Subash Jayaraman: A fast bowler in India is a rare breed. What got you into that line of work? Were there role models you wanted to emulate?
Atul Wassan: Yes, I am from the generation where Kapil [Dev] was our icon. India had just won the World Cup and I had started playing. I was very tall, and I thought: this is what I am good at. I stuck to it. It was natural, I never had to think about what I wanted to do. You go to the ground and eventually find out what you are good at and what you are not [good at], and everybody finds their own place.
SJ: Ian Bishop, the former West Indian fast bowler, said speed must be a desire. Are youngsters in India encouraged to do so?
AW: Not really. That was the time when all the coaches never thought that Indians could bowl fast. We were told to learn the tricks rather than going flat out, because when you go flat out, you at times get hammered, but at that time the competition in the team was high and you had to cut down the pace, get more control and swing and try and cut the ball. That has been a trend. Lately we have realised that if someone has pace, you should not curb that talent. Guile and control will come later.
SJ: Pakistan have a long line of fast bowlers whereas India have produced a long line of accomplished batsmen. What would you think would cause a sustained change in culture in India towards fast bowling?
AW: It is the food habits, the genetics. If you see the mental make-up at the frontier, the mental make-up has been violent, the food, the animal fat... A lot of things go into it. I always believed that if you want to look for a fast bowler, you have to look at genetics. You might get odd exceptions here and there. If a person is bowling fast and doesn't have the genes for it, he is going to get injured. Pakistan has always had this conveyor belt of fast bowlers. But eventually people see that to survive you need quality as well. Just with pace, you will not be able to survive.
SJ: You said that people recognise that pace is important, so they don't want to curb the youngster if he wants to bowl fast. But when it comes to pace bowling, you don't see that happening. What would cause a change in the mindset of coaches?
AW: If you have to be called a fast bowler, you have to bowl at 140kph regularly and then sustain it. You have seen kids coming and bowling that and then breaking down, or cutting down on their pace just to survive. Somehow our system does not have the patience. They get hammered and they realise that if they just bowl fast and get hit, they have to cut down on the pace. That has happened to Varun Aaron. I was so glad to see him make a comeback. Umesh Yadav, I thought, was one of the most promising bowlers and it happened to him as well. It has happened to so many bowlers. The system has to be very sympathetic to the people who are capable of bowling fast and nurture them.
SJ: What does it take to become a complete fast bowler?
AW: You have to just last. You can't be bowling quick one season and then getting injured and changing your action, which has happened to Irfan Pathan and so many other bowlers. That quality has to be there from within. You look at Dale Steyn. He is so strong and he keeps on bowling fast and with the quality that he has got, he is the best in the world. You just hope that someone comes around and gets experience. Umesh Yadav, I thought, had that quality, and we got too impatient. I am not happy with the way he has been treated.
SJ: To eventually achieve the status or quality of, say, Steyn, what should these guys be doing?
AW: These days the best facilities available in the world are given, whether it is rehabilitation, coaching, guidance, diet, anything. Players are rich enough to actually look after themselves also. The system is so good, the boards are looking after the players. Eventually it has to come from within. If Dale Steyn gets injured, it takes time. He is confident about his future. Here, people just try to hurry back and survive. This is one area where the board is working on, giving counselling to bowlers who have got potential - if you get injured, take your time and don't be in a hurry. That is what happened with Varun Aaron. The way he was helped and brought back to the team, now he is delivering. He is just about ready. Now we will see whether he can last bowling with this speed, or for how long. We can't compare ourselves with South Africans and Australians for sheer strength and sustainability. But if you mix it nicely with some guile and variety and angle of swing, and some movement off the pitch, you can survive even with 140.
SJ: The MRF Pace Academy hasn't borne fruit as we would have liked. What do you think they are not doing correctly?
AW: They are, actually. You just can't go and buy a fast bowler from the market. You have to identify talent. They try and do the best they can. They hire the best coaches. Eventually the players have to do it. You have to stumble upon a talent like Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. We were hoping that we will eventually find one but it didn't happen till we found [Javagal] Srinath. Zaheer Khan has also done a good job for India. Maybe it is the three formats, the board shuffling the players, and fitness issues.
SJ: In the last 15-20 years Srinath and Zaheer have been the two most respectable Test bowlers to come out of India. You have Ishant Sharma. He has played more than 50 Tests. He is by every definition a cricket veteran, but he is nowhere near what he should be as a fast bowler.
"Ishant Sharma is one case that has baffled me. Neither has he gained in pace, nor has he been consistent in taking wickets whenever India needs. You have to look at the next best option"
AW: Ishant Sharma is one case that has baffled me. It really disappoints me because [considering] the kind of investment that Indian cricket has made in him, the results that he has brought are very disappointing. Somebody playing 50 Test matches... He has been around in all the formats somehow, but he has not taken the step. Neither has he gained in pace, nor has he been consistent in taking wickets whenever India needs. So that is what the system can do - they are trying their best but the bowler has not been able to cope with the kind of expectations. You have to look at the next best option.
SJ: If you were the Indian bowling coach, or Ishant Sharma's personal bowling coach, what would you have advised him to do?
AW: He has got the best advice. A lot of people have advised him and it is up to him to take what is best for him. What worked for Wasim Akram might not work for Ishant. He should know that he can take the best out of what Wasim is telling and instil what works best in his system. Actually it has to be growing mentally also. You have to become clever, you have to manage your game, you have to manage your fitness, which these great fast bowlers used to do. They were not bowling at their best, but they know when to do what.
SJ: You came to the Indian national team in 1990, but faded away as quickly as you appeared. What led to that?
AW: Those were the days when only one and a half fast bowlers used to play for the Indian team. The third and fourth were just cosmetic. Maybe when you are in England or in New Zealand, you played three seamers. Most times you were carrying drinks. Unfortunately for me, there were personal rivalries, where the board of selectors used to have a point to prove, where even the third or fourth pace bowlers were expendables. There was no plan for me. When I got injured, that insecurity was there, there was no specialist help. I tried to get back too soon, which resulted in me losing some of my sting. Now these players are lucky today - they have got expert help, the NCA, specialised coaching, and many opportunities - so many domestic matches and the India A tours. We did not have any opportunities like that.
SJ: Listener Ashish wants to know about the period in 1989 and 1992, when India had you, Subroto Bannerjee, Salil Ankola and Vivek Razdan. Very good set of fast bowlers in that short span, but none was able to step up to the next level.
AW: Yes. That is because of the system. We used to play only three seamers when we went abroad. The tours used to be few. In the home series, only Kapil and Manoj Prabhakar used to play, and Manoj used to open the batting also. There was no system, no policy, no plan for bowlers like us. They kept rotating us like playing musical chairs. Nobody could establish themselves. In the off season, there weren't many opportunities to play any cricket.
SJ: Kapil was a legend of the game, so he couldn't be pushed out to make place for a youngster.
AW: India used to ensure that they don't lose, even if they don't win. Kapil could bat. Manoj could bat. In the home season, the spinners could roll over the opposition. We used to win Test matches [at home] and lose when we travelled abroad. Everyone was happy with that.
SJ: What are your memories of your Test debut, in Christchurch?
AW: There was a preview to it. When we played the Ranji Trophy, where Sachin made his debut and went to Pakistan, I almost made the trip. But Vivek Razdan and Salil Ankola, without playing that match, were selected out of the blue. So I missed out on that tour. In the Ranji Trophy season, I remember I had taken 50 wickets in six matches and got picked for the New Zealand tour. I thought I will be the fourth seamer, because Vivek had done well in Pakistan. But in a couple of games before the Test match, I bowled better and made my debut.
I remember the wickets being very flat and we lost the first Test match. I got one or two good wickets and batted well to save an innings defeat. But in the third Test, I felt I bowled well. Inexperience was a factor. I look back and think that with a bit of experience I would have done much better.
SJ: In that third Test at Eden Park, you got a four-for and scored your maiden fifty. Ian Smith made 170-odd runs in 120 balls. You were the highest wicket-taker in the series for India, seven wickets in three matches. Kapil and Prabhakar had only five wickets. So it would be unfair for you to not have played more Test matches, considering you did better than your seniors in your debut series.
AW: As I said earlier, even on the England tour I only played in one Test match and England followed on. When we came back, in the Asia Cup, in my second-last game, I got 3 for 28. We won the Asia Cup. I never played after that. There was a lot of time between that game and the next tour. In that time the selectors had changed. The selector from Punjab came. Nobody bothered about why I was dropped. New people came in and that was it.
SJ: Talking about the selection committee, you were the chairman of selectors for Delhi. There is a question from listener Ayush: Were you incorporating what you learnt as a player and what not to do in how you treated players when you were the chairman of selectors? Why is there a dearth of good players coming from Delhi?
AW: Delhi has [Virender] Sehwag, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Gautam Gambhir, Ashish Nehra. When I retired, I was asked [to be a selector], and thought I'd try and see what I could do. I immediately fast-tracked Virat and Ishant Sharma to play Ranji Trophy cricket. At that time Delhi wanted them to play Under-19. I said no, that they were ready. In the first season itself they made an impact. I made Gautam Gambhir the captain because he was trying to get back in the team and I wanted him to be more responsible and involved, which he didn't want to because he was too focused on his game. So there were a few things that I wanted to do, tried to do, but the system was such that you have to keep a lot of people happy. Eventually, I said it was not my cup of tea. There was too much involvement of the sports committee, the clubs committee and everyone.
SJ-: Any discussion about Indian cricket cannot exist without talking about Sachin Tendulkar. Your last Test came at The Oval. In that series, Tendulkar scored his first Test century, in Manchester. You were with him in the playing XI when he was close to getting his hundred in Napier, when he was out on 88. Do you remember how he was when he was approaching his hundred?
AW: Yes, I remember that Napier Test match. He was in tears, you know. He was literally crying when he got out on 88. He would have become the youngest centurion ever. We knew that this guy would eventually get there. He was too good. Many more would come. I remember that first century too. I was the 12th man. He was batting on 80 or 85 and he was playing a couple of loose shots. We were room-mates on that tour for some matches. I went to him and said, "You are going to cry again if you play like this when you get out and lose your chance." We were trying to save the match and Manoj [Prabhakar] was playing well. Eventually, he got there, and it was amazing.