Bharat Arun on India’s pace revolution, the next Test captain and importance of Ashwin

In this candid interview, the former India bowling coach talks about the process and method behind India’s pace evolution, Bumrah’s emergence as a Test phenomenon, and much more.

Bharat Arun (left) with Rohit Sharma ahead of the first Test between India and Bangladesh in Indore, in November, 2019. Arun is in favour of opting for a batter to be India's next Test captain. - AFP

Former India bowling coach Bharat Arun was one of the key architects of the team’s fast-bowling revolution in Test cricket.

Arun, who played two Tests and four ODIs, had two stints with the Indian senior men’s team - from 2014 to 2016, and then from 2017 till the end of the T20 World Cup in 2021.

In this interview with Sportstar, Arun talks about the process and method behind India’s pace evolution, Bumrah’s emergence as a Test phenomenon, the importance of R. Ashwin and how BCCI can ensure the production line of express pacemen doesn’t run dry.

Q. Let’s begin by talking about your first time as the bowling coach of the men's team and the things you felt the bowlers weren’t doing right and how you went about addressing them?

A. At this level, it is not a question of correcting anything. I had been watching all of them ever since my days at the National Cricket Academy (NCA). I was also the coach of the India A team between 2010-11. Most bowlers, who are part of Team India, came through India A and NCA - So, I had a head start because I knew them personally, and I also had the opportunity to work with them before. When I first joined the team in 2014, I was in the process of observing things and noting down what we needed to do to get better. By the time I realised what had to be done, I had a break - Anil Kumble took over as the coach... and for about 10 months, I was out of the team. When I got back into the team in 2017, there was a clear path designed by Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli to be the No. 1 Test team in the world. The desire to be no 1 is fine. But, what do we need to do to achieve that? We looked hard at every department, and we said bowling wise, we need to create an attack that takes 20 wickets in all conditions - no matter where we play, we look at it as our home condition... that’s when the journey started.

You said you noted down things during your first stint. What were the areas that you thought needed improvement?

We had the firepower. We had bowlers who could bowl fast. We had bowlers like Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who were really skilful. But at that point, they probably lacked the consistency in executing the skills. In Test cricket, there are two ways of creating pressure - either get wickets or stem the flow of runs. So, to do so, a bowler needs to be very accurate. If you look at all the fast bowlers of yore, who have done exceptionally well over time, they have one thing in common- they were all extremely consistent and disciplined. So that was one aspect where we had to put in a lot of work. Also, for India to be consistent across all formats over a period of time, the bowlers had to be managed more professionally so that they remained fresh at any given moment.

One highlight of this Indian Test team is its fast-bowling bench strength, which was on display in Australia. What kind of behind-the-scenes work went into building this?

T. Natarajan, Navdeep Saini, Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur were part of the team throughout. Because of the pandemic, there was no way they could have gone back and joined the team again in time for the white-ball leg of the tour. So, we had a large contingent for close to three months. Ravi [Shastri] put his foot down and said none of them would go back. Those who stayed back understood the culture; what it took for the team to be so successful for so long; they also worked on the same aspects that the first-choice players were working on - consistency in the nets. There is no rocket science to it - it all boils down to getting better than the standards you set for yourself, challenging yourself all the time. My job was to give feedback. How they fared in the nets, what plans they had, what lines and lengths they wanted to bowl and whether they executed them well - they did these things day in and day out, and the results were there for everyone to see.

When did you first start seeing the results of all your behind-the-scenes work?

It started with the first Test in Cape Town in 2018. In the first innings, South Africa was bowled out for 286 after being three down for about 20 odd (12 for 3). We felt we had bowled too many loose balls in the first innings even though we had bowled them out for less than 300. I felt we should have kept them below 200. Ravi had a firm chat with all the bowlers - he told all of them, “leave your driving license at home. I don’t want to see a single drive being played by South Africa henceforth.” And the bowlers responded beautifully in the third innings. When they stopped giving away the extravagant drives, it looked like a different attack and South Africa was bowled out for 130. Either they were being strangled or gifting wickets. See, belief comes out of doing things. We realised we are a potent attack; we can be pretty mean. We can tie them down and get wickets. That belief started in South Africa. The Cape Town Test still hurts because that was a match we could have won. But then, in Johannesburg, we won on a tricky pitch, and it gave this team confidence that we could win anywhere.

ALSO READ - Nick Webb: All about achieving a collective goal

How important is a captain’s role in the growth of the bowlers?

The captain plays a very major role, too, because ultimately, he is the one who has to marshal the resources on the field. He must know what each bowler is capable of and what their mindset is. Understanding a bowler is as much a mental game as it is a tactical and skill game - what are the tactics of the team, and how am I going to employ this bowler, with the ammunition he has, to the desired effect. The captain is like a general in the war, taking decisions on the go.

Attitude is also important. That's where Kohli came in as a leader. He takes the fight straight to the opposition; there are no words minced - he wanted to excel, and he wanted the team to excel with him. It was a result of the passionate energy he infused into the team. I think Johannesburg was the first time India played an all-pace attack in a Test. That, to me, was a big turnaround in Indian cricket, the day when fast bowlers started believing that they could win matches for us irrespective of the conditions.

Bumrah made his Test debut in South Africa in 2018 and hasn’t looked back since. What’s the story behind his ascent in five-day cricket?

Ravi and I had a discussion... He wanted me to give Bumrah a call when we were in Kolkata and tell him that he may be on the tour to South Africa to play Test cricket. Bumrah, previously, when he was part of the ODI teams, constantly told me that his dream was to be a successful Test cricketer. When I told Ravi about this, he said Bumrah adds a huge dimension to the bowling. He was keen on unleashing him in South Africa. He had a word with Virat, who then spoke to selectors, and that's how Bumrah, the Test phenomenon, came into being... We had 10-12 days for practice before the start of that South Africa series in 2018. During that period, Virat was extremely impressed with Bumrah in the nets - he said, "Bumrah is the most difficult to face amongst all the bowlers we have." So, he instantly decided that Bumrah would be playing in the first Test, and his career took off from there.

With that unorthodox action, it seems almost remarkable that Bumrah doesn’t get injured often. Was that a concern when discussions were on about introducing Bumrah in Tests?

Bumrah was at the NCA when I was the bowling head there. He had a very unique action, which we hadn't seen before. I had never seen anything remotely close to Bumrah’s style (smiles). So, there was a considerable debate about whether we needed to alter his action. We also suggested a change which he found very difficult to adjust. When we analysed, we found that he was really quick with his action - so, why change anything when he is comfortable doing it. We had a discussion with the physio and strength & conditioning expert at NCA, each one had his inputs, and they said if he continued bowling with the same action, it would place a lot of stress on his body. Bumrah doesn't generate momentum with his runup - all his speed comes from the last three-four steps, so there is a huge toll on his body which can lead to injuries. So, Bumrah needed to work on strengthening his body, and he responded by making sacrifices - he loved eating junk food, he had to give up all that and stick to a healthy lifestyle..., he was bang on in the gym, he worked really hard on his fitness and today is probably one of the fittest bowlers.

Do you have a favourite Bumrah dismissal?

There are a lot of dismissals. At the Oval last year (fourth Test v England), the way he bowled in the second innings was masterful. The reverse swing he was getting; the way he bowled Jonny Bairstow... inswinging at pace and bursting through Bairstow's defence, it was wonderful to watch. That speaks volumes about the bowler he is... batters around the world have found him difficult to pick. But there are times when the bowlers probably look a little innocuous, which is understandable. That said, whenever you think Bumrah is lacking in his effectiveness, he comes back with a bang and wins a match with the sheer weight of his spell. In South Africa this time, especially the five-for he got, I saw the highlights .. he bowled some brilliant balls.

Jasprit Bumrah bowls on day five of the fourth Test between India and England at the Oval, in September, 2021. Arun says Bumrah's bowling that day was masterful. - AFP

 

Where do you see Ashwin at the moment, in terms of his skills? He was one of the key match-winners on that Australia tour and seems to have really taken his bowling to another level in the last couple of years.

Spinners mature with age. The older they get, the better they become. Ashwin is someone who constantly comes out of his comfort zone. This is the fittest I've seen Ashwin in the last seven years. He, too, is conscious about what he eats... he spends an equal amount of time on his fitness and skills. I am confident that we would see at least 3-4 years of outstanding cricket from Ashwin. I remember the Melbourne Test last year, there was a fair amount of moisture on the wicket. When Ajinkya lost the toss, Ravi went and told him - try and bring Ashwin in the first hour because there was going to be enough moisture and bounce, and Ash can be lethal with that combination. Even Ajinkya told Ravi that “I was planning to do that”. Ashwin came on to bowl early in Adelaide, too, but we batted first, and then there was not so much moisture.

ALSO READ - Cricket in 2022: Packed calendar promises drama

India is yet to name Virat Kohli’s successor in Tests. Do you think a bowling captain like Ashwin could serve the team well?

There was also a debate on Bumrah captaining the side. The thing is will they play all Tests? With the workload management in place, would Bumrah be playing all Tests? What if in the middle of a series, he has to take a break? Then you have a change in leadership again. I feel it is not advisable to change a leader midway through a series unless the captain is injured. The same with Ashwin; what if your combination changes? I would think with the present scenario, bowler becoming a captain will be challenging. You also take into account the different kinds of pitches you play on... What if you need to play just a lone spinner abroad and it happens to be Ravindra Jadeja because of the team strategy... then it becomes a problem, so I would rather pick a batter as a Test captain.

During the last Australia tour, what were the plans for Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, given they were Australia's main batters...

Our plans were fast bowler-centric. Mid-July in 2020, we found out that the Australia series was going ahead. Ravi Shastri called me sometime in July. When we were discussing the Australia tour, he said that we need to take the off-side out of Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. We also argued (smiles)... I was like - 'it is a Test match; how can you do that..' Ravi insisted... come what may, after the first 10 mins of their innings, there is no off-side for these guys. Smith looks vulnerable around the off-stump, but that's where he gets his maximum number of runs ... he gets beaten once or twice... he loves boundaries early in his innings. So, bowl on bodyline and have fields for it because otherwise, you are giving away easy singles ... so we would keep catching on short gully, leg gully, five men on the leg side to cut out runs - eventually, it proved to be a thorn in the flesh. See, they are probably among the best players in the world... if they manage to go through this and score a 100, they should at least take 200 balls to do that. As it happened, on a placid pitch in Sydney, Smith hit a 100 off 201 balls. We were okay with it. Had he scored a quick hundred, he could've run away with the match, but when you are made to negotiate the fields, as a batter, you are always thinking about those men at catching positions and restraining yourself from playing with too much freedom. In the end, it was a win-win situation for us.

Arun on Kuldeep Yadav...'He has all the skills a spinner needs to succeed, so I’m confident Kuldeep will come back as a very strong spinner.' - AFP

 

Jadeja has more than 200 Test wickets, at an average of below 25. What makes him so successful?

He's got a very, very repeatable and simple action. Because he is so accurate and at the batter all the time, he can be lethal. Add to that his speed - sometimes 80-85, even 90 kmph, then when he gets assistance from the wicket, it is difficult to play him. And now he has added another dimension to his overseas bowling, where he goes over the wicket and bowls into the rough to the right-hander. So, if there's rough to work with, he can also offer control. He has also become an extremely mature batter. I would say earlier, he had the potential to be an all-rounder, but he didn't justify it. But today, he is a complete all-rounder and that augurs very well for us. His batting has improved leaps and bounds. When you bat well, it influences your bowling; gives you the confidence to try a few things while rolling the arm. You become more fearless.

ALSO READ - Virat Kohli: The captain of all captains

In the lead up to last year’s T20 World Cup, it looked like the trend of wristspin was waning, and maybe there was more space for the fingerspinners. Where do you see the trend going?

It is the present form of the bowler that matters. The same Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal brought glory to India in limited-overs cricket at least for a year and a half. Somehow the slide began... maybe the batters became a lot more careful while playing Kuldeep... earlier they went after him and lost wickets. Then they decided “we will milk him for runs”, so then the wickets dried up. They were bowling 10 overs for 55 with a wicket - which is similar to what you have come to expect of a finger spinner. International cricket is about evolving ... you can't be satisfied with what you achieve. Kuldeep’s dip is a combination of loss of form plus teams figuring him out. Then you are not tasting the same amount of success, which can dent your confidence. You become desperate, try new things and are taken for runs... it is a snowball effect. The time out from the game would've helped Kuldeep. He's only 27; he has been around for a while... he has all the skills a spinner needs to succeed, so I’m confident Kuldeep will come back as a very strong spinner.

Ishant Sharma is now 33 and has played 105 Tests. There was some talk after the Kanpur Test (vs. NZ) that he was past his best. Where does he stand in his career at the moment?

I’ve no doubts about his abilities. My only apprehension is his fitness. If he can remain fit, he would still be a very capable bowler. He started playing for India when he was just 18 - so, he has been around for a long time now.

There are other pacers coming up as well… Avesh Khan, Prasidh Krishna, Saini have the mental fortitude, pace and heart to bowl fast. Shivam Mavi has particularly impressed me. With timely opportunities and processes to nurture them, we will only expand an already healthy pool of fast bowlers.

Looking back, how heartening is it for you to have played such an important role in shaping arguably one of the best ever Indian bowling attacks?

You feel great when these kinds of options are there for India. If you are playing a Test series overseas, it is not possible for the same bowlers to go on and on. With sufficient breaks, they can be more fresh and it also helps you test your bench strength. A bowler of Umesh Yadav's calibre had to be benched for an extended period of time. That speaks volumes about the depth of the pace reserves. At any given point, the team must have a pool of six-seven match-ready bowlers at hand.

The credit must also go to India A setup because it is an excellent stage to showcase and hone your skills. Also, the IPL has been a springboard. What these fast bowlers have achieved with the Indian team in the last four years will encourage more youngsters to take up pace bowling. We do have a lot of talent, and with the NCA in place, we have a great setup to nurture them. They should be picked up early, subjected to the same training methodologies as the senior teams and their workloads should be monitored. This way, we can ensure the production line of express pacemen doesn’t run dry.

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :