India's booming pace battery and the 3mm policy

Aside from India’s main pace attack, the Ranji Trophy has seen the rise of more than half a dozen capable pacers, which certainly augurs well for the future of Indian cricket.

The top four India pacers, the experienced Ishant Sharma, the unpredictable Umesh Yadav (below) and the mesmerising Mohammed Shami, and the transcendental Jasprit Bumrah have been stifling the best of batting units in varied conditions across continents.   -  Getty Images

Ace of pace. It was a connotation that was always on the wish list, even dreams, of the fervent fanatics of Indian cricket, not just laymen but even connoisseurs, when it came to India’s pacers. In the last three years, however, this long-cherished dream has been fulfilled with India’s pace bowling attack having emerged as the best in the world.

Despite India’s national team schedule and the domestic cricket circuit running parallel for a long time, the surge of the pace unit has coincided with the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) diktat of playing the Ranji Trophy on hard and grassy pitches.

While the top four India pacers — the experienced Ishant Sharma, the mesmerising Mohammed Shami, the unpredictable Umesh Yadav and the transcendental Jasprit Bumrah — have been stifling the best of batting units in varied conditions across continents, the rise of a second rung with more than half a dozen capable pacers in the fringe pace bowlers’ pool certainly augurs well for the future of Indian cricket.

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Amol Muzumdar, an eight-time Ranji Trophy champion, believes the seeds of this surge in India’s pace bowling arsenal were sowed by the BCCI’s policy of maintaining at least 3mm of grass cover on the pitch for every Ranji Trophy match.

“Ever since they have started keeping a minimum grass cover of 3 or 4mm on the pitch, things have started to roll. Everything has got its effect and side effect. We can feel the effect of this policy now, with more and more pacers coming through. A few years ago, people didn’t want to bowl medium pace, let alone pace, but now they are inclined towards bowling fast. Perhaps it’s because of the incentives they are given,” Muzumdar, a doyen of domestic cricket who is a regular in the television commentators’ crew during the season, told Sportstar.

 

“In the last few years, the dynamics have changed in terms of composition of a team. Virtually every team has three medium pacers and a spinner and an all-rounder, if they have one, whereas it used to be two and two (pacers and spinners) earlier. The three-and-one composition has tilted the scale in terms of fast bowling in our country,” he said.

A look at the top five teams that have qualified for the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals this season is enough to indicate that Muzumdar isn’t too much off the mark. With the exception of Karnataka, which has all-rounder Shreyas Gopal as an able spin ally to off-spinner K. Gowtham, the other four — Saurashtra, Bengal (except for the rank turners they played on in the last couple of rounds), Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat — have relied on their pacers to deliver all through the league stage.

The millennials may be swayed by the pace experiment coming good in the last few years, but the seeds of the change in policy were sown more than two decades ago by then-BCCI supremo Jagmohan Dalmiya. It was in 1997 that Dalmiya formed the ground and pitches committee with Kapil Dev as chief.

“Mr. Dalmiya and Kapil said the same thing what you are asking me now, that we are poor travellers and we should develop a culture to promote pacers. Something needed to be done,” recalls Daljit Singh, the veteran curator who was a part of the ground and pitches committee for 22 years ever since its formation before retiring as a curator last September.

“So I started studying how they make pitches in England, New Zealand, Australia, and realised to make hard pitches, you need grass roots. You need at least four inches of hardness to get good bounce. For that, you need solid grass roots underneath and leaves on top of the surface.”

Soon after the turn of the century, Daljit had a group of curators who were willing to put in the hard yards with him and the BCCI willingly invested in getting the latest technology and equipment for the experiment. Once the BCCI initiated a certification course for curators in 2012, Daljit — by then the chief of the subcommittee — took the next step of introducing the minimum grass cover rule in the Ranji Trophy.

In the last three years, the BCCI has introduced neutral curators, a move that has emerged as controversial to say the least. While the BCCI justifies it by stressing that the number of outright wins have increased considerably, thus reflecting sporting pitches, a majority of players and coaches feel neutral curators are far from being adept about the knowledge of local conditions.

“A four-day Ranji pitch is the most difficult to make. The challenge is to make a pitch that aides the pacers first up, then shifts to the batsmen doing well before letting the spinners also come into play. So we insisted on keeping grass on the pitch. It is elementary. There must be a certain amount of grass to start with. I always say you play on an average 4mm of grass. Some people keep 3mm, some people keep 5. Grass is a must to start with,” Daljit insists.

His assertion reflects in the fact that in the last couple of years, the top wicket-takers’ charts (notwithstanding those who participate in Group D, which is way below the first-class standards as of now) have seen the number of pacers being on a par with spinners, even outnumbering the tweakers at times.

Once the BCCI initiated a certification course for curators in 2012, Daljit Singh — by then the chief of the subcommittee — took the next step of introducing the minimum grass cover rule in the Ranji Trophy.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

But not everyone is convinced of the correlation between the minimum grass policy and the Indian pacers’ domination on the world stage. Manoj Tiwary, the Bengal captain, is one of them. Fresh from leading Bengal from the front on dust bowls in successive games, he offers a contradictory view to the majority.

“To be honest, I am not sure how many pacers are emerging from the infrastructure and Ranji Trophy circuit. I feel pacers are coming up due to their individual brilliance and also a realisation that you won’t be noticed unless you bowl fast in India,” says Tiwary, who notched up his maiden first-class triple ton this season, more than 15 years after he made his Bengal debut.

“As a result, the youngsters are starting with a mindset of bowling genuinely quickly. The fitness culture that Virat (Kolhi) has brought in has also made the youngsters realise the importance of fitness. And I guess there’s a mindset wherein these youngsters are aware that if you are bowling quick and are fit, you can be straightaway inducted into the pace bowlers’ pool that is being developed. I guess the players have an inkling of it and are pretty smart in adapting themselves to start preparing and get into contention for the higher level. So the awareness of what the current Indian team wants has trickled down.”

Tiwary stresses that the millennials’ strategic move and investment in their skill sets and fitness regime are solely responsible for the emergence of top-notch fast bowlers.

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“I don’t think there’s much change while playing the Ranji Trophy. I don’t think the grass cover has had much to do with it. It’s just that the number of wickets for pacers has gone up considerably because of that. Despite pacers dominating wicket-takers’ charts, you would struggle to pick pacers who are coming through the Ranji ranks and are made for the bigger stage. They are very few, barring the likes of Bumrah, Shami, Umesh. So I think the individuals’ awareness and working on it has led to it,” he says.

Jaydev Unadkat, Tiwary’s Saurashtra counterpart who took a whopping 51 wickets in the league stage, offers the most pragmatic view.

“I still feel that every team or every ground in the country has its own characteristics. Some teams love playing on green tracks, some on turners. If you see a team like Kerala, they would invariably play four out of four games on turning pitches, whereas if you take Bengal or Baroda, they don’t even have the option of not playing on a green track, even if they don’t want to. So I think every domestic ground or team has its own characteristics. It’s not just about things trickling into domestic cricket from above. Domestic cricket has held its own fort for long,” Unadkat says.

Muzumdar expands on the point by highlighting the “side effect” of a policy that he started raving about. “The side effect has been spinners. It’s a thin line, but somehow you have to strike a balance and create a situation wherein the spinners also come into the game,” Muzumdar says.

“At the same time, I feel it should be one rule for all. I don’t know what the rule is, you shouldn’t go beyond 4mm (of grass cover). Allow the traditional turning tracks and regions to continue producing spinners. I don’t want the diversity to die down. Diversity in Indian domestic cricket has what led to all these players being produced.”