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Feature

Embracing the unorthodox - South Asian teams are now fast-bowling powerhouses

Bumrah, Afridi, Pathirana, Mustafizur and many, many more: has the region's pace stocks collectively ever burned brighter before?

In decades gone by, this article, a stock-take of South Asia's pace-bowling output, would have started with Pakistan, cast a sympathetic eye towards India, skimmed patronisingly over Sri Lanka, made little mention of Bangladesh, no mention of Afghanistan, then returned swiftly to the high-octane, long-hair-blowing-in-the-breeze, bursting-through-the-tv-screen-into-our-fantasies world of Pakistan fast bowling.
Other teams might have had the occasional great fast bowler, but Pakistan had Sarfraz Nawaz, then Imran Khan, then Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and then Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, so really one of the richest bloodlines in the sport.
They have still got it, of course. Pakistan are still the South Asian home of the fast bowler of the ancient scriptures - tall, fast, muscular, with strong wrists, braced front legs, raining down late movement, and blowing imaginations upon squalls of attitude. But the region's other teams have begun to set up what could be production lines of their own. They haven't followed Pakistan's lead, exactly - they have other things that work.
Often, they've dabbled in fast-bowling heresy.
No story ties together the many forces that have raised the fast-bowling temperature of the region than that of Jasprit Bumrah, the best all-format operator around. In his earliest years, he was taken with the bowling of the greats of the age - Brett Lee and Allan Donald, yes, but also Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib. It is no surprise that the yorker was among the first deliveries Bumrah perfected.
And yet his own action, an amalgam of his idols', was so spectacularly heretical, it took an IPL franchise to properly propel him into the stratosphere, then Mumbai Indians coach John Wright pulling the strings to have him yanked to MI HQ.
Once there, another fillip to his rise: meeting and bowling alongside Lasith Malinga, the godfather of modern fast-bowling heresy basically. Malinga, not big on Hindi, almost as modest in English, conveyed to Bumrah through their shared love for the craft, the value of ego-free fast bowling. "I used to do stupid things in front of batsmen, I could go and say anything," Bumrah once told Times of India. "But as I played with Malinga, I realised the calmer you are, the better you are. Because at that time your brain starts to work."
Where spitting invective at batters was once a fast bowling trope, now using every second available to set the cogs in your brain whirring is an increasingly prized virtue in T20s. What does the team require right now? Where does this batter tend to hit? Which balls am I good at executing? What should the field be? Is now the time to confound the batter's expectation? Bowling overs 16-20 in a T20 might be the most cerebral work in cricket right now, and increasingly this is becoming a space that is dominated by quicks - of thinking, that is.
Sri Lanka perhaps has the loudest echoes of the Bumrah story. Matheesha Pathirana and Nuwan Thushara grew up watching Malinga, fashioned heretical actions that emphasised aspects of Malinga - Pathirana the pace, Thushara the early swing. They have at various points been tutored by him too.
Thushara and Pathirana also have franchise cricket to thank for their rise, Pathirana getting an early gig with Chennai Super Kings, and Thushara performing in the Abu Dhabi T10 before getting a long run in the Sri Lanka side. An international hat-trick and a stint at Mumbai Indians followed.
Sri Lanka's cricket establishment has long prided itself on embracing the unorthodox, but not so for Bangladesh of the past. Not until Mustafizur Rahman burst through, first exhibiting rapid left-arm pace (is there a more prized regional trait?), before later picking up the cutters that would define him. Mustafizur has been through several phases in his career already, but the latest is his rejuvenation, which - here's a familiar refrain - CSK has been responsible for, with MS Dhoni sowing into his craft, as Dhoni has for Pathirana.
In the past few years, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also shared a commitment towards developing fast-bowling talent after the latter half of both their 2010s, saw them investing in spin. In Sri Lanka, Chris Silverwood has been influential in building up a fast-bowling battery. In Bangladesh, Ottis Gibson has helped Taskin Ahmed rediscover himself, while the likes of Shoriful Islam, have come along under him as well.
There are bowlers who don't quite fit the narrative. Dushmantha Chameera is a straight-up-and-down orthodox operator who happens to bowl fast. Dilshan Madushanka, discovered through a talent search in the provinces, bowling left-arm inswingers at a rapid pace, has an origin story that could be more or less be transplanted from Pakistan.
In India, they have a vast system now - proper pathways featuring scouts, academies, and a surfeit of opportunities through which to hone your game at the higher levels. There are domestic tournaments, the IPL, and when you break through into the India side, so many matches on offer that they are almost certainly the most-exposed team in the world. Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami have benefited from this. Others like Mayank Yadav are pounding down doors.
Pakistan themselves have Haris Rauf - a franchise find. But then also Shaheen Shah Afridi, the reigning king of their pace attack, though he very much now has to fend off advances from the prince, Naseem Shah, that famed Pakistan fast-bowling frenemy vibe now seemingly developing. Shaheen has the numbers and the record, and is a spectacle on the field; Naseem has the old-school romance in his action, and a firestarter vibe, which in the context of Pakistan bowling is about as celebrated as vibes come.
Afghanistan's Fazalhaq Farooqi, by the way, has outstanding figures too, particularly when he looks for swing early in an innings, and then goes for the yorker at the death. When bowling fuller lengths, his economy rate of 7.51, is the best for any bowler since 2021 in T20s. Between him and Naveen Ul Haq, Afghanistan too have a seam-bowling set up of note, even if Rashid Khan's spin remains the headline act.
All told, it is difficult to escape this conclusion: South Asia's fast-bowling talents have never, collectively, burned brighter. In T20s in particular, South Asia's quicks have substantially broadened definitions of what a successful fast bowler looks like, and what roads they might tread to get so good.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo. @afidelf