the queue.

How I wish that I could include Sreesanth in this list, for when he's at the top of his game he's one of the most capable wicket-taking bowlers around. Unfortunately, his career has been marred by injuries and antics.

Unlike with their spin bowling resources, India have quite a few promising fast bowlers on the domestic circuit, but these are my top picks. India have the fast-bowling resources to prosper after Zaheer, provided they nurture the available talent. It's important for India's bowling coach and the National Cricket Academy to identify talented fast bowlers and put them through structured programmes throughout the year, so that when the need arises they are in top shape and form.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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