What's in store for Indian bowlers?

The Indian pace attack looks depleted in the absence of Zaheer Khan. The crafty left-arm pacer, who recently retired from international cricket, was instrumental in troubling South Africa’s top order on their last tour of India.

Ishant Sharma has picked 16 wickets in nine matches at 48.12 over the last four years at home.   -  REUTERS

Bhuvneshwar Kumar has the natural ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander. Considering the likeliness of dew early morning throughout the series, he should be an automatic choice in India's playing XI.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

Varun Aaron says he won't compromise on his pace. But can he master speed and control?   -  AP

Stuart Binny had an ordinary outing in the Sri Lanka series.   -  Reuters

The last time India played a Test series at home, it was a festival. There was so much hoopla over Sachin Tendulkar’s 200th (also his final) Test that the contest, per se, seemed to be of secondary focus.

Two years have passed, and India have gone through a tough transitional phase. Their victory against Sri Lanka two months ago was their first in two years. But they are now back in their den to face a mightier opponent. And this time, the focus will be on the battle than the celebration.

The last time South Africa toured India (in 2010), they drew the Test series 1-1 against an Indian side that had Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, V. V. S. Laxman, M. S. Dhoni, Zaheer Khan, and Harbhajan Singh. Only a handful remain from that squad, and there have been a lot of changes in India’s bowling department.

For one, India’s pace attack looks depleted in the absence of Zaheer Khan. The crafty left-arm pacer, who recently retired from international cricket, was instrumental in troubling South Africa’s top order on their last tour of India.

Though Zaheer took only seven wickets in the two-Test series, he was pivotal in getting the early breakthroughs and complemented the spinners really well. His strike-rate in that series was bettered only by Dale Steyn, who was in raging form.

Ishant is yet to fill in Zaheer's shoes

Ishant Sharma, the only pacer in the current squad to figure in that series, is yet to fill Zaheer’s shoes. Having played 65 Test matches, the lanky pacer hasn’t been able to perform consistently, especially in Indian conditions.

The most experienced Indian fast bowler in the squad has played 22 Tests at home, picking up a modest 62 wickets. Over the last four years at home, Ishant has claimed 16 wickets in nine matches at 48.12. Against South Africa, he has picked up 20 wickets in eight matches at 47.95 (his worst average against any opposition).

And worse: he will be missing the first Test at Mohali, which is considered the most pacer-friendly Indian track because of a one-match suspension he got during the final Test of the Sri Lankan tour. However, considering his experience, Ishant is most likely to figure in the playing XI in the second Test in Bengaluru.

Skipper Virat Kohli, however, will not fall short on the number of pacers in his team. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav and Stuart Binny form the rest of the pace unit. India will most probably go with three spinners in their playing XI. So, it will be tricky for Kohli to pick the two best pacers, assuming India plays five bowlers.

Bhuvneshwar is struggling

Possessing a natural ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander, Bhuvneshwar should ideally be an automatic pick, considering the likeliness of dew early morning throughout the series. But Bhuvneshwar’s stats at home aren’t great. In six matches, he has only nine wickets at 37.88.

Also, the right-arm pacer just got over with one of his worst ODI series. In five matches, Bhuvneshwar gave away 347 runs at 7.13 per over and picked up only seven wickets. He was smashed for 106 runs in the last ODI. It might be tough for him put that behind.

Aaron and Yadav are still work-in-progress

Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav can consistently bowl at 140 kmph. But mere pace is futile if a bowler can’t hit the right line and length. And, in this aspect, Umesh and Varun are still unfinished as fast bowlers.

“Consistency is important in international cricket and that is something I have been working on constantly,” Aaron recently said in an interview. But the fast bowler has also repeatedly stressed that he will never compromise on his pace. And only the best of the bowlers master speed and control.

 

Meanwhile Umesh’s five Tests in India have yielded 18 wickets at a good average of 27.6. He has been more consistent than Aaron. The Vidarbha pacer was India’s leading wicket-taker in the World Cup and has shown a lot of potential since his debut. This series will be one of his biggest tests considering the duration of the tour and the quality of batsmen he would bowl to.

Stuart Binny’s inclusion in the playing XI would be very surprising after his ordinary performance on the Sri Lankan tour. In the two Tests he played, he picked up three wickets and scored 76 runs.

Spin will be the primary weapon

There has been a lot of hue and cry about the pitches of late and the South Africans are expected to be greeted with rank turners in all the four Tests. So undoubtedly spin will be India’s primary weapon against South Africa.

Ravichandran Ashwin’s absence was sorely felt in the ODI series after he was injured in the first ODI. Team Director Ravi Shastri has said that he is “absolutely fine”. His return to the side will boost the team’s morale. The off-spinner has an astounding record of 95 wickets in 15 Tests he has played at home. And he has been India’s trump card since the last year or so.

Ravindra Jadeja is back in the team after six consecutive five-wicket hauls in Ranji Trophy and is expected to complement Ashwin. The duo wrecked Australia, taking 53 wickets between them, when they toured India in 2013. And Amit Mishra, who took 15 wickets in the Sri Lanka series, is also likely to be in the playing XI.

South Africa last lost an away series in 2006 under Ashwell Prince’s captaincy. Since then, Australia are the only team to beat them. At the moment – with Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis in the best of form – South Africa have the best batting line-up in the world to complement their feared and famed bowling unit.

India will have to play at their best. And, maybe, it might still not be enough to conquer this powerful South African side.