South Africa v India, 1st Test, Centurion, 2nd day December 17, 2010

Indian bowling listless in Zaheer Khan's absence

Under pressure after a poor batting effort, on a pitch that had eased out but was still lively, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth missed Zaheer Khan, the leader of the attack

Harbhajan Singh was bullish when asked, at the end of the first day, whether Zaheer Khan's absence had done India psychological damage already. "We have not bowled a single ball yet, so I can't say if we have missed Zaheer Khan or not," he said. "We have got other bowlers. If you see previous games, Ishant Sharma bowled really well in Nagpur. The other guy, Sreesanth, bowled really well. Spinners also bowled really well. So we don't depend on one particular bowler. And we have bowlers who can adapt to any condition and get us wickets. We are no more a team that depends on one particular batsman or bowler. We believe everyone can perform in given conditions."

On paper, or even on websites, that sounds good. In reality though, under pressure after a poor batting effort, on a pitch that had eased out but was still lively, Ishant and the "other guy" missed the leader of the attack. The man who could show them what lengths to bowl, the man who would stand at mid-on, put an arm around their shoulder, and suggest slight corrections to get them wickets.

It could be argued that the Indian medium-pacers didn't have the pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and were hence ineffective. Sreesanth and Ishant, however, have always relied on movement as opposed to pace. When he won India the Wanderers Test on the previous tour, Sreesanth did it with movement, and not pace.

There was movement to be had here too. And both Sreesanth and Ishant had it aplenty in the first spell. Except that Sreesanth kept erring on the shorter side, not bringing Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen forward at all, which is where the edges would come. Loud tuck after loud tuck followed off Sreesanth's bowling as both the batsmen could stay back and cover the movement, and also leave balls on length. The stares that he gave the batsmen after they defended balls back to him smack off the middle of the bat grated, and also earned him a lot of heat from the crowd who cheered when he misfielded, and had a lot to say to him. One of them seemingly had to be asked to leave too.

Ishant looked likelier to get a wicket, especially with the seam movement he obtained at the start. The first ball he bowled beat Smith, but it was pitched outside leg. The second missed the edge slightly outside off. However, despite the movement Ishant failed to make Smith play enough. His lengths created doubt, his lines ruined the effect. The openers chose to leave 17 deliveries from him, and Smith deliberately played inside the line of several others. Ishant didn't go round the wicket to Smith, nor did he try a bouncer like he meant it. The new ball would set the tone, and there was no doubt as to what kind of music it played.

The bouncers arrived when the ball was some 40 overs old, and had some sort of impact on Hashim Amla, but one wonders if that sort of variation would have taken so long coming had Zaheer been there. By then, a selection blunder had also been put on display. Jaidev Unadkat, about as non-violent as the other man from Porbandar who came to South Africa decades ago, clearly is not the fourth-best fast bowler in the country. He didn't swing the ball, he didn't have pace, he wasn't Test-ready. Nor is Umesh Yadav the fifth-best.

Rahul Dravid, speaking after the day's play, admitted Zaheer could have made a difference. "He has obviously got a lot of experience," Dravid said. "He is someone who has played all over the world, and is the leader of our attack, so obviously you are going to miss him. You can't help it. These things happen. People get injured. Especially when you fall behind in a game, you need somebody to step up and Zaheer has usually been our go-to man in the last couple of years. He wasn't there today.

"The other guys tried their best. [But] South Africans batted really well, and the wicket eased out really considerably. It's a learning experience for a lot of our younger bowlers, in terms of their lengths. Maybe we could have bowled a bit fuller, maybe we could have made them drive a bit more."

Abhimanyu Mithun impressed the team management with his strength and spirited bowling on the Sri Lanka tour, where India drew the series on unhelpful tracks in the absence of Zaheer, Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh. He will now be wondering what wrong he has done to not be on this trip. Knowing the Indian selectors' ways, in all likelihood nobody has told him. To send two rookie fast bowlers on such a big tour, one of whom has played four Ranji Trophy matches and the other who failed to create any impression in two ODI defeats against Zimbabwe, was as big a blunder this selection committee - used to making blunders - has made. There could be an argument worth considering that the selectors have been frustrated by Munaf Patel, but against Mithun there is no case.

Two days into India's tour of reckoning, both their wings have malfunctioned, and they find themselves facing one of their worst defeats in recent times. While they have been at the wrong end of conditions to an extent, neither did the day-one conditions merit 136 for 9 nor did those on day two merit 366 for 2. Test cricket provides a second chance though, a shot at redemption. This team has redeemed itself in the past, but the players know if they are to get out of this one - without the help of weather - it will take the very best of their efforts and huge improvements in all aspects of their game.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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