In the two-and-a-half months of Ranji Trophy cricket in 2019-20, Bengal's potent pace attack has made it stand out across 10 matches. The fast bowlers' fortunes have mirrored Bengal's. Despite struggling for consistency right through the season, it is now one win away from clinching its first Ranji title since 1989-90.
Bengal's senior-most pacer Ashok Dinda had been dropped from the squad for “misconduct” ahead of the match against Andhra and has played only once in 2019-20. But the absence of its top wicket-taker in the last 10 seasons hasn't affected the performance of Bengal's fast bowling group, with Ishan Porel stepping up to join Mukesh Kumar and Akash Deep to form a solid combination. The trio has 82 wickets between them, including four five-fors and has been instrumental in ensuring Bengal's purple patch.
Ranadeb Bose, appointed the team's bowling coach in 2015, credits the transformation to a methodical approach and the hard yards in training. "Fast bowlers always hunt in pairs. I can proudly say the Bengal fast bowlers hunt in packs," said Bose.
"You'll have Mukesh Kumar bowling to an Under-19 batsman and likewise, an Under-19 bowler could be bowling to Manoj Tiwary. In an academy set-up, you can gauge where your domestic cricket stands and what can be done to make it better." — Ranadeb Bose on CAB’s Vision 2020 project
"You have to be prepared to put in the hard work. That's what makes someone a top-quality fast bowler. You need to do a lot of running because that's what you do on a cricket field - running. This change didn't happen overnight. Four years of planning, four years of preparation.
"We focused on tailoring training to each bowler's needs: during base or strength training in the pre-season, some of them worked on keeping their legs strong while others strengthened their upper and lower back.
"I've been able to compartmentalise their practice during a net session: they do the run-up drills, loading drills and then the bowling drills. I patch it up together and work on the final release. This year, our bowlers have been magnificent but even earlier when the results weren't going in our favour, the work-ethic never changed."
Cricket Association of Bengal's (CAB) Vision 2020 project, which aims to help Bengal players progress to the national team, has had a role in nurturing the pacers. "Dada's (Ganguly) vision was to have the entire gamut of cricketers from Under-19 to Ranji Trophy train together. You'll have Mukesh Kumar bowling to an Under-19 batsman and likewise, an Under-19 bowler could be bowling to Manoj Tiwary. In an academy set-up, you can gauge where your domestic cricket stands and what can be done to make it better," said Bose.
Bose feels the time spent with former Pakistan pacer Waqar Younis, who had a 50-day contract with CAB as pace bowling consultant, was a learning curve for him and the players. "With his (Waqar's) experience, of excelling in international cricket and dealing with the inevitable setbacks, he had a lot to offer. He comes from an extremely humble and plain background, so his journey from there to becoming one of the most leading exponents of fast bowling and reverse swing was an inspiration for me and the players," Bose said.
Bengal's attack is well stocked with fast bowlers now - Ishan Porel has transformed himself from a middling medium-pacer to a probing seamer, Akash Deep is troubling batsmen with pace and bounce, while Mukesh Kumar holds one end up, switching to attack almost seamlessly when the time is right.
"Waqar and I have had some lovely conversations about the art of bowling fast; line, length and release. But Waqar's time with us wasn't so much about the technical nous as about talking strategy to the youngsters. On the other hand, TA Sekhar sir delved deep into the technique. Sekhar sir was my coach when I used to train at the MRF Pace Foundation. So, it was great working with them.
Supply-line of bowlers
“I was looking after the Under-19 and Under-23 boys as part of Vision 2020 when I was offered the Bengal (bowling coach) job. My message to them, and the senior boys, has been very simple: stick to your line and length and don't try something funny. Don't break your head trying to bowl the good deliveries; do the basics right and everything else will follow. I sit down with the Secretary (CAB) and the team management before the start of every season and chalk out a plan for the age-group teams, where they'll travel and what kind of training they will undergo. So, I'm closely monitoring the age-group teams and looking into coaching at the grassroots, keeping a tab on the supply-line of seam bowlers.
“I first saw Akash Deep during the last off-season. The Under-23 side was in Vizianagaram... Head coach Saurasish Lahiri went with them but got injured. So I went all the way to Vizianagaram, where I trained with Akash for 10 days before returning to join the Bengal senior men's team. What struck me about Akash was his eagerness and intent.
“He never shies away from hard practice - a rare attribute in someone young, and it augurs well for his future. The hard work he has put into his physical fitness has also enabled him to bowl fast. And he can bat too, as we saw against Karnataka. That makes him a complete package: players like him are hard to come by. But he's still pretty raw, I feel. We are working on a few things and one more good season with Bengal could see him represent India A."
All three fast bowlers' fitness levels are the main reason for their consistency. "Before the season, we've run a lot. In a week, there have been four to five sessions of running and two-three days of strength [training]," Porel had said, in a media interaction during the semifinal, putting his success down to the time spent with Bengal team trainer Sanjib Das.
"With Porel, it was about developing his explosive strength which helps him increase his bowling speed ... and keeps him injury-free. Apart from that, we've also worked on his routine nutrition plan and tried to make his recovery process better. Mukesh, meanwhile, worked on his running technique to improve the quality of bowling... Their sleep patterns are equally important otherwise they risk neuromuscular fatigue. All things said and done, there's no benchmark for fitness. It is a criterion you have to develop every day," said Das.
Bengal's attack is well stocked with fast bowlers now - Porel has transformed himself from a middling medium-pacer to a probing seamer, Akash is troubling batsmen with pace and bounce, while Kumar holds one end up, switching to attack almost seamlessly when the time is right. They have shown there is a bright future ahead for the state side and with targeted planning, preparation and guidance, Bengal could even spark a fast-bowling revolution.
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