You cannot be extraordinary without playing Test cricket, says pacer Pankaj Singh

Training for and playing days’ cricket is imperative for a fast bowler to succeed in T20s, says the Rajasthan stalwart, in an interview.

Rajasthan pacer Pankaj Singh (centre) pointed to the change in pitches, mentality and opportunities that aided the development of fast-bowling talent in India.   -  K. Pichumani

A giant – literally and metaphorically – of Indian domestic cricket, Pankaj Singh is one of two fast bowlers to have taken more than 400 wickets in Ranji Trophy.

The Rajasthan stalwart has recently recovered from a bout of dengue and has been following the Ranji Trophy instead of taking part in it for a change.

Sportstar met Pankaj at his cricket academy at the Sawai Mansingh Stadium premises. He weighed in on India’s cultural change that has aided the manufacturing of fast-bowling riches, the role of training and diet for a fast bowler, and more, in an extensive interview.

Q. Since you started playing in 2004, how have you noticed fast bowling evolve in India?

A. The most important thing is your belief that you can bowl fast. Since I started playing, opportunities have been given to those players who bowled fast, be it Varun Aaron or Umesh Yadav or Ishant Sharma. Whoever is bowling quick, they’re getting the opportunity. If we talk about training and scientific things, those things have totally changed. Earlier, you would just take rounds [of the ground]. The term ‘athlete’ was a big thing in the olden days; now, not only in cricket but in other sports as well, people talk about ‘super-athletes’, such as Virat Kohli or Usain Bolt or any other.

The biggest reason for India to do well in fast bowling is the self-belief among the players. The training patterns changed, and speed gained in value. The conditions of the pitches in India also improved. For some time, green-top pitches were also used as per policy in which a minimum level of grass had to be maintained. The IPL also came about in 2008 and so if you had to play the IPL, you needed to be competitive.

The competition, the change in training patterns, the [belief] of the players, and an appreciation of fast bowling – proving fast bowlers opportunities – when these things came together, fast bowling in India got a chance to evolve.

Ultimately, everyone wants to play for their states and their country. Aspirants started to gravitate towards training more than before, because if you want to be selected, you need to be super-fit. In every state, you get bowlers bowling 140kph. And that is a big sign for any country and for any game; if we talk about cricket, every second team you get a bowler bowling at around 140kph. Overall, Indian fast bowling has certainly evolved.

How do you see the role of technology in fast bowling?

In the development of skills, technology hasn’t played a great role. In training, on the other hand, there’s a big change. Today, the training patterns in the NCA, most of the training is focused on speed and strength. Earlier, the focus was more on the endurance. So, that changed the whole scenario in the development of bowlers. When the body has strength, you can definitely bowl fast. You are a fast runner, so you have got an explosive power in you, such as, among javelin throwers, who have what we can call ‘fast fibre’. So efforts are being made to develop these things.

If you bowl faster than 145kph, you are going to get an opportunity to play, whether in IPL or for the Indian team. If I know I’m going to get the opportunity if I bowl fast, I’m going to try that. And people are trying it. That’s why players are striving for pace [these days]. Besides this, the support and the training and the helpful pitches [have helped].

That’s why Indian fast bowlers are doing well, not just at the India level, but also [in the layers below]. An important task ahead will be to guide them; to make the raw talent mature. Umesh Yadav took more than five [or] six years to mature. If you pick any bowler, he would take five to seven years [to mature]. This time can be shortened so we can make them play international cricket.

What about the pitches? Have they become better overall now?

The culture has changed. There was a policy as well wherein 4mm grass had to be kept on the pitches. The pitches of 15 or 20 years ago used to be uncovered, tampered and not monitored [well]. There are poor pitches even now but the numbers are less. Nowadays the pitches are more competitive (sic).

Suppose you play anywhere in north or central India at this time of the year, the pitches are going to help fast bowlers, unless you make the pitches totally flat for the batsmen. In the cold conditions of the morning, call it science, logic, or psychology, the ball will swing. The cold weather isn’t great for reverse swing, but it helps conventional swing. In the heat, the reverse-swing is better. The logic behind this could be many. When there’s moisture, the other side [of the ball] wouldn’t be too dry. If it was dry, the ball would dip on the other side. There’s a science behind all this but as a cricketer, we know these things for many years: wherever there’s cold, the morning session would be difficult, under the sun it would become a true batting pitch and later spinners will come into play unless you do something with the pitch.

These things cannot be changed. When we play in central India, the bounce is comparatively less. The bounce is less in the east as well because there’s black soil [there]. But if you go to the west, the bounce improves as there is red soil.

How would an aspiring fast bowler train best to be able to bowl long spells in a day?

A fast bowler bowls a maximum of 20 overs. In an odd match, you may bowl 22-23 overs, but normally you would have to bowl 17-20 overs in a day. For that, the best thing is you would have to bowl in the nets – that amount of bowling – so your body is used to that weight. If you don’t bowl in the nets, regardless of how much you train otherwise, it’s not going to help you in the match. Training will give you pace, but practice will give you strength to bowl there. For example, you may be able to write fast, but to write fast consistently, you need to practise. So training helps you to get the energy, but you need to know how to use it. For that, you need to practise.

For example, before I played the Duleep Trophy with the pink ball a few years ago, I bowled more than 100 overs. A hundred overs isn’t too much; if you bowl for 10 days – within those 10 days even if you take offs and bowl for seven days, if you bowl 15 overs a day, you have bowled 105 overs. You need to plan; if you’ve bowled 100 overs, bowling 20 overs in the match isn’t going to tax you much.

Gym-training should be specific to fast bowling requirements. Develop those muscles which you use when you bowl fast. Only if you use those muscles, however, will you be able to make a habit of bowling long spells. If you have developed muscles but aren’t used to bowling [long spells], you’re going to break it. Many injuries happen due to this; bowlers train a lot but break down within one or two matches because they don’t train their body for bowling. They train their bodies to run fast and to lift weights or to bowl short spells of maybe 10 overs. You do have pace but your muscles aren’t ready. To get the muscle memory, you have to bowl in the nets.

Is it possible for a fast bowler to chuck gym-training altogether?

Not possible. It might be possible that someone has the genes to bowl fast, but they cannot last, like Nathu Singh. He is a very good fast bowler; rough and a rookie. Even Munaf Patel. [He started off bowling at] 150kph. Where did he end up? 132-135kph. He got a shoulder injury, went for rehab and then cut down his pace and focused on accuracy. Nathu Singh got injured; [Kamlesh] Nagarkoti is another good example. I think he’s out of the game for two years. The body needs to get that strength to deliver that, again and again. In days’ cricket, you have to bowl about 40 overs in the match and then do the same thing after four days of gap. And if you’re bowling a Test, you have to bowl more than 40 overs. It won’t be correct to say one cannot bowl fast if one neglects the gym, but chances of injury will be more.

Fast bowling is natural. Technique only helps you to be more accurate and be less injured. But if you have an unnatural action like Malinga or Bumrah, it doesn’t mean you cannot bowl or bowl fast. You can bowl fast but you have make a little more effort to do your job. You need to be a little special for that; you need to work a little differently for that and master your skill. But you have to train alongside it.

If you ask how Bumrah got transformed, you might see his body physique. The physique of his body has changed; he looks very fit now, strong. But he got injured, and why did he get injured? He’s a bowler who bowled 130-140kph; when he got fit, he tried to bowl 140-150kph. You’ve gained 5kg and are trying to bowl so fast that only the addition of 8kg can handle it. A bowler aged 35-40 wouldn’t take this kind of risk. He will therefore be average and not extraordinary.

How important is diet?

Very important. But that goes for any sport. You need to have a good diet. Habits make a difference. Whether vegans, vegetarians or non-vegetarians, anyone who gets to the top level does things differently. Virat Kohli plays as a vegan and achieves success; a vegan can do that. That belief goes for everyone. Whatever your requirements for your body may be, you can get them via any kind of diet. If you give it to your body, the results are going to come. I believe in that.

Today, a bowler earns a lot of money by bowling just a few overs in the IPL. Do you see an issue with that?

If you have to train to bowl only four overs, instead of 20 overs, the training is relatively easy. The training for both will be different from each other. In the IPL, only those who have gone on to play for India have gained some reputation. If you want to earn money, you’ll definitely earn good money because that is an arena where a surprise element is sought. Every year, one sees two or three players whom no one knows and they earn crores of rupees. And in two years’ time, no one remembers them. Their life gets settled; that’s fair enough. That’s good for cricket. People will come to this game, different skills you will get to see, different kinds of cricketers will be on show. Everyone’s interest is there. But it’s going to cause harm to days’ cricket, and unless you play days’ cricket for a long time, you cannot play the shorter format of cricket for very long.

Even today, cricket training is in the mould of day’s cricket. A youngster will be taught to defend before attack. Where this culture has ended, cricket has suffered. West Indies is very good in T20s, new players keep on coming in. But what about other [forms of] cricket? But only those players who play days’ cricket well will dominate them.

Today, a fast bowler may earn as much amount through an IPL contract as another in his entire career of days’ cricket by bowling just four overs in a match. How do you see this scenario?

Nature is not equal to everyone. Ultimately, our end goal is satisfaction. For those cricketers who like Tests the best, the reason is you’ve got the best opportunity there to prove yourself. You can compete with anyone. It takes years to get a name, get a place in society, that’s the same in Test cricket. If you do not play Test cricket, you cannot become an extraordinary player.

Can a fast bowler play all three formats?

Players are doing that. For that you have to work hard. You have to be smart and manage your body well. Bumrah has shown that one can do well in three formats. Brett Lee also did well in all three formats. If you train only for days’ cricket and not T20s, you cannot play T20 cricket well. You have to train for both. You need to switch quickly and be smart. In day’s cricket, you need accuracy, line, length and area. In T20s, you need to see how you much you can surprise the batsman.

Chahal is also playing three formats. Umesh as well. But there are few such examples, because it’s demanding: travelling, playing, travelling again. If you can manage your body you can play.

Finally, R. Vinay Kumar of Karnataka overtook you last season as the highest wicket-taker among fast bowlers in Indian domestic cricket. Both of you have taken more than 400 wickets. What are your observations of him?

Vinay Kumar is a hard-working cricketer. He is smart as well. He played the shorter formats as well, and performed [well] too. He is very good in domestic cricket with the red ball as well. Later in his career, he was handy with the bat as well. In the last 2-4 years, he has added batting skills to his already existent bowling skills. He has been hardworking and smart and knows how to deal with situations. Whenever he has the red ball, he has that hunger.

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