Reviving a lost tradition

India's new-ball bowlers are usually a means to an end - taking the lacquer off the ball while the spinners warm up - in home Tests, so it was a sight for long-sore eyes to see Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan dominate proceedings for much of the morning and afternoon. By lunch, the pitch had become a docile beauty - not that it was ever a diva - and the slow bowlers struggled to get any real purchase from it. The odd delivery that caused problems was more a result of the spinners' quality than any pitch-devil, and Hashim Amla's fluent strokeplay against Harbhajan Singh said much about the balance of power between slow-ball and bat.

But old ball or new, India's pace bowlers were magnificent. Zaheer beat the bat consistently, and Pathan's incisive seven-over burst after lunch was a perfect example of inspirational toil without reward. He swung the ball both ways, and despite the inside-edges and the near misses, the spirit never flagged. He was duly rewarded in a subsequent spell when he winkled out Amla and Boeta Dippenaar with subtle movement off the seam.

Statistics don't reveal what a wonderful find Pathan has been. In an age when swing bowling has become something of a forgotten art, he shapes the ball in and out quite beautifully. His figures from four Tests against Australia may look unimpressive, but his in-your-face attitude and the fact that he knocked over batsmen of the quality of Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist earned him immediate respect from the opposition. It was the same case in Pakistan when the numbers didn't quite reveal his hold over the top-order batsmen, especially Yousuf Youhana who was made to look like a fumbling novice.

Zaheer's story has been more convoluted. Injuries, poor form and whispers about a less-than-perfect work ethic have all contributed to a fits-and-starts career, but on the days when he strikes his rhythm, he can pose all manner of problems. At the start of the season, with plenty of questions being asked about his propensity to break down, he lacked any sort of zip or rhythm, but since the Chennai Test against Australia, he has run in and hustled batsmen with pace, lift and movement.

Neither man is especially quick, not in the manner of a Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee, but there's enough pace there - around 90 mph at their sharpest - to prevent the batsmen coming complacently forward. And in sub-continental conditions, both men reverse-swing the ball well, adding an extra dimension to the stock-bowling role often thrust upon them.

As this match proceeds, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan will have a bigger role to play, but today was a small foretaste of what Indian cricket fans can expect on future tours. The last time India's new-ball assault was so potent was back in the Southern Cape in 1996-97, when Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad were consistently menacing despite getting no support whatsoever from a woeful batting line-up.

Like most stories involving India and pace bowling, that was short-and-sweet. But with the right kind of nurture, the Baroda firm of Zaheer and Pathan can revive a legacy that flourished in the days of Amar Singh, Ladha Ramji and Mohammad Nissar, only to almost disappear in the dark days when the pace bowler's sole role was to bowl an obligatory couple of overs before being banished to outfield purgatory.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.