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India's fast bowlers make the big leap

Ishant Sharma loads up in his pre-delivery jump Cricket Australia/Getty Images

"There are no fast bowlers in India," a young Kapil Dev was once told when he asked for an extra helping of chapatis, reasoning that as a fast bowler he needed a better diet.

The era when India relied solely on their spinners, when Eknath Solkar and Sunil Gavaskar once shared the new ball, is long gone. The tables turned 180 degrees in 2018, a year that featured two of only three instances in India's Test history when they did not field a single frontline spinner - in Johannesburg and Perth.

Over three challenging away tours, India's pace attack, largely revolving around the trio of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami, was not only consistently faster than the opposition's but also as incisive, if not more so.

In the 14 Tests India played in 2018, their quicks claimed a record 179 wickets at an average of 23.70 and a strike rate of 47.5. India's previous best fast-bowling haul was 125 scalps in 1979, followed by 119 in 2011. On both those occasions, the average was in excess of 30 and the strike rate above 60.

In all the previous years when India's fast bowlers took at least 50 wickets, they neither managed a better average than in 2018 nor struck as frequently.

Bumrah (three), Shami (two), Ishant, Umesh Yadav and Hardik Pandya (one each) picked up eight five-wicket hauls between them - the most by India's fast bowlers in a calendar year, surpassing the six they took in 1981.

Before 2018, there were only seven instances of India fast bowlers taking 40 or more wickets in a year, and on each of those occasions it was just one bowler reaching the 40-wicket mark in that particular year. This year, Bumrah (48), Shami (47) and Ishant (41) all got there. The trio accounted for more than 75% of the 179 wickets taken by India's pacers.

Bumrah, who was pigeonholed as a white-ball bowler before this year, emerged as the leader of the pace attack by the end of it, and had the most wickets (48) by an Indian bowler - fast or spin - in his debut year. Ishant, who had never averaged below 28 in any previous calendar year, took 41 wickets at 21.80. A strike rate of under 50 in the year was also a first for him. Shami's tally of 47 wickets was his personal best, and he was even more lethal in the second innings this year than he usually is.

One thing that makes this pace pack even more impressive is its bench strength. Bhuvneshwar Kumar picked up ten wickets in two Tests in South Africa and was Man of the Match in India's victory in Johannesburg. And when India rested their first-choice seamers against West Indies at home, Umesh Yadav became only the third India fast bowler to take a 10-wicket haul at home.

The Indian pacers' tally of 179 wickets was the highest for any team this year, ahead of South Africa (147) and England (132). In terms of strike rate, India's quicks were third after West Indies and South Africa.

Out of those 179 wickets, 158 came from 11 Tests in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries, at an average of 24.81 and a strike rate of 50. While playing three or more Tests in SENA countries in a year, India have never managed a better average or strike rate.

Even before the South Africa tour there was talk of this being India's best-ever pace attack. While they missed Bhuvneshwar in England, Ishant, Bumrah and Shami held their own. And by the time India left for Australia, their fast-bowling unit was being spoken of in the same breath as of the opposition's - a previously unheard-of idea in Indian cricket.

In nine of the 14 Tests this year, India's fast bowlers picked up as many or more wickets than the opposition's pace pack. In eight of those games, they had a better average and strike rate, and India won seven of those Tests.

Another key parameter to measure a team's bowling strength is how often they bowl the opposition out twice. At home, India could always rely on their spinners to do this, but their attacks were never as effective overseas. That too changed this year.

Out of the 11 Tests India played in SENA countries this year, they took all 20 wickets nine times - a success rate of nearly 82%. Considering a minimum of three Tests in SENA countries, they have achieved a better success rate only once, in 1968, where they took all 20 wickets in five out of the six Tests (83.33%).

With India playing just three Tests at home this year, their pacers had the lion's share of the wickets. Out of the 257 wickets taken by all India bowlers, their fast men claimed almost 70%. Given a minimum of four Tests, only once have India's pacers had a bigger share. In 2014, they picked up 112 wickets, 79% of the overall 141.

Of the nine five-wicket hauls by India bowlers this year, only one was by a spinner, Kuldeep Yadav's 5 for 57 against West Indies in Rajkot, further highlighting how dominant the quicks have been.