Slow pitches woken up by pace

The speedsters in this World Cup have been led by Dale Steyn, inarguably the greatest fast bowler of his generation. After grounding the West Indies in the first game, Steyn's skill with the old ball stalled India in Bangalore.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Spin has performed to script in this World Cup, but Dale Steyn, Zaheer Khan, Kemar Roach and Lasith Malinga have also given pace a podium. Over to Kunal Diwan.

The several factors that were promulgated as the keys to the 2011 Cricket World Cup have, in varying degrees, all had a part to play in the league phase. Fourteen scores of 300 and above in 31 matches indicate that a sub-continental tournament, with four also-rans, is exactly the batsman's paradise that it was predicted to be. Two spinners, a leggie and a left-armer, sit atop the bowler's lists, which is not a surprise either since the prolonged intactness of most pitches in this part of the world has always been in question.

While both the batsmen and spinners have made an impact so far, pace bowlers have also borne upon the tournament the weight of their deeds. It is perhaps appropriate that these, who have — give or take a scuffed ball — relied minimally on the conditions and banked only on the produce of their own bodies, have been led by Dale Steyn, inarguably the greatest fast bowler of his generation.

After grounding the West Indies in the first game, Steyn's skill with the old ball stalled India in Bangalore, preventing it from reaching the un-chaseable monstrosity it seemed poised to get 40 overs into the innings. The changed ball in hand, Steyn reversed and rattled the line-up, although his Nagpur ODI story wasn't set up quite as beautifully as was Sachin Tendulkar on the third day of the first Test this past February.

The South African's first four overs went for a wicket-less 34, and by the time he had finished seven, 46 had been taken off his bowling, still not a scalp to his name and Tendulkar and Sehwag plundering ahead. India was hurtling towards what looked an impossible target when Steyn returned in the 41st over for his second spell and immediately the boot was on the other foot.

In two unerringly controlled phases with the prepared ball, he stunted India's total from being an implausibility into something that could be reasonably contemplated, from 267 for one in the 40th to 296 all out in the 49th. His concluding spells, which lasted all of 2.4 overs, were just that for India's innings — conclusive — as he rebounded like a spurned lover with five wickets for nine runs. Gautam Gambhir was well set and Yusuf Pathan charged by the crowd when both perished to indiscretion. By the time Munaf Patel had his stumps scattered, Steyn had destroyed and driven back with interest the advantage that India's flying start had gained it.

Kemar Roach...liquid pace.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Steyn's counterparts — express, swing or both — too have tasted success. Zaheer Khan has led India's patchy frontline delivery accurately and admirably, Kemar Roach and Lasith Malinga have made steamed kippers of the minnows with hat-tricks, Stuart Broad was getting there with a double double-wicket burst against South Africa in Chennai, before an abdominal strain removed him unalterably from the tournament.

The theme of reversing and the eternal value of pace and its variations are best understood when prefixed with a precursory note, or two. Days before the World Cup, streams of opinion and advice coursed and conjoined into a deluge. Training with his team in Chennai, Allan Donald, the former menace that terrorised batters across the world and currently bowling coach to New Zealand, had this to say:

“When you come to the subcontinent there will be situations which require you to bowl length. You've got to be brave enough to do that. And if the ball is not doing anything off the pitch, you'll have to make it move in the air. Reverse swing in the late overs is going to be a massive thing and a huge key for me in this World Cup. That's where games are going to be won or lost.”

And that's where games have been won or lost. James Anderson, bowling just before the mandatory ball change on the usual underprepared Chepauk beauty, sliced open South Africa's middle order, preparing the site for a thrilling England win, which Broad completed. At the Feroze Shah Kotla against South Africa, West Indies was looking to launch at 178 for four when — who else — Steyn trapped Kieron Pollard and Darren Sammy with the wobble, triggering the end. Roach did it both at the start and finish against the Netherlands, three up front for the backbone fracture and a late hat-trick for the kill, while Malinga's second World Cup hat-trick, a trio of consecutive in-dippers that crashed into the stumps, had Kenya on the mat.

Former West Indian quick Ian Bishop said he was pleased with the success his kind was deriving from what are generally not considered happy hunting grounds for them.

“The pacers have proved effective, both with the old ball and the new and when it has been reversing.”

Bishop was especially happy with Roach's performance so far. “He has been bowling with more control, fuller, which is ideal for such pitches. He is bowling straight and the balls have been skiddy…the yorkers have been coming out nicely.”

Zaheer Khan, India's spearhead, was at the time of publication the most successful speedster, by wickets (12 in five games), in the current World Cup. With a wealth of experience and adeptness at moving the ball either way, the left-arm paceman has been difficult to target, and has been conceding runs at 4.31 an over in a World Cup with an average run-rate of 5.08. Bowling in the batting Powerplay at Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium, Zaheer unsettled England's smooth strides towards India's 338 in a terrific spell that sent back Ian Bell, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood in the space of four runs.

“In the last two years or so, Zaheer has understood how to bowl at a reduced pace. He's got control, conventional and reverse swing…even if he's not getting wickets, he still holds your attack together,” said Bishop.

Lasith Malinga and Zaheer Khan... chillingly effective.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Against South Africa in Nagpur, Zaheer did just that, but couldn't prevent a pulsating last-gasp win for the rival. He conceded just four in the 49th over, leaving Nehra to prevent the Proteas from getting 13 in the final six balls. Nehra failed, as Robin Peterson got stuck into him, but Zaheer ended the run-glut with a respectable 10-0-43-1.

Let's face it, the mad throngs that converge on stadia are there to see runs on the board. Although the conditions in India and Bangladesh and rules that unashamedly favour batsmen have made the job of the fast bowler a tough one, the pacers have managed to improvise, if not with sheer speed, then by taking the pace off or by employing the strange aerodynamic properties of the worn ball.

“In the sub-continent, you can't just keep bowling at the same place and at the same pace. You have to be street-smart to succeed here,” Steyn had said before the tournament. The gameplan seems to be working, and not just for Steyn.