Bustling in the fast lane

Irfan Pathan-R.V.MOORTHY

In the land of spin, pace is now considered the ace. India has a wealth of options with pacemen sprouting from remote corners, and unlikely backgrounds, writes S. Dinakar.

Cricket has spread its wings in the country. Now, a small town boy can live a big dream. The game is no longer a bastion of the elite. Now, the son of a humble farmer from a remote Gujarat village can scorch the turf.

Munaf Musa Patel from Ikhar in Bharuch district is running hot for India. He can both contain and strike. He has both speed and movement. The Englishmen discovered this the hard way in Jaipur. Munaf struck telling, and eventually, decisive early blows in the ICC Champions Trophy match.

The emergence of Munaf also reflects the buzzing pace bowling scenario in the country. In the land of spin, pace is now considered the ace. India has a wealth of options with pacemen sprouting from remote corners, and unlikely backgrounds.

Irfan Pathan is the son of a muezzin in Vadodara. If Munaf learnt his cricket on wheat fields, Pathan did so in the `galis' of his crowded neighbourhood. Their spirit gleams.

Pathan shrugged away indifferent form with the ball in India's opener against England. His rhythm was back, so was his ability to bend the ball into the right-hander. Watching the action from the sidelines was Rudra Pratap Singh, a left-arm paceman with interesting possibilities. He hails from Rae Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh.

The country's most populous State was once the backwaters of Indian cricket. Now, it is the Ranji Trophy champion. What a turnaround!

Santhakumaran Sreesanth has not figured in India's Champions Trophy plans, but given his pace, outswing, and variations in speed and length, he remains a key component of the Indian attack. And he has emerged from Kerala, where football is still the number one sport.

Who are the men who have made this miracle of sorts happen? Kiran More, former India wicketkeeper and the National selection panel chief till recently, spotted the ability in Munaf. Soon, the youngster was on the train to Chennai for a stint at the MRF Pace Foundation. Munaf's raw talent needed to be honed and he blossomed under the eyes of Dennis Lillee and T. A. Sekar.

It is evident that India has a good system in place to spot and nurse talent. And there are well-equipped finishing schools. No wonder, there is, in several senses, a pace revolution happening in the country.

Dilip Vengsarkar, the Chairman of the National selection committee, spent five years among junior cricketers, picking out talent, often from unglamorous areas, away from the glare of the cities.

The National Cricket Academy and its zonal centres contributed. The role of the MRF Pace Fountation — Munaf, Pathan, R. P. Singh and Sreesanth have all undergone lengthy stints there — in the grooming of these pacemen needs to be recognised.

Munaf and Pathan, a right-left pair of contrasting styles, can develop into a vibrant combination in the ODIs, if the latter is able to sustain his bowling form. The duo certainly stung in Jaipur after Rahul Dravid, bravely, inserted the opposition.

Irfan Pathan-S. R. RAGHUNATHAN

Munaf, 23, can be quick if he wants to. The lanky paceman with a high-arm action can achieve bounce from just short of a good length, can get the ball to reverse. He can consume top-order batsmen with lift, and clean up the tail with toe-crushers like he did on his Test debut against England in Mohali.

If Munaf gets the new ball to seam off the surface, Pathan swings it. Their variation in speeds — Pathan is a couple of yards slower than Munaf — does not quite allow the batsmen to settle into a shot-making rhythm. Crucially, the line of attack will be different in a right-left new ball pair.

Pathan's confidence had been dented in recent times. Technical flaws had crept into his bowling. As former India paceman Venkatesh Prasad pointed out, Pathan was falling away at the delivery stride. T. A. Sekar said the problem lay in Pathan's bowling arm, which rotated from behind his right ear, instead of following a straight route. Resultantly, there was a slump in his pace. However, if his lively and productive spell against England in Jaipur is any indication, Pathan is humming again with improved methods; his head was still and the arm came through straighter.

Munaf has evolved as a paceman. A bit of a wild kid when he began his cricketing journey, Munaf took great delight in hurling the ball well beyond the 140kmph mark. In the process, his accuracy was a casualty — the batsmen utilised the pace on the ball and the width provided by the bowler.

Munaf, who, along the way, battled injuries and moved from Gujarat to Mumbai and then to Maharashtra, learnt his lessons. He has sacrificed some of his speed for greater accuracy, landing it in the right areas more often.

But then, Munaf, who impressed even on the slow pitches of inconsistent bounce in the Caribbean, bowling stump to stump as coach Greg Chappell advised him to, is using his pace judiciously. A delivery of medium pace is, on occasions, followed by a speedy ball; he has retained the surprise element in his bowling. The aggression simmers within him, his eyes are intense, probing.

Let's not forget for a moment the immense ability in Vikram Raj Vir Singh, the strongly built paceman from Punjab. He can operate in the mid-80s (miles) without seeming to stretch himself, and is the kind of bowler who hits the deck and achieves disconcerting bounce.

The nippy Ajit Agarkar is still around, and is, arguably, India's best exponent of reverse swing; his round-arm action is an ally here. Zaheer Khan, with an amalgam of experience and craft, is scripting a comeback, bowling with greater zest. Lakshmipathy Balaji, returning from a serious back injury, will surely be a factor considering that his bowling has both bounce and away movement. He is one of those rare bowlers, who, due to his strong wrist action, can get the ball to both deviate off the pitch and swing. And Aashish Nehra insists there is some more cricket left in him.

India now has depth and options in pace. And this is in no small measure due to the fact that cricket has reached out in the country. Ask Munaf Patel or Irfan Pathan.