Bowling coach Eric Simons has called Munaf Patel the unsung hero of India's World Cup victory, saying the high degree of technical skills that India's bowling attack possessed made up for its lack of express pace all through the tournament.
After the World Cup win, as the Indian team made their euphoric victory lap around the Wankhede, Munaf and Simons, who had missed the lap, were found outside the group, talking and laughing. Munaf, Simons said, had been one of the most inspirational stories he had encountered.
Munaf would not have been an automatic choice for the playing XI, had injury not ruled out Praveen Kumar from the squad before the start of the World Cup. Praveen had until then formed, along with Ashish Nehra, the back-up unit for Zaheer Khan. "We had singled out the bowlers for the last 3-4 series and Praveen's injury had been a setback for us as he was part of our plans," Simons said.
It was Munaf, Simons said, who had given the bowling unit reassurance when he arrived, with both an awareness of his own skills and his ability to adapt. "Munaf is one of the unsung heroes of the World Cup for us - he stepped in and played a vital part for us, after we lost Praveen and Ashish suffered from injuries during the tournament. Munaf has learnt to understand his bowling and stuck to his game plan taking some crucial wickets." Munaf was India's third-highest wicket-taker in the World Cup behind Zaheer and Yuvraj Singh with 11 victims.
Munaf's wicket-to-wicket line and ability to generate bounce off the Indian tracks made him hard to get away by opposition batsman. Despite the pounding received by the bowlers in the early half of the tournament, "Munaf never once doubted himself or what he could offer the team," Simons said. "His work ethic is enormous; he has a very strong and steady head on his shoulders and calmness in any situation. He gave Zaheer the freedom to bowl very freely and aggressively." Simons said in his 15 months with the team, Munaf had become a "close friend."
When he came into the Indian set-up from South Africa, Simons said that it had been his job to "bring a different outlook to the bowling unit, not to tell them how to bowl, but just offer ideas about what options they could take." The main areas of focus during the World Cup, the bowlers understood, would be the advantage of familiar conditions and bowling to their strengths. "There was a great deal of talent in the bowling line-up and we knew that our plans had to be based around their skills. What happens is that a lot of time people make plans for bowlers that really don't suit them."
The bowlers understood that building pressure through containment could be made to play as important a role as taking wickets, particularly if they could give the batsmen a 100 runs less to chase when batting second. Simons said, "We spoke a lot about bowling partnerships, that if you weren't getting wickets, building pressure on one side could get wickets at the other." India's plans were flexible but the bowlers had talked about the different venues and batsmen they would be bowling to, working out possibilities of "lines, angles and variations of pace" that could come into play. "We talked about the fields that could be set to their bowling, who had to stay slightly deeper for the singles, who had to field where.
"My admiration for the guys grew and I have been very impressed by what they can do in conditions that do not suit them at all. It is what Indian bowlers have to do to succeed here. We had a high degree of technical skills in our side, which showed that you didn't need a bowler of express pace to make a difference." It is why, he said, that when overseas pace bowlers travelled to India, they looked what he described as "less daunting."
Zaheer had become one of the best practitioners of his art in the world according to Simons. In the months leading up to the World Cup, he had developed the slower slow ball that wobbles, and works particularly well against left-handers. In ESPNcricinfo commentary during the World Cup, it was first described as the 'bare knuckle ball', as it comes off the knuckle and rather than spin on its axis, wobbles over a couple of times. It has got the better of a few batsmen in the World Cup. Simons said that the team calls it the 'knuckle ball.' "Zaheer began working on it during the World Twenty20 in the West Indies and was ready to use it during the World Cup." The knuckle ball, Simons explained, could not be spotted by the batsmen through the grip and the bowler could even use arm-rotation at his normal speed to be able to bowl it.
About Harbhajan Singh's role in the tournament, in which he took nine wickets, but bowled at an economy rate of 4.48 Simons said, that the off-spinner, who "wears his heart on his sleeve and wants to perform" was affected at not taking wickets, in the first half of the tournament but hit his stride in the knock outs. "Early on he was frustrated at not getting more wickets and that is natural but we realised as a strike bowler for our team all opposition batsmen would see him as a threat and try to block out, which is what happened. But he got more aggressive in the second half of the tournament, and found when batsmen were forced to try and go after him, he took important wickets."
Given the future calendar for Indian cricket which involves tours to West Indies, England and Australia, Simons said he believed India would have to both rotate their best bowlers to keep them ready for the big events and also refresh their bench strength to get bowlers like Jaidev Unadkat and Umesh Yadav, for example, playing enough at the highest level to do the job when they had to be suddenly called in.