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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on December 18, 2010, 11:35 GMT

    I don't believe there is a sport out there that is more dependent on the environment than cricket. The nature of any match will be completely controlled by the pitch, for example. The current pitch is definitely a case in point. It is the kind of pitch that SA players grew up on. Indian players only see something like this on occasion. A similar situation is happening in Oz right now. The first two pitches were low-slow things. England won easily. Perth is hard and bouncy and they look like a totally different outfit! Put India on a pitch that resembles their home ones and they will perfom much better.

  • Sibhi on December 18, 2010, 11:16 GMT

    HenryFonda - There are Lots of points which Caught my Eyes But this one Jus Got me like a Raw Shot of Gin."Its the Village Blokes who are Stronger than the City blokes".Its a Proven fact But Our board can't spend enuf money on that Petty things like Conducting a programs in the rural,Giving a Better Facility in the Stadiums and Especially Having a Sporting Wicket - the fact is when they come to the HQ they wont need any Pockets because they wont have enuf of it.Its the sort of Idea the guys in India have and hence you see the IPL tournament which is a Huge hit.They give more importance to that than the world itself.

  • Dummy4 on December 18, 2010, 11:11 GMT

    Nice excuse Sidharth ... So what is the excuse for getting all out for 136? Was Zaheer supposed to prevent that too? And isn't cricket a team game? Since when did teams rely only on one individual? Steyn or Morkel didn't get 7 or 8 wickets individually right? Excuses excuses excuses :-) Never heard many from the real number ones in the past. Neither the WI team of the 80s nor the Australian team of the 2000s!

  • KISH on December 18, 2010, 11:09 GMT

    I don't how an 18 year old fast(?)bowler can get picked up for a top fo the table test series just because he has taken 13 wickets against the mighty West Indies B!!. West Indies B wouldn't win the tournament in Afghanisthan domestic tournament if given a chance. West Indies senior team might just win it. I can't understand how the selectors could pick up these bowlers who bowls in 120KPH and hope that they will win the matches for India. I am sorry Unadkat, you are a young guy with lots of dreams and may be you will become a world beater one day. However, I am sure you and Yadav will agree that you guys are wrongly picked infront of R.P.Singh, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Irfan Pathan, Ajith Agarkar, Mithun, and Balaji. Most of these guys (except Mithun of whom I haven't seen much of and Pathan) are all capable of bowling at a speed between 130kph to 145kph. How can I put an idea in Srikanth's brain to bring in Irfan Pathan!!? He only has to remember the Perth Test match 2 years ago.

  • Bang on December 18, 2010, 10:47 GMT

    @Aussasinator, well you are calling # 1 team's bowling as rubbish! Wait till India play on their home pitches with the umpires :)

  • andrews on December 18, 2010, 10:43 GMT

    What a blissful couple of days of Test cricket as the two great pretenders get their noses rubbed in the dirt. Australia have now picked up 15 English wickets within the space of 190 runs while making a good score in between, and India are heading for one of the greatest beltings in Test history, showing how woeful they are when things are not stacked heavily in their favour. India and England, flat-track bullies, makers-up of rules as they go along, horrible abusers of power off the field, and beneficiaries of a hopeless rankings system, which Hraig seems to take too seriously, are getting totally what they deserve. In fact, India are just kidding themselves if they think they have ever been in the top two, while producing devastating results in the last three years at Ahmedabad, Colombo, Nagpur and now Centurion. Losses by an innings and plenty which just don't show up in the ratings. Massive results in the sub-continent but complete disasters away.

  • Dummy4 on December 18, 2010, 10:32 GMT

    really angry with the selectors... why did they pick two reserve bowlers who couldn't have even played for India B could they be so blind for such a crucial series...Ashish Nehra,RP Singh, Munaf Patel, Praveen Kumar, Irfan Pathan all are cooling their heels in India and we have send Jaidev and Umesh Yadav to South Africa, i dont blame these two young kids... but they have to prove themselves at Domestic level, IPL is no parameter for Test cricket...Mr. Srikant you were awfully wrong in picking 15 players for S.Africa tour...the Blues have been undone by their selectors....please pick bowlers who can pick 20 wickets in a test match!!!

  • Sahil on December 18, 2010, 10:32 GMT

    Who on earth is Jaydev Unadkat ? No past record, why select him in the first place. Whne you have proven people like RP Singh who have done well in RSA, get them in and make them play. Though in the current match, even Zak wouldn't have been able to penetrate the African batting. He may have got Smith early on in the innings, but thats where the buck stops.

  • sajid on December 18, 2010, 10:26 GMT

    @rahulbose not quite. Didnt you see the one day series in aussie. there more to the attack than malinga. there are genuine swingers of the ball which is more than i can say for india. @HenryFonda Sl's batting lineup got a bit more grit. And zaheer or no zaheer, SL tops indias bowling lineup hands down one arm tied behind its back. The real question is how did a team like india qualify for no1. answer is with a bunch of tests all played in the subcontinent. India barely qualify for top 5 in my book

  • niaz on December 18, 2010, 10:18 GMT

    Zaheer is a decent fast bowler. He can play a role in any test team. So india would do a little better with him. There is no doubt indian batting is gr8, but their average is a bit inflated (because of flat tracks). For the same reason india has weaker fast bowling. Indian fast bowling is weak. But they would do better with PK, Zaheer, Irfan, Sreesanth/Isanth/Munaf. Indians are obsessed with pace. No other country will play a bolwer just because he can throw at 140k range. Regional bowling and batting record should be used to pick a player. Irfan as an allrounder gives so much flexibility(watson, kalis, perera, johnson). Indian trick of playing two fast bowlers in india work because spinners can bowl long spells at home. but spinners also have worse strike rate. Also India does not have a dominance in spin. Pak, SA, Sri, Eng, (even NZ, WI, Bang, Zim) all have comparable spinners. India's best bowler is not Harbhajan, its Zaheer.

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