Short-sighted tradition

Guileful slow bowling and attractive shotmaking have been the leitmotifs of Indian cricket since the halcyon days of Palwankar Baloo and CK Nayudu, but there have been times when the adherence to tradition has prevented the national side from

Irfan Pathan: treated unfairly by a short-sighted team management © AFP
Guileful slow bowling and attractive shotmaking have been the leitmotifs of Indian cricket since the halcyon days of Palwankar Baloo and CK Nayudu, but there have been times when the adherence to tradition has prevented the national side from fulfilling its true potential. Prior to World War II, the Indians were famed for their pace attack, with Douglas Jardine even comparing Amar Singh and Mohammad Nissar to Harold Larwood. But once Vinoo Mankad and Subhash Gupte - not to mention one-off wonders like Jasu Patel - started spinning India to home victories in the 1950s, the pace option was relegated to the dark cupboard under the stairs, where it remained until Kapil Dev came along.
But even Kapil's record-breaking feats couldn't change the mindset. The twilight of his career - which stretched into pitch darkness and the selfish pursuit of landmarks - coincided with the advent of Javagal Srinath, the quickest bowler that India has ever produced. Yet, when Srinath was at his peak and consistently clocking around the 150kmph mark, he barely got a home game. Between his debut at Brisbane in 1991-92 and the South Africa series in 1996, when he routed the visitors with a fiery spell of 6 for 21 at Ahmedabad, Srinath's name was stencilled on the bench for nine Tests in the subcontinent.
His reward for a marvellous return of 4 for 33 at Newlands in January 1993 was to be dropped for the home Tests, where Anil Kumble - supported by Rajesh Chauhan and Venkatapathy Raju - demolished England. More than a decade on, it was Irfan Pathan's turn to feel the cold shoulder, as India stuck with the legspinner-offspinner-left-armer combination that first came to the fore when Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Singh Bedi were at their peak.
Like Srinath, Irfan has reasons to feel aggrieved. His career stats - 18 wickets at 43 apiece from seven Tests - aren't flattering, but it shouldn't be forgotten that four of those matches were played against a team that are far and away the best in the world. Both Wasim Akram and Glenn McGrath rate him highly, for his attitude and keenness to learn as much as his ability to swing the ball at brisk pace, and his omission from the XI here might just hamper the momentum that he has built up over the past 12 months.
Interestingly, Akram had 19 wickets in his first seven Tests, although his average (24.21) was lower as a result of playing teams - New Zealand and Sri Lanka - markedly inferior to the current Australian side. And he had the undoubted advantage of playing for a team that was then second only to the West Indies, and captained by Imran Khan, prince among fast bowlers and a great nurturer of precocious talent.
When India's spin quartet held sway, captains used to present curators with razor blades and open the bowling with the likes of Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar. The spinners were usually on by the fifth over, and the ball used to be rolled along the ground rather than thrown so that the lacquer - which doesn't last long on grassless and bone-dry pitches anyway - would be scuffed up even quicker. Rightly or wrongly, that era has been painted in golden hues.
But even then, India, save for a remarkable season in 1971, were never world-beaters. Frequently thrashed out for sight when playing away, they weren't even impregnable at home, losing 3-2 to the West Indies in 1974-75 and being humbled 3-1 by England two years later. The satisfaction obtained from short-term gains obscured the big picture, and that malaise continued right up until Sourav Ganguly and John Wright realised that India would continue to disgrace themselves abroad unless pace-bowling talent was encouraged.
Regrettably, the demoralising losses against Australia appear to have prompted a return to the dark ages, and defiant arguments about playing to Indian "strengths". This morning, Zaheer Khan bowled a superb spell with the new ball, only for its effect to be utterly diluted by Sourav Ganguly's trundling from the other end. Whether such tactics will ever lead to consistent performances away from home - the true test of greatness - has been wilfully ignored.
Slow low tracks and a spin trident can win you games against middling opposition - and the odd thriller against a formidable foe - but they do nothing to equip you for a charge to cricket's summit. Pakistan's record outside the subcontinent is far superior to India's because they realised quite early on that only a judicious mix of pace and spin would triumph abroad. One-trick ponies might win the odd race, but they don't even get near the finish line in the big derbies.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.