In cricketing argot, the most clichéd statement to win Test matches made is ‘Need to take 20 wickets to win a Test’. When the men-in-charge of taking those 20 wickets bend their back, roll their arms and stress their ankles to make it happen, more often than not they are overshadowed by the willow-wielders. While Indian skipper MS Dhoni said the positive coming out of the first Test at Melbourne was that his bowlers picked 20 wickets, the fact remains that his team still could not end up on the winning side.
But for India, this has been Achilles heel for years together, may be since they started playing the game. With the world’s second largest sea of humanity in the country, it is surprising not to find handful of genuine quickies. While Mohammed Nissar, Amar Singh and Ramakant Desai were the first-ever well known fast bowling merchants, it took India another 35-40 odd years to find another in Kapil Dev.
India remained thirsty for a genuine fast bowler till the Haryana Hurricane hit the world and by the time Kapil hung his boots, a certain Javagal Srinath looked like quenching the thirst of a nation looking for a genuine quickie. While the baton from Kapil was passed to Srinath, Srinath then passed it on to Zaheer Khan. Zaheer, since his debut in 2000 in Dhaka, has been wondering whom to pass on the baton to.
While Zaheer has broken down more often than not, he can’t be blamed completely for his untimely interruptions. He never found a consistent partner to rely on. While it can be argued that Kapil too never had a good partner. That’s where the question of physical fitness rises. Kapil was one of the fittest athletes to have played the game ever. In his glittering career, he missed only one Test, that too, under controversial circumstances. Zaheer, and too that matter any fast bowler since Kapil hasn’t been a good athlete.
Therefore the questions that arise here are:
a) Whether India has been able to manage its limited pool?
b) Whom will Zaheer pass on the baton for the next leader?
Since Srinath’s Test retirement in 2002, India has all but managed to rope in 12 fast bowlers till date. Zaheer made his debut about two years before the Karnataka paceman retired. In that period, a trio of so called fast bowlers by the names of Sanjay Bangar, Iqbal Siddiqui and Tinu Yohannan also emerged, and quickly vanished too. While Bangar then played more on his batting merits, Siddiqui and Yohannan could all but find their way in the records archive and of course played for their states for some time.
A Tamil Nadu pacer then came in the form of L Balaji but injuries cut short the promising career. Not to forget, the baton was all but Ajit Agarkar’s till inconsistency at the Test level and injuries too ruined his chances to become a part of India’s next best bowling pair with his Mumbai teammate Zaheer. The wiry pacer from Mumbai had every ingredient for the making of a fast bowler, pace, swing, aggression, Yorker, bouncer and attitude. But...
Then came the era of RPs, Sreesanths, Pathans, Munafs, Kumars, Sharmas. All promised the stars and the moons and yes all they did was promised and but failed to deliver when it mattered. Irfan Pathan in his debut year was a sensation and it looked as if India had found its fast bowling messiah. His natural swing with good pace was unplayable more often than not. S Sreesanth’s cricketing abilities were overshadowed by poor attitude and untimely injuries and it looks he will remain out of favour till he decides to become a coach.
Munaf Patel and Ishant Sharma had identical career stories. Both of them emerged on the scene for their genuine pace but ran out of steam sooner than later. While Munaf took a long time to come back in the game, Ishant remained in the game and became a bowling machine. From a fast bowler, Ishant soon became just a bowler. The pace was coming down, the sting wasn’t there. How could he sustain as the last possible drop of energy was sucked out of him in excitement.
Therefore, by a margin, none of these guys looked decent, forget good, to lead the bowling attack in Zaheer’s absence. It was amply proved in England where we were hammered and road-rolled by Strauss & Co. Since the boys are in Australia, they are closest to the model of how to churn out and sustain fast bowling pool.
For instance, Australia were left with a big vacuum when their strike bowlers in Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne retired from the game. But Brett Lee was given charge. Before he went out due to injuries, he timed his baton passing to perfection leaving it on the strong shoulders of Mitchell Johnson. With Doug Bollinger, Ben Hilfenhaus and Peter Siddle, Johnson formed a formidable core quartet.
Injuries have been a part of the all the above mentioned Australian bowlers, but at least two of the four from the core remained on board all the time. Well it is a learning here. The moment their fast bowlers are injured, they are given adequate rest followed by adequate recovery at Centre for Cricket Excellence and then training or match practice to prove your fitness. Whereas in India, injury is followed by rest and then straight to international or Indian Premier League (IPL) action.
None of our fast bowlers prefer to take the rigours of playing domestic cricket or going through a regime at the National Cricket Academy whilst making a comeback in the team. Can’t blame the players alone as the administrators (not coaches) have mediocre fitness levels benchmark for players.
Priority in Australia is the national team, whereas here, stakeholders of the filthy rich IPL want the worth of every penny spent on acquiring the Indian players. Therefore, the players have no choice but to play with an injured shoulder, hamstring pull, sore back, head injury and many more.
And the situation isn’t going to change very soon with the proprietors of the game in India are also the stakeholders in its league. Players are going to be treated like cash cows and not athletes. The players would not mind being that till they are raking in millions of dollars in a matter of four months. They can even afford to be injured for the rest of the season as the money that they would have made otherwise has already been earned.
While an injured Brett Lee made comeback to international cricket (ODIs) after almost two years owing to injury and poor form. He still managed to touch 145+ at the age of 34. While he retired from Tests in 2010, Lee still manages to bowl faster than our fastest bowlers aged 22 or 23 or 24. Simple reason being Lee, like any other Australian cricketer, is supremely fit and treats his body like a temple.
While one wonders if the priorities of Indian cricket are going to change while handling its limited pool of fast bowling. It is also for the Yadavs, Aarons, Unadkats and other upcoming fast bowlers to set their goals correct. Meanwhile, Zaheer still has to continue his quest for finding a worthy successor.