The West Indian fast bowlers were quick and accurate on a pitch with variable bounce at the Tony Ireland Stadium. The Indian pace attack was accurate too, but slower, 10-20 kph slower on average. That difference was a problem for India today and it could continue to be a problem if the wickets behave the way they have so far in Townsville.
Australia and England had put on an impressive fast-bowling display on the opening day of the Under-19 World Cup, and West Indies continued that trend on Sunday. No one was quicker than Ronsford Beaton. Running with the wind, Beaton bowled in the early 140 kph range, while his new-ball partner Jerome Jones delivered at around 135 kph despite having to plough into the breeze. The first and second-change seam bowlers, Justin Greaves and Kyle Mayers, were also in the mid-130s.
They weren't just fast. They were spot on with their lines and lengths too, when not bowling 20 wides. They kept the ball back of a length and hit the bat high and hard. Very few attacking shots were attempted against the rising ball.
Denied deliveries that allowed them to play forward or with freedom, the Indian batsmen were stifled. The pitch, being used for the second match in two days, was doing a lot. Cracks had opened up and the ball moved sideways after pitching on them. Some reared up as well, while others scooted lower than they normally would have. Unmukt Chand sat on his haunches after getting struck; Baba Aparajith fell gloving a bouncer. At no time during the 39 overs of West Indian pace did the batsmen look in control of the bowling.
For India, however, Sandeep Sharma bowled at around 130kph with the wind, while Rush Kalaria managed only about 120 kph running into it. Speed isn't the be all and end all of fast bowling, but it's a critical part, and more so in age-group cricket, where batsmen aren't used to facing a short-of-a-length attack at extreme pace. These Indian batsmen will probably be better players of 145kph speeds at 23 than they are now, and today's experience would have helped that progress.
"A lot of people at Under-19 wouldn't have faced pace like this. So it's an adjustment. It takes a while to get used to it," said West Indies' coach Roddy Estwick. "If you can have a bowler bowling at 145 kph at this age group … nobody likes pace. Some play it better than others but it can make you very uncomfortable. In Test cricket, you get to see it often so you get used to it. Not at this age group."
There is a reason why West Indies have the attack they do at present. In September 2011, they had travelled to India for a quadrangular series, where they lost both games against the hosts, by 81 and 124 runs. Beaton averaged more than 50 for his three wickets in that series, while all four quicks went at more than five runs an over.
"I think India was pleasantly surprised to see the improvement they've [the West Indies fast bowlers] made in the last year," said Estwick. "They've really made big strides."
Having Courtney Walsh in the management team for over a year now has undoubtedly helped the development of these young fast bowlers, but Estwick said the biggest factor behind the improvement was their fitness. He echoed what Craig McDermott had said about the Australian attack after their victory against England on Saturday.
"After India, we gave all the bowlers a programme, gave them a year to respond to it," Estwick said. "They had to report to the board every month on what they were doing. We're encouraging them all the time to get fitter and stronger, because we know that once you get fitter and stronger, you stay free from injury and you can sustain your pace for longer. A lot of players have come back fitter, we're a better fielding team, and we look very athletic."
By the time India had respite from pace, 26 overs had passed and they were 67 for 4. They had to be wary of losing wickets during the 11overs of spin during the middle period and the quicks returned at the end to close out the innings. Beaton took 3 for 33, while Jones and Mayers had two each. Jones went for fewer than three runs an over too, and though Greaves was wicketless, his first spell was a tight 6-2-15-0.
The West Indian batsmen did not have it easy at the start of the chase either. India's seamers were much slower but Sharma swung the ball sharply in both directions. He bowled a series of inswingers to the right-handed openers, Sunil Ambris and Kraigg Brathwaite, before dismissing them with deliveries that shaped away.
"Well they have pace, we have swing," said India's captain Chand, when asked about the difference in speeds. "The way Sandeep was bowling today, they [West Indies] didn't move the ball that much. The toss was vital. The wicket was fresh and had we bowled first our bowlers would have also reached 130-135. Bowling in a fourth innings on this track slows you down."
Sharma had figures of 6-2-6-2 in his first spell and his coach Bharat Arun said he was a bowler who could "move the ball around at will."
"Well, if you have someone bowling at 140 it does add a lot of confidence to the side," said Arun when asked about the difference in speeds between the attacks. "But Sandy [Sharma], though he's touching 130s, he moves the ball around at will. His control over his swing makes him a very potent bowler."
Kalaria was less impressive, he bowled a tidy line and length but the lack of lateral movement meant he barely threatened the West Indian batsmen. Arun said Kalaria had bowled better on previous occasions and was a "little disappointing" today. "We have two more fast bowlers," said Arun. "Kamal Passi, who did well the last time he was here, and Ravikant Singh."
Neither Passi nor Ravikant played today, though, because of India's spin-heavy composition. While West Indies played four fast bowlers and two spinners, India fielded three spinners and just the two seamers. And with Kalaria having an off day, Chand's seam options were limited.
India chose that combination because they felt spin gave them the best chance of beating West Indies. "The spinners are three of the best we have, so the best five bowlers played," Arun said. "We knew West Indies were not very good players of spin bowling. The fact that we didn't get runs, that was the main reason for not doing well."
As the World Cup progresses, India are likely to face more teams with bowlers capable of speeds in excess of 140 kph. And word gets around. Their batsmen will have to adjust quickly to be able to give the spinners enough to bowl at. How far India go in the World Cup hinges on it.